He was the epitome of the suave English gentleman on screen, albeit with a clear arrogantly dominant (some might say toxic alpha) streak. Yet, behind the scenes, numerous co-stars and even members of the public endlessly described Harrison’s less attractive and likeable qualities. Even more evocative than the fire-hose comment was the infamous headline that ran after an encounter with an elderly lady autograph-hunter at a stage door. When the star told her to “s*d off” she repeatedly whacked him with her rolled up programme. Harrison’s co-star Stanley Holloway quipped it was a classic case of the “fan hitting the sh*t.” One wife simply screamed at him: “You’ve no idea how the people hate you! They haaate you!”
Harrison was relentlessly rude in his personal and professional life. During World War II, while dining in a Nottingham hotel, he complained vociferously about the fish (despite national food shortages). When the maître’d challenged his view, he smashed the plate on the floor and screamed abuse – and was struck around the face and thrown out.
A similar encounter of escalating rudeness to a waiter a year later resulted in Harrison being punched to the floor. His long-suffering wife Lili Palmer later said it was one of the best moments of her life.
Harrison had been praised for joining the RAF in a non-combat role during World War II. Eileen Younghusband, who was a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force officer and served alongside the actor said: “He treated us like dirt. We were nothing because we didn’t have anything to do with his film career. He really thought he was someone special.”
However, Harrison didn’t seem to treat anyone related to his film career, including major stars, any better.
Maureen O’Hara described him as “rude, vulgar and arrogant,’ Julie Harris said, “I have never met anyone who was so self-centred,” while Dirk Bogarde confirmed “he was always very rude to everybody.”
Claudette Colbert only spoke French in between takes to avoid (and irritate) him while Cleoptra co-star Roddy McDowell made the infamous comment: “He was emotionally unstable, like a wanton child. You always had to approach him with a fire-hose. He was an exquisitely impeccable actor but a basic hysteric—and unconscionable to his fellow actors.”
Patrick Macnee ranked him as “one of the top five most unpleasant men you’ve ever met.” Stewart Granger called him “a rotten sh**” and was so incensed by one encounter that he actually took him by the throat and threatened to “break his f***ing leg.
Perhaps most devastating of all was the dismissal from the unfailingly polite (if rather delightfully catty) Roger Moore, who called him “mean-spirited.”
Harrison was no better with his own family, keeping multiple copies of the same charming pre-written apology letter on hand to send to whichever wife or lover he had annoyed and simply adding in the relevant name at the top. His fifth wife, Elizabeth Reece-Williams, discovered the trick and, as was so often the case, slapped him.
The actor even told eldest son Noel he wouldn’t come and see him in cabaret because it would be “frightfully boring.”
So, it is no surprise to discover that both on stage and screen in My Fair Lady, he was up to his usual tricks. Both leading ladies, however, found very different ways of dealing with it.
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Hepburn famously faced a backlash when she took the big-screen role, with many loudly declaring the part should have gone to Andrews, who had received huge acclaim for her performance on Broadway. In public, Harrison was suitably sympathetic, while calling her “bloody Audrey” behind her back and managing to also stick the knife in during interviews.
He said: “I’d done the show for so long in the theatre with Julie that any new leading lady was going to be a problem. Audrey also had to weather a great deal of adverse press publicity about how much she was being paid, for most of the press had sided with Julie, and had wanted Julie to get the part. Audrey is a very sensitive person, and could not fail to feel all this. It quickly leaked to the press that she was being dubbed and wasn’t ‘really’ singing the part she’d wrested from Julie and for which she was being so highly paid.”
In one statement he managed to imply Hepburn was overpaid, oversensitive and had ripped the role away from Andrews. He also emphasised that she wasn’t singing on screen – something that Hepburn had dearly wanted to do but had been dubbed by Marni Noxon against her wishes.
The actor had had a harder time with Andrews who was more overtly strong-willed. Hepburn was known to exercise a deceptively softer, subtler form of power that was once referred to as a “whim of iron.”
Andrews was reported to have used a strong profanity to describe her time with Harrison on Broadway, while he, during their explosive run, once stormed out of the theatre shouting. “If that b***h is still here on Monday, I’m quitting the show.”
Their relationship became so toxic that Harrison wouldn’t sing the famous line “I’ve grown accustomed to her face” in any way to her. The pair found themselves reunited in 1965 when he won the Best Actor Oscar for My Fair Lady. Hepburn wasn’t nominated, while Andrews took the Best Actress award for Mary Poppins.
Decades later, Harrison’s appalling behaviour lives on in cult cartoon series, Family Guy, inspiring iconically arrogant baby Stewie. Creator Seth MacFarlane admitted: “There was something about him that I found amusing and ridiculous and so I came up with the idea to put Rex Harrison’s voice in the body of this baby. And thus Stewie was born.”