We take a look at Richard Harris’ performance as Albus Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter films.
For a generation of movie-goers, Harry Potter was a defining period of their lives.
Whether reading the books, watching the films, or both, fans grew up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione while experiencing their adventures from the comfort of home.
In particular, the film franchise beginning in 2001 helped bring the stories to life and capture imaginations.
Many key characters – such as the central trio, Hagrid or Snape, for instance, kept the same actor throughout all 8 movies.
Arguably the biggest recast throughout the entire franchise was for the role of Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts.
At this point, a handful of actors have taken on the role. However, only one has the honour of being the very first.
In the first two films, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning Irish actor Richard Harris played Dumbledore.
Harris died on October 25, 2002, at the age of 72. Chamber of Secrets, the second Harry Potter film premiered three weeks later.
Michael Gambon, another Irish-born actor, assumed the role of Dumbledore in the remaining films.
That being said, Richard Harris’ death presents an intriguing question for Harry Potter fans: What if he had lived?
After all, as fans have pointed out, he and Michael Gambon had very different portrayals of Dumbledore. How different would the films be if Harris had lived to star in all of them?
Let’s take a look at some of the main factors…
Unfortunately, when Harris took on the role of Dumbledore, he knew he was near the end of his life.
As the famous story goes, Harris declined the role of Dumbledore three times initially. Understandably, he did not wish to spend his final years roped into a film franchise.
His granddaughter, Ella, who was a child at the time, convinced Harris to take the role by saying she’d never speak to him again if he didn’t.
Furthermore, filming for the first movie began in September 2000.
While he would not have known for sure, Harris had approximately two years of life left. So, naturally, he appeared to be much more frail than he had been in his younger years.
This worked for the more family-friendly early films but would have been a problem later.
Especially in the latter parts of the series when Dumbledore is more of a feared duellist.
As excellent as Harris was, seeing Voldemort afraid of his Dumbledore would have been stretching credibility – even for a franchise about magic.
Had Harris been 10 years younger (as Michael Gambon had been) and in better health, who knows how it would’ve turned out?
Was Harris too grandfatherly?
One key point that Harris’ detractors bring up is his gentler Dumbledore vs Gambon’s harder-edged iteration in the later films.
Meaning, would Harris have been able to portray the more ruthless Dumbledore seen later in the series?
In my opinion, I think yes, he would have been.
Harris was a talented, versatile actor with the credits to prove it.
While younger generations mainly know Harris as Dumbledore, he played his fair share of hard men.
Perhaps the most notable example was ruthless landowner ‘Bull McCabe’ in 1991’s The Field – earning Harris an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Harris played the grandfatherly role to perfection and undoubtedly had the acting chops to add more layers to Dumbledore.
As directed by Chris Columbus, the first two Harry Potter films are perhaps the most book-accurate.
Therefore, it stands to reason Harris’ Dumbledore would resemble what people imagined while reading the books.
How Harris would’ve changed his performance under different directors remains a forever unanswered question.
That being said, Michael Gambon and the filmmakers undeniably took creative liberties with Dumbledore.
The finished product was more of a combination of JK Rowling’s creation, Michael Gambon’s acting, and a director’s vision.
Gambon’s Dumbledore was adapted to his acting style, therefore, creating a very distinct character.
At the very least, Harris had a different starting point to Gambon – whether his performance would have evolved in the same way will always be a mystery.