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Furry friend: Actor Richard Harris portrays conservationist George Adamson in To Walk with Lions, a new feature screening at this year's Wine Country Film Festival. Harris will be on hand for a film tribute as well.

Richard the Lionheart

Wine Country Film Fest fetes Irish actor Richard Harris

By Paula Harris

RICHARD HARRIS has been thrown to the lions before. He's survived two long and rocky marriages, a nasty bout with the vodka bottle, and several bizarre career moves--his off-key, tremulous recording of the song "MacArthur Park" and his appearance in Orca, a clunky Jaws wannabe, spring to mind.

But nothing quite prepared the Limerick-born movie star and former hellraiser--known as much for his drinking sprees and wildly bawdy lifestyle as for his widely varied film career--for his latest role.

In his new movie, To Walk with Lions, screening July 22 at the Wine Country Film Fest, Harris plays real-life lion guru George Adamson, the conservationist made famous by the Oscar-winning movie Born Free and its sequel, Living Free. The latter film told how George and his wife, Joy, raised Elsa the lioness and rehabilitated previously captive lions to release them into the African wild.

For the movie, the eccentric, bombastic actor, who'll be 70 in October, was expected not only to walk with the lions, but to romp and snuggle with the tawny beasts as well.

The film was shot in Kenya using trained "movie" lions from Los Angeles. When Harris first took on the role, he initially refused to mingle with the big cats and immediately requested a stunt double.

"I told the directors I would do the picture, but I didn't want to work with the lions. I thought they were very dangerous animals," Harris recalls in his loud, velvety Irish brogue, talking to me by telephone from his suite at the Surrey Hotel in New York. "I've survived many mishaps in my life, and I didn't necessarily want to end up in the belly of a lion as some big cat's breakfast."

But once he arrived in Kenya, Harris realized he couldn't very well play the life of George Adamson without having some contact with the lions, so he had trainers instruct him on self-defense, should the animals decide to attack during filming. After two days, though, Harris decided knowing self-defense wasn't enough--he wanted to bond with the big cats.

"I went down every morning. I would lean in front of their cages and talk--just for two or three minutes so I didn't bore them. Then I went down again every evening and spoke to them again," he remembers. "I got on really well indeed with some of them; they're the ones we use in the picture. I found it quite thrilling, frightening in a sense because they're not house pets and are still predators and they could turn on you, but you've got to take that risk."

And take the risk he did. Apart from one particularly intense attack sequence, Harris decided not to use a stunt double.

The actor claims he now misses the lions more than the people who worked with him on the movie. "I'm going to see the lions when I'm in Los Angeles," he vows. "I'm definitely going to visit them. I'm told they'll remember your smell and your voice."

The twice-Oscar-nominated Harris, whose films have included Unforgiven, Cromwell, A Man Called Horse, Camelot, and This Sporting Life, will make a personal appearance in Napa County on Saturday, July 22, to receive a Lifetime Achievement award from the Wine Country Film Festival, which will screen To Walk with Lions.

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Festival Fun: The Wine Country Film Festival offers a varied program of some 80 works.

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THE FILM, directed by Carl Schultz, is based on a true story. It chronicles the embattled twilight years of Adamson and opens in 1980, shortly before Joy Adamson's murder, reportedly by a disgruntled employee. To Walk with Lions chronicles George's struggles to save the preserve, known as "Kora," and protect his cherished lions from invading poachers and bandits.

"I thought the part was very challenging," says Harris. "It was something I'd never done before in my career, and I just found [Adamson] to be an absolutely fascinating man."

The actor initially thought he wasn't right to play Adamson. But he researched the role by studying documentaries about the man, emulating his mannerisms until he took on a startling resemblance to the famed conservationist--even down to the movement of his arthritic hands and the way he sucked his pipe.

Although he enjoyed filming To Walk with Lions, Harris says he doesn't need to work and he chooses his roles judiciously. "I work whenever it suits me, whenever the part is good enough, and I like the people," he avers. "I don't want to paint myself into a one-character role. I try my best to play different parts."

Harris' most recent film is the epic swords-'n'-sandals spectacle Gladiator, in which he plays Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

His upcoming projects include a new version of the Count of Monte Cristo and a modern twist on King Lear, to be filmed in Liverpool. "It's a modern version set in the present day, with the King Lear story but not Shakespeare's dialogue," he explains.

In the meantime, Harris divides his time between his beach house in the Bahamas and his adopted home, a suite at London's Savoy Hotel. When not acting, he keeps himself occupied by writing short stories and poetry.

HARRIS OFTEN visits Ireland--but balks at ever making a home on the Emerald Isle. "I won't live there," he states emphatically. "There's a love-hate relationship between me and the Irish, and I find our temperaments are too equal. I think that if I'd lived in Ireland I'd probably have been dead 20 years ago.

"The life there is too . . . um . . . ," he continues, struggling for the right words. "It . . . it would suit me too much. It would suit me to excessive extremes."

Of course, that's always been his (well-documented) image, hasn't it? "I'm afraid so," he responds in a dismal tone. But Harris says that his health is good and he's cut way down on the booze. After a doctor's warning in 1981, he quit alcohol cold turkey for 13 years, but nowadays partakes in moderation.

"I don't drink spirits at all. I drink the odd glass of wine with dinner, and I drink Guinness," he says.

But I'm still curious about the "Chief of Camelot" in his notorious prime. "So, tell me more about the wild days," I ask, eager for details. But there's a pause on the end of the line.

"Oh, don't make me go into all that!" Harris chimes. "I will say that everything was true--and that only 10 percent of what I did was published. So you can imagine . . ."

"You've had a very colorful life, Richard," I comment.

"The best, " he replies in his King Arthur voice. "I have no regrets at all."


Richard Harris is scheduled to appear Saturday, July 22, at Sequoia Grove Vineyards, 8388 S. St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford. Cost is $125 for the VIP Winemakers' Dinner, tribute, and film screening, $25 for the tribute and screening only. Gates open at 6:30; tribute, 8: 30; screening , 9. p.m. 935-3456.

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From the June 13-19, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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