After winning a Tony Award for playing Henry Higgins on Broadway opposite Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison followed up with the Best Actor Oscar for the 1964 movie version with Audrey Hepburn. He may have played a charming gentleman on the big screen but in real life, his Eliza Doolittle leading ladies suffered through his terrible behaviour. This included refusing to sing one of the musical’s most famous lines to Andrews during the theatrical run when he tried to have her fired.
Despite winning a Tony and an Oscar for Higgins, originally the Broadway role only came to Harrison after Noel Coward, Michael Redgrave and George Sanders turned down the part. In fact, by his own admission, he wasn’t the best singer and Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole, Rock Hudson and Laurence Olivier were all approached for the film version before he was. Regardless, the My Fair Lady star was completely and utterly convinced that both versions of the musical were all about him.
Andre Previn, the musical arranger on the 1964 film later said of the leading man: “He felt whatever fuss was made about Audrey or Julie was pointless, because nobody was interested in the girl. They were only interested in him… Rex Harrison, who gave one of the most transcendental performances ever, was—and I don’t say this lightly—the most appalling human being I ever worked with. He was charming and funny and a great raconteur but, Jesus Christ, what he did to people. Rex didn’t like Audrey very much. He was mean about her, not to her. That was very much more his style.”
When Hepburn was cast she faced a big backlash with many fans and industry figures furious that the part should have gone to Andrews after her highly acclaimed performance in the stage version.
Although Harrison was sympathetic in public, he would keep bringing up how his My Fair Lady movie co-star’s singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon. He also implied she didn’t deserve her huge salary and made it sound like Hepburn “wrested” the part from Andrews.
The Higgins star was furious behind-the-scenes at only being paid $250,000 ($2.4 million today) compared to Hepburn’s $1 million (almost $10 million). He would later warm to her on set, but only as she was suffering from all the bad press about her voice being dubbed, which allowed him to lord over production.
In comparison, Andrews put up more of a fight during her run with him on Broadway in 1956 and the West End two years later.
READ MORE: Dame Julie Andrews’ My Fair Lady snub led to actress’ first Oscar
Andrews reportedly once used profanity in summing up her time with Harrison in the stage musical. And he once stormed out of the theatre after a performance shouting: “If that b***h is still here on Monday, I’m quitting the show!”
In fact, their feuding became so bad that the Higgins star refused to sing the famous line “I’ve grown accustomed to her face” during the play’s run.
Andrews and Hepburn weren’t the only ones with terrible experiences of Harrison, with Patrick Macnee saying: “He was one of the top five unpleasant men you’ve ever met.” Charlton Heston called him “thorny” and Roddy McDowell said: “He was emotionally unstable, like a wanton child. You always had to approach him with a firehose. He was an exquisitely impeccable actor but a basic hysteric—and unconscionable to his fellow actors.”