After a Six-Decade Reign as the Sophisticated King of Light Comedy, Actor Rex Harrison Exits, Working

updated 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The physical clues to an actor's disposition may be revealed in his gaze, his smile or even his walk, but Rex Harrison's character could be found in his eyebrows. Devilishly arched, they bristled with both irascibility and charm, as did he. They were haughty yet humorous, as was he. With just one deft, skewering line he could deflate any pretender. And with just four precisely enunciated syllables—"Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!"—Harrison, as the bachelor phonetician Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, conveyed his endless chagrin that he had let a woman in his life.

Harrison, who died June 2 at 82, began acting as a teen, near his hometown of Huyton, England. "I never wanted to do anything else," he once said. In both the U.S. and Britain, Harrison did what he wanted, performing in more than 40 films and scores of plays, winning both a Tony and an Oscar for the role of Higgins, which he originated onstage opposite Julie Andrews. Last year, he was knighted. Says Audrey Hepburn, his co-star in the film version of My Fair Lady: "He will be remembered as one of the great actors of all time."

Unlike Higgins, "Sexy Rexy" romanced many women—and married six of them, including actresses Lilli Palmer and Rachel Roberts. As each of these couplings ended, gossip circulated that the callousness of Higgins might reflect the actor's true nature. Such talk didn't bother him. "So many people today want to be liked," he was known to sigh, disdainfully.

Just three weeks before he died of pancreatic cancer at his Manhattan home, with wife Mercia Tinker beside him, Harrison was appearing eight times a week in a Broadway revival of Somerset Maugham's The Circle. "Sometimes he wasn't all that strong on his legs," recalls co-star Glynis Johns. "But he didn't cry in his beer. He would never underline the negative."

Many years ago, Harrison vowed, "I never intend to retire. Never." And as Higgins might have said, by George, he didn't.

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