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Girl from UNCLE



21 February 2005


Keep on grooving

By 1968, Noel Harrison - son of Rex - had done it all: landed the glitzy film roles, lived in Hollywood pads and cut 'Windmills Of Your Mind'. And then he lost it all. Max Bell discovers how one guy's Sixties dream became a Seventies nightmare.

It's a hot summer's day in '65 and a young Englishman is driving down Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles; the radio is tuned to pop station KSWB when the DJ announces the results of a phone-in poll - a three way scrap between "Help!", "Barbara Ann" and the young man's own hit "Young Girl". And who wins? Not the Beatles and not the Beach Boys...

"I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," says Noel Harrison. "I'd snuck into America just after Bob Dylan went electric at Newport. It was such a magical time.

"Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited were fresh and LSD was the sacrament. A few months later I walked into the William Morris Agency and noticed the staff had grown their hair and swapped their black suits for Nehru jackets. That was the peak of the wave." The release this week of a compilation of Harrison recordings is a poignant reminder of that era. Life Is A Dream contains probably his best-known hit, "Windmills Of Your Mind", the Academy Award-winning ballad from the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. The son of the actor Rex Harrison wasn't to know it then, but his rendition of the song was to prove the high point in his career. Indeed, the title of his compilation sums up Harrison's entire existence: episodic, escapist and surreal.

Speaking to me in a suitably retro-Bohemian restaurant in Kensington, the 71-year-old Harrison is charmingly diffident, a pop star of the old school. "Bright blue and very skinny," as his father once described him. For a few years, the Harrisons, father and son, were to be found at opposing ends of Sixties pop culture: Rex in films such as My Fair Lady and Dr Dolittle and Noel as a singer, actor and man-about-town in London, New York and Los Angeles.

Indeed, for a while, it looked as if Noel might emulate his father's celebrity. By 1966 he had swapped Swinging London for Groovy Los Angeles, part of the Brit Pop invasion of America. He had appeared opposite David Niven in a couple of early Sixties capers, With Enemies Like These and Where The Spies Are, and had snagged the lead role in a TV spin-off, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., playing opposite Stefanie Powers.   He had two Top 40 US hits. He toured with the Beach Boys, and Sonny and Cher. He hosted the TV show Hullabaloo. He had a parking space on the MGM lot next to Natalie Wood's. Who then would have argued with the American pop paper who announced Harrison as "America's brightest new star"?  

Harrison had, it seemed, put his childhood behind him. He was born in 1934; when Noel was six, his father and his mother, Colette, divorced. During the Second World War, he was evacuated to live with his grandparents in Cornwall and only saw his recalcitrant father by appointment. "I went to California when I was 12, did the Hollywood thing," says Harrison. "I only wanted to meet Abbott and Costello. Sadly, Dad didn't mix in those circles."

Noel did his National Service and, after leaving the army in the Fifties, toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist. His father wangled him an interview with Lord Rothermere who suggested he pen a piece about being the son of a famous film star. Instead, he strummed his guitar for Edmundo Ros at the Stork Room and became compere at the Blue Angel night club in Mayfair, where he was later to hang out with Paul McCartney, Jane Asher and Tony Armstrong-Jones. Far from disapproving, his father was happy with his musical career, coming to watch his troubador son in London clubs such as Esmeralda's.

In fact, Harrison was to be a household face in the UK before The Beatles, thanks to a regular TV slot on Tonight, appearing alongside his mentor, the black British folk man Cy Grant. The producers Bob Chardoff and Irwin Winkler spotted him and whisked him across the Atlantic and into the supper clubs of New York. Good reviews for a show in the Living Room on Second Avenue resulted in an appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show

His career was taking off but Noel certainly wouldn't have been fazed by the high life. Harrison family friends included Tyrone Power, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and David Niven, not to mention Rex's menagerie of fair ladies, Kay Kendall, Lilli Palmer and Rachel Roberts. For his part, Noel was suave, urbane and quite capable of tumbling down a flight of stairs while firing off a hand gun and kissing a girl for his Girl From U.N.C.L.E. screen-test. He had, after all, been in the British ski team, becoming its first giant-slalom champion. With this sort of English-public schoolboy pedigree he soon became a fixture in the Los Angeles scene.

"I was at a party at Tony Newley and Joan Collins' house in '66," he recalls. "Sinatra, Dean Martin and Barbra Streisand were all there, and they all got up and sang. I was in Newley's study smoking weed when the cry arose, 'Cary Grant's arrived!'. I did a stoned double take when he walked through. Sinatra took me aside and told me: 'Stick with the music kid.'"

Noel, it seems, agreed with Frank. "I didn't want to act any more," he says. "I'd decided I didn't like the theatre, actors or acting." His father had previously warned him about the insecurity of the acting profession: "He was worried that I'd turn out like my mother, far too easy-going. And that's how I did turn out."

