When I was a boy, I heard Richard Burton singing the theme from Camelot on the television and I was hooked. I was taken by Burton himself, definitely by the music, and most assuredly by the story of King Arthur.
When the movie musical was released, I went to the movies to see it over 30 times. I’m not saying I paid for 30 tickets because I sat through 2-3 showings of it whenever I could. Burton and Harris had become my favorite actors and when I finally got to see Burton play the role in Miami Beach in 1980 or ’81, I was able to compare and contrast their different approaches to the role. Harris was wonderful as the boy king and Burton, as one might expect, was staggering as the tragic king. So, imagine my delight to finally have the chance to see Richard Harris on stage in 1984 after Richard Burton had sadly passed away while about begin filming The Wild Geese II.
After the final curtain call of the performance in Dallas, I exited the theatre and went to the back door where the actors would probably be leaving. I waited excitedly with my playbill and program in hand, hoping to get his autograph on the program as I had done with Richard Burton. I was young.
After what seemed so long, and most of the others who had been waiting had disappeared, Harris comes out and I said, “Good evening, Mr. Harris. May I have your autograph?” He smiled and took my pen and the program. Then I realized that I had a great opportunity right before me. There were some questions that I wanted to ask, and since no one else was pressing for his attention, why not?
I began with, “Can I ask you who is your favorite actress to work with? Sorry to end a sentence with a preposition” (Yes, I actually said that). He chuckled and then paused. “You know,” he answered, “you might be surprised when I tell you that it is Bo Derek.” He had starred with her in Tarzan just three years before.
I asked why she was his choice and he told me “She has no ego about camera angles and what makes her look good. Of course, she is ravishingly beautiful and she has no bad angles but she took direction so well and she was just so unpretentious and sweet. I would work with her again in a moment! But,” he continued, “the movie was very disappointing. It was just cut to death. A real tragedy, I think.”
At this point, he sat down on a low wall and motioned for me to sit beside him. I sat.
“How long had you and Richard Burton been wanting to work together when you did The Wild Geese?” I ventured. “Actually, we had never even met!” he told me. “And when we did meet, we exchanged many stories about people that we knew but we came to a startling revelation: we realized that all we knew of the previous 20 years of our lives was based on what others had told us. We had been such drunks that we had no first-hand memory, just memories of others’ stories about us. That’s tragic!” He continued by telling me that right there and then, on the set of The Wild Geese, they shook hands and made a pact to never drink again.
He reached toward the playbill, “Do you want me to sign that, too?”
“Thank you, yes,” I answered him.
I hesitated to ask if the promise had been kept but I didn’t have to ask at all because he went on with, “And you know, I went to see him [Burton] do Camelot in Chicago almost two years ago. I went backstage, before the show, into his dressing room. Do you know what was sitting on his dressing room table? A can of Diet Pepsi. We had both kept the pact.”
All this time, since we had sat, he had one leg crossed over the other and he leaned upon his knee. While he was telling the story, he had the look of enjoying a cherished memory. I still have that image in my mind and it makes me wish that I were a painter.
When we stood up to part company, he clapped me on the shoulder and said, “I have enjoyed this tremendously.” Then he patted my check and said, “Good lad.”
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