Harrison had won a Tony Award for playing Henry Higgins on Broadway opposite Andrews and followed it up with a best actor Oscar for the lavish 1964 film adaptation with Hepburn. He was charming, suave and sophisticated, the perfect refined gentleman. But his amusingly offhand treatment of Eliza Doolittle on paper was a pale shadow of what he was like in real life. Fellow actors and even family members described his terrible behavior and his two leads got the worst of it in his most famous role. The actor refused to sing one of Andrews’ most iconic lines during the stage and even tried to get her fired from it. This is the man who was so rude that when an offended fan hit him, the headline read “fan hits sh*t.”
Harrison was actually only the fourth choice to play Higgins on Broadway, after Noel Coward, Michael Redgrave and George Sanders. He himself admitted that he was not a singer. Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole, Rock Hudson, and Laurence Olivier were approached for the role in the film. However, Harrison was always absolutely convinced that the show and the subsequent movie were about him.
Andre Previn was the music arranger for the film, later saying, “I felt that any fuss that was made about Audrey or Julie was pointless, because nobody was interested in the girl. They were only interested in to the… Rex Harrison, who gave one of the most momentous performances ever, was, and I don’t say this lightly, the most terrifying human being I’ve ever worked with.
“He was charming and funny and a great storyteller but, my God, what he did to people. Rex didn’t like Audrey very much. He was mean on her, not her. That was much more her style.”
Hepburn faced backlash when she took on the role on the big screen, with many declaring loudly that the role should have gone to Andrews, who had received high praise for her performance on Broadway. In public, Harrison was suitably sympathetic, while also managing to plunge the knife in numerous times in a single statement.
He said: “I had done the show for so long in the theater with Julie that none the new protagonist was going to be a problem. Audrey also had to endure a great deal of adverse press publicity about how much she was being paid, as most of the press had sided with Julie and wanted Julie to get the part from her. Audrey is a very sensitive person, and she couldn’t help feeling all this. She quickly leaked to the press that she was being dubbed and that she ‘really’ wasn’t singing the part that she had taken from Julie and for which she was being paid so well.”
Note how Harrison reinforces the controversial issue of Hepburn’s singing voice being dubbed (by Marni Nixon), something she herself had been very unhappy about. She also repeatedly refers to how much she was being paid, implying that she didn’t deserve it, and somehow makes it sound like an aggressive Hepburn “snatched” the role from poor Andrews.
In fact, Harrison raged behind the scenes that he was only paid $250,000, a quarter of Hepburn’s fee. It was later reported that he slowly warmed to her on set, but only because all the continuing bad publicity for the actress and her own heartbreak over being dubbed her gave him an even better chance to dominate the production.
The actor had it more difficult with Andrews, who was openly more opinionated. Hepburn was known to wield a deceptively softer and more subtle form of power once referred to as an “iron whim.”
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Andrews was reported to have used profanity to describe his time with Harrison on Broadway, while he, during his explosive career, once walked out of the theater screaming. “If that bitch is still here Monday, I’m leaving the show.”
Their relationship became so toxic that Harrison wouldn’t sing the famous line “I’ve gotten used to her face” to her. The couple met in 1965 when he won the Best Actor Oscar for My Fair Lady. Hepburn was not nominated, while Andrews took the Best Actress award for Mary Poppins.
The two actresses certainly weren’t alone in their experiences with Harrison. Hollywood legend Patrick Macnee said of him, “He was one of the five nastiest men you ever met.” Charlton Heston called it “prickly”.
Actor Jared Harris, who was also his stepson, recounted how Harrison struggled to keep staff: “He could never find someone to stay, because he was so horrible. He used to ship the wine from his own cellar and then rip in the butler for serving it.”
Roddy McDowell said: “He was emotionally unstable, like a riotous child. You always had to approach him with a fire hose. He was an exquisitely flawless actor but basically hysterical and unscrupulous with his fellow actors.”
It wasn’t just Hollywood stars who fought with Harrison, who had been praised for joining the RAF in a non-combat role during World War II. However, Eileen Younghusband, who was an officer in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and served alongside the actor, said: “He treated us like dirt. We were nothing because we had nothing to do with his movie career. He really thought he was somebody.” special.”
His personality never changed and during the filming of Doctor Dolittle in 1967 in St. Lucia, Harrison became so enraged during a confrontation over his contract that he moved his yacht to block the cameras. When the situation escalated, the producers hired Christopher Plummer to replace him and Harrison was forced to back down to keep the role.
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