During his super-celebrity period Noel lived up to his image for the anglophile American crowd in Los Angeles. "I was good boy-toy material." And with his income from The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., Noel was able to splash out. He bought a house with stables in Brentwood, where Steve McQueen and James Coburn were his running partners. "McQueen used to bring the latest martial arts devices around for inspection. He had a mask with a powerful spring that you attached to the table which he practised karate on. I said, 'If I were you, Steve, I'd just get a gun.' We used to race down Mulholland Drive. I had the first Mini Cooper 1275S in LA, and I'd burn off the Porsches." Austin Powers eat your heart out.

For the cover of his 1966 debut album, Noel Harrison, he was photographed sitting inside a fridge, reading Jean-Paul Sartre. "God that was pretentious," he laughs. But, he admits, he loved the mauve suede suits, the hand-tooled boots, the buttons and bows. Three more albums followed, but Harrison will forever be remembered for "Windmills Of Your Mind", the only song he never chose for himself. "Thomas Crown producer Norman Jewison asked for me," he recalls. "He sent Michel LeGrand over to teach me the melody.

"Marilyn and Alan Bergman coached me with the lyric. I asked them, 'What the hell's this about then?' because they were very straight. They'd started with the idea to write about everything that was round. I didn't think much of it really, but it's been a godsend - people still write me letters saying it gave them emotional sustenance. It has a mantric, healing quality." Ironically, the song didn't make him much money and he didn't sing it at the Oscar ceremony, where his place was taken by Jose Feliciano.

"That was a drag. I was doing a movie in England called Take A Girl Like You, with Oliver Reed and Hayley Mills, and the director took against me. Can't remember his name [it was Jonathan Miller], but he wouldn't let me go back to LA to sing my song." As retribution Harrison turned his back on England and sold his house on Hurlingham Road in Parsons Green, which he had rented out to Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones' svengali. Loog Oldham described his landlord as "light and sprightly" and used the place as a headquarters for the Stones and Marianne Faithfull. They moved their collections of yellow canaries and leather rhinos in next to Noel's stuffed hummingbirds. David Niven would pop by to collect Noel's post.

After disastrous sales on his fourth album, The Great Electric Experiment Is Over (1969), Harrison decamped to Nova Scotia, grew a bushy beard, donned Osh Kosh overalls and built a house from scratch with no electricity, inspired by the then-fashionable pioneers Scott and Helen Nearing and their self-help bible, Living The Good Life. One day the wood stove caught fire and the house was razed to the ground, so Noel rebuilt it with monies earned from touring musicals in America and hosting a singer/songwriter TV show for called Take Time for Canada's CBC channel.

By his own admission, he'd fallen into the 'didn't you use to be Noel Harrison?' category in the Seventies, reduced to attending autograph signing conventions for faded celebrities. Going back to Los Angeles he worked in a newsagents and ran an apartment block for impoverished Armenians. He claimed his American Screen Actors' Guild pension, and bottles of tequila were consumed of an afternoon.

"Later on I played my famous father's card. When times were hard in the Seventies I toured America in productions of Camelot, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. But I always acted for money and sang for fun."

By all accounts, Rex was a difficult father. He had the power to turn his son into a nervous wreck even when Noel was in his fifties. "He was pretty tough on my mother. He was tough on everyone," says Harrison. "On his death bed he used to have a hairdresser come round so he could insult the man. We made our peace eventually," he says wistfully. "I wish he was alive now [Harrison died in 1990]. I think we'd have a lot of fun."

Every so often Noel revisited old mates. He saw Paul and Linda McCartney, during a Wings tour, and was delighted when Mrs Macca gushed "not the Noel Harrison!" in his presence. A backstage pass for Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review was an equally tragi-comic experience. "Bob looked me up and down and all around, bobbing and weaving in his enigmatic way. I told him that's exactly what you did the last time you met me."

Friendships with Donovan Leitch and Leonard Cohen offered greater sustenance (Harrison was one of the first British interpreters of Cohen's songs). "Len and I had a good chat a couple of years ago. We were reminiscing about the Sixties and he suddenly said, 'Noel, keep moving and they'll never catch us'."

Life Is A Dream brings the sails of the windmill full circle. Harrison is back in Britain now, with his third wife, and helping his daughter - one of his five children - run a cyber cafe on the edge of Exmoor. He still sings, putting on occasional gigs at the homes of aristocratic friends and finances his own CDs; he speaks with pride of his grandchildren being able to see what the old man used to do with such Úlan, when he was the kind of star whose face appeared on bubblegum cards.

"I'm available for work, so maybe this CD will kickstart me again," he muses. "In London I use public transport and the other day I saw an advert: bus drivers wanted. If I wasn't too old I'd toy with that idea. The trouble is," he sighs. "in this business you're always worried where your next job is coming from."

'Life Is A Dream' is out now on Rhino/Reprise