Rex Harrison, the sophisticated veteran of Noel Coward's drawing-room comedies of the 1930s, was known best to millions around the world as Prof. Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady."
Witty, urbane and outwardly relaxed, Harrison was for three generations of audiences the very personification of the polished upper-class Englishman.
But he never really believed himself in the role.
"So annoying," he told a 1981 interviewer, "to find oneself referred to as the 'unflappable' Rex Harrison. 'Unflappable,' my arse! I'm an actor and if the indicated public attitude is one of relaxed self-control in the midst of crisis, I can play it as well as the next.
"But don't mistake performance for reality. No one—I say again—no one with an ounce of talent was ever truly relaxed before an audience."
Yet he did play the part so well: from the nonplused husband of Coward's "Blithe Spirit" to the leather-cased steeliness of Julius Caesar in "Cleopatra" to a medieval Pope or the King of Siam. Harrison projected a cool, good-humored refinement that made charming reality of even the occasional villain (the murderous husband of "Midnight Lace," for example) that came his way.
His other honors—an Academy Award and New York Film Critics Award for motion pictures, two Antoinette Perry awards for stage performances, the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, a Golden Globe, and a special Tony for life achievement, among others—would have filled the average trophy case to overflowing, but he seldom displayed them and hated to talk about the work they represented.
His personal life was complicated. Harrison was married in 1934 to Marjorie Noel Collette Thomas and fathered one son, Noel. His second marriage, in 1943, was to actress Lilli Palmer and they had a son, Carey. That relationship continued until 1957, but his name seemed to become a staple item for Hollywood gossip columns—usually coupled with that of one or more of the film colony's better-known female stars and starlets.
It was standard film-fan fare for the time, and might well have been forgotten except for the tragic circumstance of the 1948 death of actress Carole Landis, who took her life after what was said to have been an unhappy affair with Harrison.
The resultant publicity and his marriages brought Harrison a headline sobriquet he never quite lived down: "Sexy Rexy."
When he died in 1990 at age 82, his sixth wife, the former Mercia Tinker, and his sons from his first two marriages were at his side.
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