Ireland's Own Richard Harris

In Limerick, the Irish city where Richard Harris was born and raised, they still call him "Dickie." And while 12 years have passed since the legendary actor died Oct. 25, 2002, at 72, he is still very much a presence there. The town will welcome thousands of visitors this weekend (Oct. 24 - 26) for the second annual Richard Harris International Film Festival. Eleanor McSherry, the festival's creative director, spoke to about one of Limerick's favorite sons.

What kind of relationship did Harris have his with hometown?

"He was a proud Limerick man, who never lost his pride or love for his home county. He was always personable, kind and generous to any person from Ireland that he met on his travels. Dickie made many trips home, and there are a wealth of stories about these trips all over Limerick. He is well-loved here in Limerick, so much so that Limerick City Council erected a brass statue of his King Arthur character from his film Camelot on Bedford Row in the city center."

And he was a big fan of local sports?

"In many interviews he spoke about the Munster rugby team. The team plays in Thomond Park in Limerick. He also tried to make it to all the Munster rugby matches, work permitting."

Festival director Rob Gill came up with the idea for a Richard Harris International Film Festival. He quickly invited you and production manager Zeb Moore to help him get the project off the ground. Tell me about that.

"We are all living and working in Limerick City, Ireland. I was invited on board as I had good connections in the Irish film industry and my mother was a childhood friend of the Harris family. … We wanted to start a festival in his honor as we felt that Dickie Harris deserved to be remembered in a way he would have appreciated. It began as part of the Gathering, an Irish government tourism initiative which was to encourage the Irish diaspora to come home."

In its first year, the festival drew thousands of visitors from around the world. The main feature was This Sporting Life, the 1963 film that won Harris a best actor award at that year's Cannes Film Festival. Harris played a former rugby player who struggles to find his way off the field. Why choose this film?

"It was his breakout film, which put him, as an actor, on the map. The other films that were shown were influenced by one of the themes of the festival, which is to celebrate the contribution of actors who are members of the Irish diaspora. Richard Harris worked all over the world but always identified himself as Irish and from Limerick."

Do you have any stories about that?

"Only one story comes to mind. My cousin told me a story of when she and a group of her friends (all nurses) went to see Dickie in a play in London. They cheekily told the box office that they knew him. When he came out to them after the performance, he greeted them like old friends and brought them all out to dinner, on him. That is just one story of his kindness to his fellow countrymen."

What is Mr. Harris' legacy, not only as an actor but as an Irishman? Why is he important to his industry and his home country?

"Some of Dickie's work will last forever as a part of classic cinema. It appeals to the young and the old. But most of all, he'll always be remembered as a fine actor who not only broke into Hollywood, but who left a lasting mark on the film industry.

"Many young Irish actors claim that he is their main influence and that they hope to emulate his career. No other Irish actor has had his accomplishments or has had as long or as varied a career as Dickie."

Do you have a favorite Harris performance?

"Captain Rafer Janders in 1978's The Wild Geese. It was not only the first film I saw him in but I immediately recognized his Limerick accent. We didn't have a film star from Limerick in Hollywood really, before him. Seeing him … profoundly affected me! I was intensely proud. His on-screen chemistry with Richard Burton was very believable – so much so that when he died in the film, I cried and cried. While it was not the best film he was in, it was for me one of his most believable performances of his career."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."