Actor, singer Noel Harrison dies at 79


Noel Harrison (right) gets a congratulatory hug from Sybil Burton, former wife of actor Richard Burton, after he made his American night club debut as a singer in New York on April 7, 1965. Harrison, the son of actor Rex Harrison, died over the weekend near his home in Devon, England. (AP)
October 22, 2013

Actor and cabaret singer Noel Harrison, a onetime Olympic skier who enjoyed pop success in the late 1960s with songs such as “The Windmills of Your Mind” and “Suzanne” and toured with the Beach Boys and Sonny and Cher, died over the weekend in a hospital near his home in Devon, England. He was 79.

His wife, Lori Chapman, told the Associated Press that he had a heart attack after finishing a concert Oct. 19. Mr. Harrison had announced in June that he had a fatal kidney disease.

He was the oldest child of Rex Harrison, the versatile English-born leading man on stage and screen best remembered as Henry Higgins in the Broadway and Hollywood versions of the musical “My Fair Lady.” Rex Harrison, who earned Tony and Academy awards for the role, died in 1990.

The younger Harrison’s career was far less acclaimed, but it had its notable moments. His signature song, “The Windmills of Your Mind,” was featured in the 1968 caper film “The Thomas Crown Affair” starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. The ballad was composed by Michel Legrand and featured enigmatic lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman:

Round like a circle in a spiral

Like a wheel within a wheel

Never ending or beginning

On an ever-spinning reel

It won the Oscar for best song that year — though Mr. Harrison had no premonition of its success.

“I’m afraid that, for me, recording ‘Windmills’ wasn’t a very significant moment,” he told a British newspaper in 2005. “It was just a job that I got paid $500 for, no big deal. . . . The composer, Michel Legrand, came to my home and helped me learn it, then we went into the studio and recorded it, and I thought no more about it.”

Mr. Harrison, who sometimes dressed in mauve suede suits or paisley Nehru jackets, seemed to personify the trippier aspects of 1960s culture. On the cover of his 1966 debut album, “Noel Harrison,” he was photographed sitting inside a refrigerator reading a work by the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.

He had success with the morbid “A Young Girl” (1966), an English version of a Charles Aznavour song (“Une Enfant”) popularized by Edith Piaf, and Leonard Cohen’s much-recorded “Suzanne” (1966). Judy Collins’s rendition of “Suzanne” that year eclipsed Mr. Harrison’s recording in sales.

Mr. Harrison appeared in two movie comedies starring David Niven, “The Best of Enemies” (1961) and “Where the Spies Are” (1965), and he won a starring role opposite actress Stefanie Powers in the TV spy spoof “The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.,” which aired on NBC in 1966 and 1967. Mr. Harrison also had guest roles on TV series including “It Takes a Thief,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Mod Squad” and “The Love Boat.”

He moved to rural Nova Scotia in 1972, built a home without electricity and studied beekeeping. In the late 1980s, he created and toured internationally with a one-man tribute show to the Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, “Adieu, Jacques . . .!”

Noel Harrison was born in London on Jan. 29, 1934. His mother was Collette Thomas, the first of Rex Harrison’s six wives. After his parents divorced, he lived with his mother and saw his father by appointment only.

“I went to California when I was 12, did the Hollywood thing,” he told the London Independent. “I only wanted to meet Abbott and Costello. Sadly, Dad didn’t mix in those circles.”

Mr. Harrison discovered ski racing when he moved with his mother to Switzerland at 15. He competed with the British team in the 1952 and 1956 Winter Olympics. After a stint in the British army, he pursued a career as a folk singer.

His marriages to Sara Tufnell and Margaret Meadows ended in divorce. Survivors include his third wife, Lori Chapman, and five children from his earlier marriages.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Harrison performed in stage revivals of his father’s most famous role, Henry Higgins.

“I come on stage as Henry Higgins and hear people saying, ‘Oh, he looks like his father,’ ” he told the Los Angeles Times. “They’re not paying attention to the play, only to the family resemblance. . . . So I do the best job I can, try to make it my own.”

“But you can’t.”

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