When he was younger, sleeker and suaver -- and very much a lady's man -- the gossip columnists dubbed him "Sexy Rexy."
But sexiness was never Rex Harrison's stock in trade. What distinguished his presence on stage and screen for more than a half century was an air of effortless superiority.
He was tall (6-foot-1), although the stoop of old age had robbed him of a couple of those inches. But up to the end, which came yesterday in New York at 82, Harrison seemed to be looking down on the world. What he saw could amuse him and his eyes would sparkle merrily. Or it could exasperate him; then, oh, the withering scorn. Innate charm, however, kept him from appearing insufferable or priggish.
In his most celebrated role, Professor Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," he thundered, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" Harrison created the part on Broadway in 1956, reprised it for the movies in 1964 and played it again in a 1981 revival. However, no one ever came after him with charges of male chauvinism! For one thing, the more Higgins thundered, the more apparent was his love for Liza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl he was teaching to speak properly.
But Harrison's own persona also entered into it. You always felt he was keeping up standards, holding a sloppy world at bay, insisting on a modicum of civility, as any self-respecting gentleman would in his place. If you had to associate him with one gesture, it would probably be the arched eyebrow, which could do the work of a wrecking ball as easily as it could express philosophical amusement. Irony was clearly the state in which Harrison was most comfortable.
He had trouble learning the words for his final stage role, Lord Porteous, in the current Broadway revival of Somerset Maugham's "The Circle." But his flawless sense of timing, honed by a lifetime on the stage, was still operative. During the pre-Broadway tryout, he would fumble badly for a line. But once he got his hands on it, he would throw it away with supreme ease -- getting the laugh he knew was there. There was something mesmerizing about the procedure.
Noel Coward, no small authority in such matters, called Harrison "the best light comedian in the world -- after me." For a while, in the 1930s, the drawing room was Harrison's natural habitat. But he expanded his range significantly over the years in plays by Chekhov, Anouilh and Pirandello. By common consent, Harrison gave one of his greatest performances in 1984 as Captain Shotover, the aged philosopher forecasting the end of England in Shaw's "Heartbreak House."
Still, the image of the blase Englishman -- acerbic when need be -- stuck with him throughout his career. He played the King before Yul Brynner in the 1946 film "Anna and the King of Siam," but for the moviegoing public he was either Henry Higgins, talking to Audrey Hepburn, or "Doctor Dolittle," talking to the animals.
And my did he know how to talk!
When he sang, he talked too. But sounded like music. The vowels were crisp; the consonants as clipped as the hedges in an English garden. As always, it seemed to require no visible effort whatsoever.
But that was the trick. "You have to have a very strong degree of energy," Harrison once said, "to appear to be acting natural." At the time, he was commenting on "Aren't We All?," the period comedy by Frederick Lonsdale that gave him another of his late-in-life successes on Broadway. The play, he said, allowed him "to assume a naturalism that has gone totally out of style."
Then, correcting himself, he added, "Well, it's in style, but nobody can do it." What he meant was nobody else could do it.
Indeed, he was so at ease on a stage, so familiar with its demands and dictates, that he often appeared to be doing nothing at all. Of the 1988 London revival of "The Admirable Crichton," in which he played a shipwrecked lord, one critic wrote, "All the fun lies in watching Harrison, who has begun to resemble a benevolent Chinese deity and who takes to the stage these days in what can only be described as a state of high somnambulism. Lost in what appear to be lovely thoughts, his eyes narrowed to slits but twinkling all the same, his step a hesitant shuffle, he is eminently huggable. The thought would gag him no doubt."
Sentiment, in fact, was not his strong suit. Offstage, he was a difficult, frequently intractable man, who permitted himself the bad manners he shunned on the stage. He was married six times. Leukemia claimed his third wife, British comedian Kay Kendall. (Harrison drew upon the tragedy for his performance in Terence Rattigan's "In Praise of Love," a drama about a husband who cannot tell his wife -- on doctor's orders -- that she is dying of an incurable disease.) But Harrison's irascible nature took a toll on his other marriages.
Actress Lili Palmer, wife No. 2, put it succinctly when asked what kind of a husband he had been. "He's a man's man, an Englishman," she said. "Let's face it. Englishmen don't like women."
The superiority that was so endearing onstage could be tyrannical once the curtain fell. Although he appeared twice opposite Claudette Colbert -- in "The Kingfisher" and "Aren't We All?" -- he called her "that French dwarf" to her face and she refused to talk to him afterward. From the audience, you'd never have known anything was amiss. As aging lovers, the two were the picture of graceful charm and flirtatious wit. Their professionalism prevailed.
"I don't think I am very much like Henry Higgins," Harrison said after "My Fair Lady" triumphed on the stage. "But I automatically have put a great deal of myself in the role." However, when it came time to film the movie, he felt obliged to "temper" his performance, lest he be seen as bullying Hepburn, the movie's Eliza and an altogether more delicate creature than Julie Andrews. It was a shrewd move on his part that helped win him the Oscar for Best Actor.
"He was famous for being just impossible," says one who observed him often behind the scenes at the Kennedy Center, where he appeared in such plays as "Antony and Cleopatra" and "Enrico IV." "And then, he would turn around and give one of these extraordinary performances." The acting, most people felt, excused the acting up.
Acting was, after all, what he did best and he kept at it long after his contemporaries had retired to savor their memories and honors. Harrison had his share of the honors, including the knighthood bestowed upon him last year. But retirement never entered his mind.
"I wouldn't know what to do," he said, considering the possibility briefly, then dismissing it with airy magnificence.