Obituary: Noel Harrison, singer and actor

Noel Harrison: Windmills of Your Mind singer was also British Olympic skiier. Picture: PA
Noel Harrison: Windmills of Your Mind singer was also British Olympic skiier. Picture: PA
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Born: 29 January, 1934, in London. Died: 20 October, 2013, in Devon, aged 79

Noel Harrison’s life reads like one of those 18th-century doorstopper novels where everything that can happen does, the hero goes from rags to riches and back again, and one far-fetched adventure follows another.

The son of a world-famous film star, Noel Harrison began his own showbiz career singing in a Greek restaurant in London. Seeking his fortune in the New World, he landed a starring role in the hottest television show around – The Girl from UNCLE – and recorded one of the coolest songs of the 1960s – The Windmills of Your Mind.

Michel Legrand’s beautiful, swirling melody and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s romantic, enigmatic lyric were perfectly complemented by Harrison’s sweet vocal, with every word enunciated like poetry, in a rendition at odds with the mumbled vocals of so many singers of the time.

It helped too that the song served as the soundtrack for Steve McQueen as the playboy-thief, looping the loop in his glider, in the classic 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair.

Harrison was paid $500 and did not think much about it at the time. Almost half a century later The Thomas Crown Affair is firmly established as an all-time classic.

As if that was not enough, Harrison had previously been a champion skier who represented Britain at the Olympics. And when his fortunes dipped he wrote scripts for Emmanuelle on television.

Latterly he moved back to England and lived quietly in Devon, apart from an appearance at the Glastonbury festival a couple of years ago, by which time he was in his late seventies.

He was born Noel John Christopher Harrison in London in 1934, the son of Sir Rex Harrison, Oscar-winning star of My Fair Lady. His parents split up when he was young and he spent most of his time at boarding schools, which he hated, and with his mother’s parents in Cornwall.

At 15 he joined his mother in Switzerland, showed an outstanding ability at slalom, was national champion and skied for Britain at the Winter Olympics in 1952 and 1956.

He had a brief spell at Ipswich Repertory theatre company, did national service in the army and considered journalism and motor racing as careers before deciding to try his hand as a professional singer.

In 1958 he began doing a regular spot on the BBC programme Tonight, singing the news in calypso style. He also began getting small roles in films and television.

In the mid-1960s he moved to the US, where he had a minor hit with Charles Aznavour’s A Young Girl of Sixteen. He had a passion for French songs and would later create his own show around the works of Jacques Brel.

He claimed to be the first person to record a Leonard Cohen song and get it played on the radio and his version of Suzanne gave him a second US hit. He managed to showcase Bob Dylan and Cohen, along with theatrical, doom-laden French songs, while maintaining a screen image akin to a sexier version of Val Doonican, complete with polo-neck.

The Man from UNCLE was already a phenomenal success by the time he was cast in The Girl from UNCLE in 1966. The original show began in 1964 and tapped into the market created by James Bond. The Girl from UNCLE starred Stephanie Powers as agent April Dancer and Harrison was her partner Mike Slate.

Harrison’s image appeared in comics and on bubblegum cards and other merchandising. By this juncture he was no longer just Rex Harrison’s son, but an international star in his own right.

There was a unique family double when Rex Harrison sang Talk to the Animals in Doctor Dolittle and it won the Oscar for best film song of 1967, and then Noel Harrison sang The Windmills of Your Mind and it won the following year.

Harrison was at the peak of his career, in terms of fame and fortune, too busy to sing at the Oscar ceremony, because he was away filming Take a Girl Like You with Oliver Reed and Hayley Mills.

He said later that celebrity status brought him all sorts of perks and attention, including a mansion in Los Angeles, with pool and stables, and “pretty women all over you”.

But his marriage collapsed, and his first wife returned to England with their three children. He turned his back on “the goldfish bowl” of fame and fortune. He and his second wife bought a farm in Nova Scotia and grew their own food.

And when the farmhouse burned down he rebuilt it himself.

He also had his own television show in Canada and appeared in a string of touring stage musicals, including Camelot, The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady – after getting his father’s blessing.

However, he ran out of money, returned to Los Angeles, made guest appearances on shows such as Hart to Hart and The Love Boat in the 1980s and wrote scripts in the 1990s, including a couple for the Emmanuelle in Space soft porn television series.

His third wife was Lori Chapman, a Hollywood stylist who had worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mickey Rourke. In 2004 they moved to Devon, where several of his children and grandchildren were living.

They came for a visit, but his wife liked it so much that they stayed. He continued writing songs and performing, playing concerts in local halls.

The day before he died he was on the phone to his son Will talking him through the chords of Windmills of Your Mind. He played that night at the village hall in Black Dog in Devon and the following day he spoke to his son on the phone again, his final words were “I love you.” He suffered a heart attack and died holding his wife’s hand.

He is survived by his wife and five children from his earlier marriages.