Sir Reginald Carey "Rex" Harrison (5 March 1908 – 2 June 1990) was an English actor of stage and screen.

Harrison began his career on the stage in 1924. He won his first Tony Award for his performance as Henry VIII in the play Anne of the Thousand Days in 1949. He won his second Tony for the role of Professor Henry Higgins in the stage production of My Fair Lady in 1957. He reprised the role for the 1964 film version, which earned him a Golden Globe Award and Best Actor Oscar.

In addition to his stage career, Harrison also appeared in numerous films, including Anna and the King of Siam (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Cleopatra (1963), and Doctor Dolittle (1967). In July 1989, Harrison was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

In 1975, Harrison released his first autobiography. His second, A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy, was published posthumously in 1991.

Harrison was married six times and had two sons: Noel and Carey Harrison. He continued working in stage productions until shortly before his death from pancreatic cancer in June 1990 at the age of 82.

Youth and stage career

Harrison was born at Derry House in Huyton, Lancashire, the son of Edith Mary (née Carey) and William Reginald Harrison, a cotton broker. He was educated at Liverpool College. After a bout of childhood measles, Harrison lost most of the sight in his left eye, which on one occasion caused some on-stage difficulty. He first appeared on the stage in 1924 in Liverpool. Harrison's acting career was interrupted during World War II while serving in the Royal Air Force, reaching the rank of Flight Lieutenant. He acted in various stage productions until 11 May 1990. He acted in the West End of London when he was young, appearing in the Terence Rattigan play French Without Tears, which proved to be his breakthrough role.

He alternated appearances in London and New York in such plays as Bell, Book and Candle (1950), Venus Observed, The Cocktail Party, The Kingfisher and The Love of Four Colonels, which he also directed. He won his first Tony Award for his appearance at the Shubert Theatre as Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson's play Anne of the Thousand Days and international superstardom (and a second Tony) for his portrayal of Henry Higgins in the musical My Fair Lady, where he appeared opposite Julie Andrews.

Later appearances included Pirandello's Henry IV, a 1984 appearance at the Haymarket Theatre with Claudette Colbert in Frederick Lonsdale's Aren't We All?, and one on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre presented by Douglas Urbanski, at the Haymarket in J. M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton with Edward Fox. He returned as Henry Higgins in the revival of My Fair Lady directed by Patrick Garland in 1981, cementing his association with the plays of George Bernard Shaw, which included a Tony nominated performance as Shotover in Heartbreak House, Julius Caesar in Caesar and Cleopatra, and General Burgoyne in a Los Angeles production of The Devil's Disciple.

In film

Harrison's film debut was in The Great Game (1930), other notable early films include The Citadel (1938), Night Train to Munich (1940), Major Barbara (1941), Blithe Spirit (1945), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), and The Foxes of Harrow (1947). He was best known for his portrayal of Professor Henry Higgins in the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady based on the eponymous Broadway production, (which in turn was based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion) for which Harrison won a Best Actor Oscar.

He also starred in 1967's Doctor Dolittle. At the height of his box office clout after the success of My Fair Lady, Harrison proved a domineering and demanding force during production, demanding auditions for prospective composers after musical playwright Leslie Bricusse was contracted and demanding to have his singing recorded live during shooting, only to agree to have it rerecorded in post-production. He also disrupted production with incidents with his wife, Rachel Roberts and deliberate misbehaviour, such as when he deliberately moved his yacht in front of cameras during shooting in St. Lucia and refused to move it out of sight due to contract disputes. Harrison was at one point temporarily replaced by Christopher Plummer, until he agreed to be more cooperative.

He starred in the 1968 comedy The Honey Pot, a modern adaptation of Ben Jonson's play Volpone. Two of his co-stars, Maggie Smith and Cliff Robertson, were to become lifelong friends. Both spoke at his New York City memorial at the Little Church Around the Corner when Harrison died in 1990.

Harrison was not by any objective standards a singer (his talking on pitch style he used in My Fair Lady would be adopted by many other classically trained actors with limited vocal ranges); the music was usually written to allow for long periods of recitative, or "speaking to the music." Nevertheless, "Talk to the Animals", which Harrison performed in that film, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1967.

Despite excelling in comedy (Noël Coward described him as "The best light comedy actor in the world—except for me."), he attracted favourable notices in dramatic roles such as his portrayal of Julius Caesar in Cleopatra (1963) and as Pope Julius II in The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), opposite Charlton Heston as Michelangelo. He also acted in a Hindi film Shalimar alongside Indian Bollywood star Dharmendra as well as appearing as an aging homosexual man opposite Richard Burton as his lover in Staircase (1969).

