Rex Harrison’s array of arrogant and curmudgeonly characters on screen continue to delight. Even his co-stars admitted he was a master of his craft, but none had a good thing to say about his actual personality, with Clint Eastwood admitting he was “thorny.” Cleopatra co-star Roddy McDowell was less tactful, saying: “He was emotionally unstable, like a wanton child. You always had to approach him with a fire hose. He was an exquisitely impeccable actor but a basic hysteric – and unconscionable to his fellow actors.”
Roger Moore rarely spoke ill of anyone but said in his memoir: “Rex Harrison could be a rather mean-spirited man and he wasn’t regarded very warmly by those who knew him. “
Patrick Macnee added: “He was one of the top five unpleasant men you’ve ever met.”
The star, who was born on this day in 1908, won a Tony Award for playing Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady on Broadway opposite Andrews. He followed that up with the Best Actor Oscar for the lavish 1964 big-screen adaptation with Hepburn.
But his amusingly brusque treatment of Eliza Doolittle in the role was a pale shadow of what he was like in real life to his poor co-stars.
Andre Previn was the musical arranger on the movie version of My Fair Lady and later said: “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.”
Hepburn famously faced a backlash when she took the big screen role, with many loudly declaring the part should have gone to Andrews, who had received huge acclaim for her performance on Broadway. In public, Harrison was suitably sympathetic, while giving a masterclass in how to destroy someone.
He said: “I’d done the show for so long in the theatre with Julie that any new leading lady was going to be a problem. Audrey also had to weather a great deal of adverse press publicity about how much she was being paid, for most of the press had sided with Julie, and had wanted Julie to get the part.
“Audrey is a very sensitive person, and could not fail to feel all this. It quickly leaked to the press that she was being dubbed and wasn’t ‘really’ singing the part she’d wrested from Julie and for which she was being so highly paid.”
Note how Harrison reinforces the contentious issue of Hepburn’s singing voice being dubbed (by Marni Nixon), something which she herself had been very unhappy about. He also repeatedly refers to how much she was being paid, implying that she didn’t deserve it, and somehow makes it sound like an aggressive Hepburn “wrested” the role from poor Andrews.
In fact, Harrison has raged behind the scenes that he was only being paid $250,000, one-quarter of Hepburn’s fees.
It was later reported that he slowly warmed to her on set, but only because all the continuing bad publicity for the actress and her own distress over being dubbed gave him even greater opportunity to dominate the production.
It wasn’t just fellow Hollywood stars who struggled with Harrison. He had been praised for joining the RAF in a non-combat role during World War II.
However, Eileen Younghusband, who was a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force officer and served alongside the actor said: “He treated us like dirt. We were nothing because we didn’t have anything to do with his film career. He really thought he was someone special.”
Actor Jared Harris, who was also his stepson, reported how Harrison struggled to keep staff: “He could never find one who would stay, because he was so appalling. He used to send the wine back from his own cellar and then rip into the butler for serving it to him.”