One of the supreme ironies of Rex Harrison’s long and distinguished career on stage is that he is particularly remembered for his role as Henry Higgins in the hit musical My Fair Lady, which ran on Broadway for 2,717 performances. The irony, of course, is that Harrison was no singer and virtually spoke his way through his songs – yet his charm, comic timing, and suave presence overshadowed the minor obstacle of his inability to carry a tune, and his performance even earned him a Tony® for Best Actor in a Musical.
Born in 1908 in Huyton, England, Harrison began his work in the theater as an apprentice with the Liverpool Repertory Theatre, and he made his first appearance on stage in Liverpool in Katherine Mayor’s play Thirty Minutes in a Street in 1924. By 1930 he made a name for himself with his London debut in Kilpatrick’s Getting George Married and a part in the film The Great Game. His Broadway debut took place in 1936 in Jay Mallory’s short-lived play Sweet Aloes. Taking an enforced break from his acting career during World War II, he joined the Royal Air Force and attained the position of flight lieutenant.
In 1945, Harrison starred in the film adaptation of Noël Coward’s frothy comedy Blithe Spirit – one of the first films shot in color – and The Rake’s Progress (retitled Notorious Gentleman in the United States). Through his much-admired film performances, he immediately reached a wide audience, and in 1946 he starred in Anna and the King of Siam, his first part in an American-made film.
He returned to Broadway in 1948 to play Henry VIII in Maxwell Anderson’s verse play Anne of the Thousand Days, winning a Tony Award® for Best Actor. He continued his work on Broadway with leading roles in Bell, Book and Candle (1951), Venus Observed (1952), and The Love of Four Colonels (1953).
But it was in 1956 that he took a role in a major Broadway musical, Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, and, despite being melodically challenged, scored his greatest triumph. Playing opposite Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle – the Cockney flower girl transformed into a breathtaking paragon of elegance – Harrison portrayed the brilliant but insensitive linguist Henry Higgins. My Fair Lady won multiple Tonys®, including one for Best Musical, and the original Broadway cast recording set new sales records. Harrison reprised his role as Higgins in the 1958 London production as well as in the 1964 hit movie of My Fair Lady, which won eight Academy Awards®; the film soundtrack and the original cast recordings are available on Sony.
Harrison returned to Broadway many times – in The Fighting Cock (1959), Emperor Henry IV (1973), In Praise of Love (1974), Caesar and Cleopatra (1977), The Kingfisher (1978), My Fair Lady (1981 revival), Heartbreak House (1983), Aren’t We All? (1985), and, in a production cut short by his death, The Circle (1989).
His huge filmography includes School for Scandal, The Citadel, Night Train to Munich, Major Barbara, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Unfaithfully Yours, King Richard and the Crusaders, The Constant Husband, Cleopatra, The Agony and the Ecstasy, and Doctor Dolittle.
Rex Harrison was knighted in 1989 and died in New York in 1990.