For a few brief months, I was in the good books of the features editors at The Times. I’d written some well-received profiles and investigations and they wanted more.
So when I suggested interviewing the actor Richard Harris in Morocco, where he was playing the title role in a biblical epic Abraham, they said ‘Sure.’ I paid a visit to the cash office in Wapping to pocket a few hundred quid in expenses and booked my flights.
Harris was holed up in Ouarzazate, on the cusp of the Sahara, at a film studio. Outdoor scenes could double for the Middle East: Outside the small town there were barely any signs of human life.
I hired a car and driver in Marrakesh and we set off through the Atlas Mountains, his ancient vehicle creaking up the hills. The wrecks of cars and trucks littered the roadsides, which was ominous.
At the film studio there was drama straight away. Maximilian Schell, playing Pharaoh, stormed off set and drove away in a cloud of dust. The producers had asked him to shave his chest to look like the smooth-skinned hieroglyph images and he refused.
Back at his hotel, Richard Harris treated me to an hour and a half of reminiscence, philosophy, industry gossip and sports chat. He had the most extensive collection of pills and potions I’ve ever seen, warding off heart conditions, high blood pressure and goodness knows what else. Despite decades of celebrity, he was remarkably open and engaging. I really enjoyed his company.
When I cheekily quoted Steven Berkoff writing about hellraising actors who give up drink (as he had) and then boast about it “as though they’ve climbed Everest”, he let loose a furious volley of invective, making me concerned that I’d provoke some medical emergency. But he eventually calmed down and returned to his anecdotes.
The next day, my driver kept chivvying me to leave and go back to Marrakesh. “What’s the hurry?” I asked, since I was paying him for the whole day and it was still morning. He wouldn’t say, but was insistent, so we set off.
It turned out that his car had no lights, so he needed to get back before dark, or else we’d be adding to the roadside wrecks. We made it just in time and I set off into the souk to spend my expenses money on some leather trousers and cowboy boots.