About Rex Harrison, cont'd.

"I know they say 'Never work with children or animals', for fear, I suppose, of being upstaged by them. But in this case the animals behaved well in almost all respects -- it was the animal trainers who should've been shot."

'Dr. Dolittle', released in 1967, may have been a chore to film, but the fanciful musical about a doctor who can literally talk to the animals was a big hit with young audiences especially.

 

After a lengthy stint of filmmaking, Rex returned to his beloved stage for the successful runs of several plays.  He also received a special Tony award in New York for his "unique contribution to the theater."

In 1971, he married Elizabeth Rees-Williams, whom he had met several years previously and who was recently divorced from actor Richard Harris.  Elizabeth had two rambunctious young sons, who successfully managed to create havoc for their new stepfather.

Rex had reached the age where he was happier to just relax at home, something that Elizabeth had not anticipated during their courtship.

A friend would later say, "Elizabeth was very social and wanted to entertain and go out a great deal.  It's difficult to marry a man older than yourself who has a very definite pattern of life that he does not wish to change. He altered it to a large degree for Elizabeth. They gave parties and did them up grandly. But Rex enjoyed peace and quiet."


Rex and his fifth wife, Elizabeth

Furthermore, Rex's personality would alter when he was preparing for a new project, as a family friend would note: "He never felt that any role he undertook was going to be right.  He always had the same fears that an untested, unknown actor would have. He went through the jitters and this was the worst time to approach him about anything, as he was totally immersed and worried. It was his nature to worry and therefore there were always traumatic times with whatever project it was.  It was because he cared so much and wanted to make it work, but he never had the clear feeling that he had made the right decision."

In 1975, Elizabeth obtained a divorce, a judge citing that the marriage had "irretrievably broken down because of Mr. Harrison's conduct." Apparently, however, there was no bitterness between the two. Elizabeth would later say, "We got along very well after we were divorced. There was no tension then and we could laugh about the things we used to laugh about."


Rex with his sixth (and final) wife, Mercia

While appearing in the play 'Caesar and Cleopatra' in 1977, Rex became reacquainted with a woman he had met a couple years before in Monte Carlo, Mercia Tinker. Thirty years younger than Rex, Mercia was "sophisticated, beautiful, a woman of independent means with a coterie of international friends."  They were married in 1979, and this marriage would last until the end of his life.

In the early 1980s, Rex undertook a revival of 'My Fair Lady', touring in cities across the U.S. 

Rex said, "I love doing it all over again. I think I'm finding this one easier because my life is organized at last, and Mercia is making sure I'm pacing myself better.  In general, I'm not in favor of revivals, but everything to do with 'My Fair Lady' proves exceptional and breaks the rules."

 

There followed New York and London engagements of the plays 'Heartbreak House' and 'Aren't We All?", the latter co-starring screen great Claudette Colbert.

On July 25, 1989, Rex became Sir Rex, knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his sixty-five years of contribution to the English-speaking theater.

In November of 1989, the 81-year-old Rex opened in New York in the Somerset Maugham play 'The Circle', co-starring Glynis Johns and Stewart Granger.  "You must do it because you really want to do it," Rex said. "It seems to me very unwise after an active life for anyone to stop working.  I want to go on working as long as I can."

And that he did. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 1990, and made his final stage appearance just three weeks before his death. He died on June 2, 1990, leaving a legacy in films and theater that is unparalleled and quite unique.

 

Bibilography: Rex Harrison © 1987 Roy Moseley and Philip and Martin Masheter;     A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy ©1990 Rex Harrison

 

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