‘Harry Potter’: Why Richard Harris Was Forced Into Playing Dumbledore

Richard Harris is brilliant in his portrayal of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. The actor is in the first two Potter films, yet he tragically died right before making the third movie.
But believe it or not, he initially planned on rejecting the offer to play the headmaster at Hogwarts. And according to Harris, he “didn’t have much choice” in taking on the role.

Portrait of actor Richard Harris
Portrait of actor Richard Harris | Peter Power/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Richard Harris as Albus Dumbledore

During the production stages of the first Harry Potter movie, The Sorcerer’s Stone, the filmmakers had a plan for their ensemble cast. The goal was to have the child actors be unknowns, while the adults would all be played by seasoned actors.

Yet the choice to cast Harris as Dumbledore was an easy one because the actor had a strong connection to David Heyman (the producer of the Potter movies.)

Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris, Daniel Radcliffe
Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris, Daniel Radcliffe | DMIPhoto/FilmMagic

“My father used to be Richard’s agent,” Heyman reveals in Harry Potter: Page to Screen. “Richard’s my godfather. He even lived with us at one point. We wanted an actor who had weight and distinction. Richard had real strength and a sense of danger about him- but he was also mischievous with a twinkle in his eye.”

Harris was a major movie star back in his day, acting in big hits such as Major Dundee and A Man Called Horse. He even had a pop music career with several worldwide hits.

Richard Harris initially didn’t want to do the ‘Harry Potter’ films

Irish actor Richard Harris in the role of Professor Dumbledore in the US film 'Harry Potter'
Irish actor Richard Harris in the role of Professor Dumbledore in the US film ‘Harry Potter’ | AFP/AFP via Getty Images

Before agreeing to play the headmaster at Hogwarts, Harris admits that he was hesitant at first.

“I was asked about the part of Dumbledore, and I wasn’t going to do it for various reasons,” Harris revealed. “Then my granddaughter Ellie telephoned me and said, ‘Papa, if you don’t play Dumbledore, I will never speak to you again!’ So I didn’t have much choice in it.”

“I would say that this is the most difficult part I’ve ever played,” he continued. “Dumbledore’s presence is right through the books even though you don’t see that much of him. He’s a very important figure in the stories, and I needed to find a rhythm and a meter in this beautifully written dialogue in order to be able to play the part.”

According to Harry Potter: Page to Screen, Harris had a meaningful relationship with the young cast: particularly, with Rupert Grint.

“Chris Columbus had asked me to come out to the studio to meet the young cast, and I came out to read with them,” said Harris. “When I finished the reading, the little boy playing Ron Weasley turned to me and said, ‘Mr. Harris, that was quite a good reading. I think you’ll be quite good in this part!’ It’s that kind of magic that is everywhere in this film.”

Casting the new Albus Dumbledore for ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’ proved to be complicated

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint
Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint | Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

According to Alfanso Cuarón, director of the third Potter film, it was tough trying to cast a new Dumbledore. He says that it was particularly difficult for Heyman, since Harris was his godfather.

“It happened very soon after I started working on the film,” Cuarón says of Harris’ death. “I didn’t have the honor of meeting Richard Harris. I arrived and was starting to set myself up in a room at the studio, trying to meet people and the crew, and then we got the sad news. You could see it was a big blow for the whole production, and it was particularly shocking for David Heyman, as Harris was his godfather. There was a long process of mourning. I remember casting agencies calling about possible actors to play Dumbledore and David getting upset and saying we’re not going to discuss this for a long time. He didn’t want to go there, and I respect and admire that.”