Rex Harrison, 82, the actor best known for his wonderful portrayal of Henry Higgins, the irascible and impatient professor of language who won hearts when he fell for a Cockney flower girl in "My Fair Lady," died of cancer yesterday at his apartment in New York City.
In a career that spanned 65 years, Mr. Harrison became one of the great masters of English drawing-room comedy. Noel Coward, who wrote some of his favorite plays, once described him as "the best light comedy actor in the world -- except for me." Although he avoided Shakespeare, Mr. Harrison was highly praised for his work in a number of taxing dramatic roles.
His many honors included a Tony for the Broadway production of "My Fair Lady" and an Academy Award for the film version of the musical. He also won two other Tony awards, and last year he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain.
He never retired. Until last month he was acting on Broadway in a revival of W. Somerset Maugham's "The Circle" with Glynis Johns and Stewart Granger. It is a story about an English lord who runs off with his best friend's wife and then returns with her 30 years later, only to see it happen again in the next generation.
The urbane, sophisticated and accommodating world it described was not unlike the one in which Mr. Harrison spent much of his own life. For a long time he was known as "Sexy Rexy," a name conferred on him by gossip columnist Walter Winchell, and he was a familiar figure in international society from Los Angeles to London, New York, the Mediterranean (where he kept a yacht at Portofino, Italy), Palm Beach and back again. He married six beautiful women and charmed many others. It was said that movie actress Carole Landis committed suicide because he refused to marry her.
In 1978, he married Mercia Tinker, a Swiss-born New York socialite, who survives him. His earlier wives were Colette Thomas, a French teacher, and actresses Lilli Palmer, Kay Kendall, Rachel Roberts and Elizabeth Rees-Williams, the former wife of actor Richard Harris.
"I used to marry actresses," Mr. Harrison remarked on many occasions. "Actors should be married to wives."
His marriage to Kay Kendall was a tragedy as well as a love story. Shortly before they were wed in 1957, he learned that she had leukemia. He did not tell her what her illness was. He encouraged her to work as long as she wished and then he nursed her. In 1959 she died. Later, Mr. Harrison starred in "In Praise of Love," a play by Terrence Rattigan about a man whose wife is dying of an incurable disease.
"I realized Rex's great courage," Rattigan said. "He made the last two years of Kay's life the best years."
Mr. Harrison was often described as a perfectionist who was difficult, impatient, critical, egotistical, conceited, witty and charming. The charm was evident in the fact that he agreed with his critics, and the wit was there in his conversation.
"Snarl or snore," he said to an interviewer who asked him about being ill-tempered. To another interviewer, he said that charm was "something you don't put on. There's nothing worse than false charm. You can't put it on."
A story he often told concerned his first stage experience and the effects of his first bout with stage fright, a lifelong affliction. Playing the part of an excited young father in a production of the Liverpool Repertory Company in 1924, he had a single line and got it backwards:
"It's a doctor," he said. "Fetch a baby."
In an interview with the New York Times just before the opening of "The Circle," he said stage fright might cause him to miss a few of Maugham's lines too.
"It may not be Maugham precisely, but it's good Harrison," he said. "It's near enough."
His greatest success, a magical convergence of actor and material, was the role of Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady," the musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion." It told how Prof. Higgins teaches proper English to Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl (played by Julie Andrews on Broadway), and falls in love in the process.
Before he agreed to appear in the musical, Mr. Harrison received guarantees from Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote the libretto, and Frederick Loewe, the composer, that certain scenes from the Shaw original would be kept. Although his singing range was said to be only a note and a half, Mr. Harrison developed a way of speaking his songs that was highly effective.
The lavish musical opened on Broadway on March 15, 1956, and ran for 2,717 performances, a record at that time. Mr. Harrison stayed with the cast for two years.
In 1964, he starred opposite Audrey Hepburn in the film version, which was directed by George Cukor. Not only did he win an Oscar, he also got the New York Film Critics Award, the Golden Globe Award and Italy's David di Donatello Award. In 1981, Mr. Harrison returned to Broadway in a highly praised revival of the musical comedy, and then toured the United States in it.
He also received high praise for such roles as the title character in "Doctor Doolittle;" as Julius Caesar in "Cleopatra," the famous 1960 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; as Burton's homosexual lover in "The Staircase" in 1969; as Henry VIII in the Broadway production of Maxwell Anderson's "Anne of a Thousand Days" in 1948; and as King Mongkut in "Anna and the King of Siam," which was his American film debut in 1946.
But all were overshadowed for the public and critics alike by his role in "My Fair Lady." Almost from the moment the curtain went up on the first performance of the first production, it was suggested that Mr. Harrison was Henry Higgins come to life. "Mr. Harrison is perfect in the part -- crisp, lean, complacent and condescending until at last a real flare of human emotions burns the egotism away," Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times. Other critics echoed this. No one ever after interviewed Mr. Harrison without asking him about it.
The actor seems to have resented this preoccupation with this one piece of his work. He told interviewers that "automatically I put a great deal of myself in the role."
Reginald Carey Harrison was born on March 5, 1908, in Huyton, England, an industrial town near Liverpool where his father was a cotton broker. At 16 he left school to be an actor. "I may not be a successful actor, but no one can stop me from being a bad actor," he used to say. His first job was with the Liverpool Playhouse, and for several years he toured the provinces. In 1930, he made his London debut as the Honourable Fred Threppleton in a comedy called "Getting George Married." His New York debut was in 1937, in "Sweet Aloes."
During World War II, he was an officer in the Royal Air Force.