Personal life

Harrison was married six times. In 1942, he divorced his first wife, Colette Thomas, and married actress Lilli Palmer the next year; they later appeared together in numerous plays and films, including The Four Poster.

In 1947, while married to Palmer, Harrison began an affair with actress Carole Landis. Landis committed suicide in 1948 after spending the evening with Harrison. Harrison's involvement in the scandal by waiting several hours before calling a doctor and police briefly damaged his career and his contract with Fox was ended by mutual consent.

In 1957, Harrison married the actress Kay Kendall. Kendall died of myeloid leukaemia in 1959. Terence Rattigan's 1973 play In Praise of Love was written about the end of this marriage, and Harrison appeared in the New York production playing the character based on himself. Rattigan was said to be "intensely disappointed and frustrated" by Harrison's performance, as "Harrison refused to play the outwardly boorish parts of the character and instead played him as charming throughout, signalling to the audience from the start that he knew the truth about [the] illness." Critics however were quite pleased with the performance and although it did not have a long run, it was yet another of Harrison's well-plotted naturalistic performances.

He was subsequently married to Welsh-born actress Rachel Roberts from 1962 to 1971. After a final attempt to win Harrison back proved futile, Roberts committed suicide in 1980.

Harrison then married Elizabeth Rees-Williams, divorcing in 1975, and finally in 1978, Mercia Tinker, who would become his sixth and final wife. Harrison's eldest son Noel Harrison became an olympic skier, singer and occasional actor; he toured in several productions including My Fair Lady in his father's award-winning role. Noel died suddenly of a heart attack on 19 October 2013 at age 79. Rex's younger son Carey Harrison is a playwright and social activist.

Harrison's sister Sylvia was married to David Maxwell Fyfe, a lawyer, Conservative politician and judge who was successively the lead British prosecutor at Nuremberg, Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor (head of the English judiciary); after his death she married another Cabinet minister, Lord de la Warr.

Chronology of Harrison's six marriages:


  • Granddaughters: Cathryn, Harriott, Chloe, Chiara, Rosie, Faith
  • Grandsons: Will, Simon, Sam

Harrison owned properties in London, New York City and Portofino, Italy. His villa in Portofino was named San Genesio after the patron saint of actors.

Later career and death

Having retired from films after the 1982 picture A Time to Die, Harrison continued to act on Broadway and the West End until the end of his life, despite suffering from glaucoma, painful teeth, and a failing memory. He was nominated for a third Tony Award in 1984 for his performance as Captain Shotover in the revival of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House. He followed with two successful pairings with Claudette Colbert, The Kingfisher in 1985 and Aren't We All? in 1986. In 1989, he appeared with Edward Fox in The Admirable Crichton in London. In 1989/90, he appeared on Broadway in The Circle by W. Somerset Maugham, opposite Glynis Johns, Stewart Granger, and Roma Downey. The production opened at Duke University for a three-week run followed by performances in Baltimore and Boston before opening 14 November 1989 on Broadway.

Harrison died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Manhattan on 2 June 1990 at the age of 82. He had only been diagnosed with the disease for a short time. The stage production in which he was appearing at the time, The Circle, came to an end upon his death.

He was cremated and some of his ashes were scattered in Portofino and the rest were scattered at his second wife Lilli Palmer's grave at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California in the Commemoration section, Map 1, Lot 4066, Space 2.

Harrison's second autobiography, A Damned Serious Business: My Life in Comedy (ISBN 0553073419), was published posthumously in 1991.

Honours and legacy

On 25 July 1989, Harrison was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace as an orchestra played the music of songs from My Fair Lady.

Rex Harrison has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one at 6906 Hollywood Boulevard for his contribution to films, and the other at 6380 Hollywood Boulevard for his contribution to television. Harrison is also a member of the American Theater Hall of Fame. He was inducted in 1979.

Due to his association with the checked wool hat, which he wore both in the Broadway and film versions of My Fair Lady, that style of headware was officially named "The Rex Harrison." The 1985 teen comedy Weird Science would affirm this association when the main character, Lisa, would admonish a party crasher with the line "You ought to know better than to walk into somebody's house and start hitting people with your Rex Harrison hat!"

Seth MacFarlane, creator of the animated series Family Guy, modeled the voice of the character Stewie Griffin after Harrison, after seeing him in the film adaptation of My Fair Lady.


