Harris is born to a farming family on October 1, 1930 in Limerick, County Limerick. He is the son of Mildred Josephine (Harty) and Ivan John Harris. He is an excellent rugby player with a strong passion for literature. Unfortunately, a bout of tuberculosis as a teenager ends his aspirations to a rugby career. He becomes fascinated with the theater and skips a local dance one night to attend a performance of Henry IV. He is hooked and goes on to learn his craft at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, followed by several years in stage productions.
Harris makes his film debut in 1959 in the film Alive and Kicking, and plays the lead role in The Ginger Man in the West End in 1959. His second film, Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), quickly scores regular work in films, including The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), The Night Fighters (1960) and a good role as a frustrated Australian bomber pilot in The Guns of Navarone (1961).
Harris’ breakthrough performance is as the quintessential “angry young man” in the sensational drama This Sporting Life (1963), for which he receives an Academy Award nomination. He then appears in the World War II commando tale The Heroes of Telemark (1965) and in the Sam Peckinpah-directed western Major Dundee (1965). He next shows up in Hawaii (1966) and plays King Arthur in Camelot (1967), a lackluster adaptation of the famous Broadway play. Better performances follow, among them a role as a reluctant police informer in The Molly Maguires (1970) alongside Sean Connery. He takes the lead role in the violent western A Man Called Horse (1970), which becomes something of a cult film and spawns two sequels.
As the 1970s progress, Harris continues to appear regularly on screen, however, the quality of the scripts vary from above average to woeful. His credits during this period include directing himself as an aging soccer player in the delightful The Hero (1971), the western The Deadly Trackers (1973), the big-budget “disaster” film Juggernaut (1974), the strangely-titled crime film 99 and 44/100% Dead (1974), with Connery again in Robin and Marian (1976), Gulliver’s Travels (1977), a part in the Jaws (1975) ripoff Orca (1977) and a nice turn as an ill-fated mercenary with Richard Burton and Roger Moore in the popular action film The Wild Geese (1978).
However, the luck of the Irish once again shines on Harris’ career and he scores rave reviews and another Oscar nomination for The Field (1990). He then locks horns with Harrison Ford as an Irish Republican Army sympathizer in Patriot Games (1992) and gets one of his best roles as gunfighter English Bob in the Clint Eastwood western Unforgiven (1992). He is firmly back in vogue and rewards his fans with more wonderful performances in Wrestling Ernest Hemingway (1993), Cry, the Beloved Country (1995), The Great Kandinsky (1995) and This Is the Sea (1997). Further fortune comes his way with a strong performance in the blockbuster Gladiator (2000) and he becomes known to an entirely new generation of film fans as Albus Dumbledore in the mega-successful Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002). His final screen role is as “Lucius Sulla” in Julius Caesar (2002).
Harris is diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in August 2002, reportedly after being hospitalised with pneumonia. He dies at University College Hospital in Fitzrovia, London on October 25, 2002 after spending his final three days in a coma. His body is cremated and his ashes are scattered in the Bahamas, where he had owned a home.