Unlike such great contemporaries as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, Mr. Harrison did not attempt Shakespeare. He said Shakespeare's plays required a degree of enunciation that made it difficult to play the relaxed, lounging sort of drawing-room scene that was his forte.
Mr. Harrison published an autobiography, "Rex," in 1974, and an anthology of poems and prose on love in 1979. His hobbies included painting, and he continued it despite glaucoma, which combined with the effects of a boyhood eye injury to reduce his vision. He stood 6-feet-1, and had arching eyebrows that were much admired by caricaturists.
In addition to his wife, survivors include a son by his first marriage, Noel, and a son by his second marriage, Carey, and several grandchildren.
In 1983, Mr. Harrison grew a beard to play Captain Shotover in Shaw's "Heartbreak House," and in 1984 he appeared with Claudette Colbert in the Frederick Lonsdale play "Aren't We All?"
He last appeared on the London stage in 1988, in J.M. Barrie's "The Admirable Crichton." A critic for the Guardian wrote, "He has now become a gently feathery presence who potters benignly about with little of the tenor bark that was once his trademark."
But Mr. Harrison remained the complete perfectionist.
"There is no walk-through, either in life or in performilng," he once said. "If you ever think something is going to be easy, that is the end -- that is death. The whole secret is never being satisfied."
HARRY 'KELLY' MILLER
Redskins Equipment Manager
Harry "Kelly" Miller, 73, a former Washington Redskins equipment manager and a retired salesman at a Raleigh's clothing store in Bethesda, died of a stroke June 1 at Holy Cross Hospital.
Mr. Miller, who lived in Silver Spring, was born in Capitol Heights. He grew up in Washington and graduated from the old Central High School.
As a boy, he worked in the Washington Senators clubhouse at Griffith Stadium. He began working in the Redskins clubhouse when the team moved here from Boston in 1937.
During World War II, Mr. Miller became equipment manager. He also served briefly in the Army during the war. He left the Redskins in 1970 and went to work at Raleigh's. He retired in 1987.
He was a member of Cornerstone Masonic Lodge No. 24 in Kensington.
Survivors include his wife of 38 years, Dorothear Miller of Silver Spring; two children, Maria Dameron of Laurel and Raymond Miller of Germantown; a brother, Albert Miller of New Port Richey, Fla.; and two grandchildren.
AILEEN C. FRIEDMAN
Aileen Campbell Friedman, 77, the wife of a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a member of St. David's Episcopal Church in Washington, died of cancer June 1 at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
Mrs. Friedman, who lived in Washington, was a native of Kenmore, N.Y. She first came to Washington in 1941 to work for American Airlines. She was a secretary for the airline in 1948 when she married William Friedman, an Army officer.
She accompanied him on military assignments in the United States, Puerto Rico and Europe. He retired from active duty in 1961. They lived in Italy and the Bahamas before settling in Washington in 1971.
Her marriage to Theodore Kreidler ended in divorce.
In addition to her husband, of Washington, survivors include their two children, William Campbell Friedman of Eagle, Idaho, and Anne Bingham Bigelow of Palm Beach, Fla.; and a grandchild.
JUNE WEBER MILLER
June Weber Miller, 72, a teacher in the D.C. public school system for 34 years until she retired in 1973, died of cancer May 30 at Leland Memorial Hospital.
Mrs. Miller, who lived in College Park, was born in Washington. She graduated from Roosevelt High School and the University of Maryland, where she also received a master's degree in education.
She became a teacher in the D.C. schools in 1939 and spent most of her career at McFarland Junior High School.
Mrs. Miller was a member of the Homemakers Club in College Park and a volunteer with the Prince George's chapter of the Military Order of the World Wars.
Survivors include her husband, Donald E. Miller, and a brother, George Weber, both of College Park.
MARGARET REDDAN MUNDELL
Margaret Reddan Mundell, 76, a member of Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac and an area resident since 1941, died of cancer June 1 at her home in Potomac.
Mrs. Mundell was a native of New Jersey, where she graduated from Georgian Court College. Before moving to the Washington area in 1941, she was a high school teacher in the Trenton, N.J., public schools.
Survivors include her husband, Benjamin J. Mundell of Potomac; six children, Marlia Mango of Oxford, England, Peggy Santamaria of Baltimore, Tom Mundell of Silver Spring, Jim Mundell of Gaithersburg, Joseph J. Reed-Mundell of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and Kathleen Mullin of Burlington, Mass.; and 10 grandchildren.
JOHN P. GERMAN
Army Band Member
John P. German, 44, who was the principal horn player of the U.S. Army Band (Pershing's Own) before retiring in 1986 for reasons of health, died June 1 at his home in Arlington. He had AIDS.
Mr. German was born in Oilmont, Mont. He graduated from the University of Montana, where he majored in music, and received a master's degree in music at Catholic University.
He moved to Washington in 1968, when he became a member of the U.S. Army Band. He held the rank of master sergeant when he retired. Over the years he also gave private lessons on the French horn.
Survivors include his mother, Eileen C. German of Shelby, Mont.
MARGARET CHRISTINE GARDINER
Margaret Christine Gardiner, 86, a lifelong resident of Leonardtown, Md., where she attended St. Mary's Academy and was and a member of St. Aloysius Catholic Church, died June 2 at the St. Mary's Nursing Home in Leonardtown. She had a stroke.
Her husband, John F. Gardiner, died in 1985.
Survivors include two sons, John F. Gardiner Jr. of Hollywood, Md., and William Greenwell Gardiner of Leonardtown; two sisters, Maria "Johnnie" Hunt of Leonardtown and Eleanor Floyd Greenwell of Waldorf, Md.; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.