1930The Great GameGeorge
The School for ScandalUncredited bit part
1934Get Your ManTom Jakes
Leave It to BlancheRonnie
1935All at SeaAubrey Bellingham
1936Men Are Not GodsTommy Stapleton
1937Storm in a TeacupFrank Burdon
School for HusbandsLeonard Drummond
1938Sidewalks of London, also known as St. Martin's LaneHarley Prentiss
The CitadelDr. Frederick Lawford
1939Over the MoonDr. Freddie Jarvis
The Silent BattleJacques Sauvin
1940Night Train to MunichGus Bennett
Ten Days in ParisBob Stevens
1941Major BarbaraAdolphus Cusins
1945Blithe SpiritCharles Condomine
I Live in Grosvenor SquareMajor David Bruce
The Rake's ProgressVivian Kenway
1946Anna and the King of SiamKing MongkutNominated — New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
1947The Ghost and Mrs. MuirCaptain Daniel Gregg
The Foxes of HarrowStephen Fox
1948EscapeMatt Denant
Unfaithfully YoursSir Alfred De Carter
1951The Long Dark HallArthur Groome
1952The Four PosterJohn Edwards
1954King Richard and the CrusadersEmir Hderim Sultan Saladin
1955The Constant HusbandWilliam Egerton
1958The Reluctant DebutanteJimmy Broadbent
1960Midnight LaceAnthony "Tony" Preston
1961The Happy ThievesJimmy Bourne
1963CleopatraJulius CaesarNational Board of Review Award for Best Actor
Nominated — Academy Award for Best Actor
Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated — Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
1964My Fair LadyProfessor Henry HigginsAcademy Award for Best Actor
David di Donatello Award for Best Foreign Actor
Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
Laurel Award for Top Male Musical Performance
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor
Nominated — BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role
The Yellow Rolls-RoyceLord Charles Frinton – The Marquess of Frinton
1965The Agony and the EcstasyPope Julius IINominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Nominated — Laurel Award for Top Male Dramatic Performance
1967The Honey PotCecil Sheridan Fox
Doctor DolittleDr. John DolittleNominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
1968A Flea in Her EarVictor Chandebisse/Poche
1969StaircaseCharles Dyer
1977Crossed SwordsThe Duke of Norfolk
1978ShalimarSir John Locksley
1979AshantiBrian Walker
The Fifth MusketeerColbert
1982A Time to DieVan Osten
1952OmnibusHenry VIIIepisode: The Trial of Anne Boleyn
1953The United States Steel HourRaymond Dabneyepisode: The Man in Possession
1957DuPont Show of the MonthMr. Sirepisode: Crescendo
1960Dow Hour of Great MysteriesCyril Paxtonepisode: The Dachet Diamonds
1971–1973Play of the MonthMikhail Platonov, schoolmaster
Don Quixote
2 episodes
1983The KingfisherCecilTV film
1985Heartbreak HouseCaptain ShotoverTV film
1986Anastasia: The Mystery of AnnaGrand Duke Cyril RomanovTV film
1952Philip Morris Playhouseepisode: The Gioconda Smile
1952Theatre Guild on the Airepisode: An Ideal Husband

Stage roles

4–25 March 1936Sweet AloesTubbs Barrow
8 December 1948 – 8 October 1949Anne of the Thousand DaysHenryTony Award for Best Actor in a Play
14 November 1950 – 2 June 1951Bell, Book and CandleShepherd Henderson
13 February – 26 April 1952Venus ObservedHereward
15 January – 16 May 1953The Love of Four ColonelsThe Man
15 March 1956 – 29 September 1962My Fair LadyHenry HigginsTony Award for Best Actor in a Musical
8 December 1959 – 20 February 1960The Fighting CockThe General
28 March – 28 April 1973The Living MaskHenry IV
10 December 1974 – 31 May 1975In Praise of LoveSebastian Cruttwell
1976Monsieur Perichon's TravelsEugène Labiche & Edouard Martin
24 February – 5 March 1977Caesar and CleopatraJulius Caesar
6 December 1978 – 13 May 1979The KingfisherCecil
18 August – 29 November 1981My Fair LadyHenry Higgins
7 December 1983 – 5 February 1984Heartbreak HouseCaptain ShotoverNominated – Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play
Nominated – Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play
29 April – 21 July 1985Aren't We All?Lord GrenhamDrama Desk Special Award
20 November 1989 – 20 May 1990The CircleLord Porteous

Radio appearances

1951The Private Files of Rex SaundersMain Role
1953Star PlayhouseNo Time for Comedy
1953Star PlayhouseTwentieth Century