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Lionhearted

updated 11/11/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/2002 01:00AM

The last great party in a life filled with them was held in Dublin in 2000, to mark his 70th birthday. Surrounded by friends and family, Richard Harris—the wild-eyed lion of stage, screen and pub—got up after dinner and, as he did so often and so well, told stories. "Richard spoke for about an hour about his life, his experiences and the mistakes he made," says his brother Noel Harris, 69. "I was proud as punch of him. It was our last big night out."

A mischievous man of towering talent and appetites to match, Harris, 72, died of Hodgkin's disease on Oct. 25. Over the years the Irish actor made more than 70 movies (60, he joked, were "crap"), had his nose broken nine times and received last rites twice—yet offered no apologies. "He lived life as he wanted and didn't care what people thought," says his second ex-wife, Ann Turkel, 46, who, along with Harris's three sons and other relatives, was with him in a London hospital when he died. "As long as whatever he did made him happy, he didn't care. But Richard could charm anyone. Anyone."

Harris fostered twin reputations as a world-class actor and carouser, defining, along with rakish pals Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole, a long-gone era of excess. "Richard was one of the giants of the old school," says Ridley Scott, who directed him in 2000's Gladiator. The success of some of his early roles, particularly as King Arthur in the 1967 film Camelot, brought Harris wealth and fame, but also fueled his passion for women, hard liquor and, occasionally, bar fights. "There was so much life out there, so much wine I wanted to taste," he told Singapore's The Straits Times of those days. "I wanted a bit of everything."

Still, says his brother Noel, "I would hate for people to remember him only as a hell-raiser. He was a wonderful family man and a great father to his boys." Indeed, Harris, who quit heavy drinking in 1981, was very close with both of his ex-wives and his sons, as well as with granddaughter Ella, now 13, on whom he doted. "I see her very often," Harris told PEOPLE in 2001. "I always wanted a girl more than anything in the world." Harris agreed to play the last role of his life—the kindly Professor Dumbledore in two Harry Potter films—only because Ella threatened not to speak to him if he didn't.

The fifth of eight children, Harris grew up in gritty Limerick, Ireland. His father, Ivan, owned a once-successful flour mill that hit hard times, plunging the family into near-poverty. Harris's first love was rugby, and he might have skipped acting altogether to play professionally had a bout with tuberculosis at 19 not quashed that dream. Inspired by books he read on the theater, he enrolled in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and his brilliance onstage soon led to film roles. His performance as a loutish rugby player in 1963's This Sporting Life stamped him as a major star.

As a husband, however, "I was totally miscast," Harris said. "I am the most unreliable man in the world." He was divorced from English socialite Elizabeth Rees-Williams in 1969 after 12 years of marriage (she bore him sons Jared, 40, and Jamie, 38, both actors, and Damian, 43, a film director) and from actress-model Turkel in 1982. Harris still spent time at the home in the Bahamas that he and Turkel shared, but also maintained a book-filled, seventh-floor corner suite at London's posh Savoy hotel. (He came and went via the freight elevator and was pals with the longtime staff.) Known to chain-smoke Silk Cut cigarettes and down a pint or two at the local pubs, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease this August. For a while it looked like he might pull through, but in late October his condition quickly worsened and he fell into a coma. "That's the way it was for the three days I was there," says his brother Noel. "He never woke up."

For those who knew him, it seems unfathomable that Harris will roar no more. "I cannot believe he is gone," says Turkel. "It's funny, but I always thought that he'd outlive us all."

Alex Tresniowski
Pete Norman, Sophia Hemphill and Laura Sanderson-Healy in London and Ron Arias in Los Angeles

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