Friday, November 05, 2004

Star’s son is singing success

With My Fair Lady actor Rex Harrison as his father, Noel seemed destined for a showbiz life - but he found his own path to fame.

Children of famous actor parents can either bask in reflected glory or cut it on their own. The latter has been true of the offspring of the most prominent British theatrical dynasties: the Mills, the Miles, the Redgraves - and, of course, the Harrisons.

For Noel, son of Rex Harrison - star of My Fair Lady and Doctor Doolittle - a career in the world of entertainment seemed inescapable. But he chose his own path.

"My father never wanted me to be an actor - the stage was his bailiwick," he says.

"Anyway, I wanted to do my own thing and I have always considered myself as a musician first."

While the billboards of the West End seem the natural place for the name Harrison, Noel's first London engagement in a long time will be in the intimate surroundings of Lauderdale House, where he will present his cabaret show on Sunday November 14.

Noel, who has returned to live in England after 40 years in America, has enjoyed a successful career as a musician, writer, cabaret entertainer and, inevitably, actor.

Before he emigrated to America, he was one of a team who sang the day's news in calypso on the popular BBC Tonight programme and came to notice as a cabaret singer.

As the genes would out, he appeared on TV and in films, most notably in Where the Spies Are and The Best of Enemies, in which he worked with David Niven.

"I went off to America in 1965, where my career initially was as a nightclub entertainer and I worked such venues as San Francisco's Hungry I and at the Persian Room in New York," he says.

"I scored a Top 20 success with the song A Young Girl, written by Charles Aznavour, and from New York I moved to Los Angeles, where my career took another upwards turn when I was cast as the co-lead with Stefanie Powers in The Girl from UNCLE."

That led Noel to being offered numerous guest appearances in top TV series of the day, among them the original Mission Impossible, To Catch A Thief, the Laugh-In and the entertainment spectaculars starring Andy Williams and the comic Jerry Lewis.

The high point of his Hollywood period came with his Oscar-winning soundtrack version of The Windmills of My Mind, written for the original Thomas Crown Affair.

He then briefly returned to Britain for a part in Jonathan Miller's film Take a Girl Like You alongside Hayley Mills and Oliver Reed.

In 1972, he bravely turned his back on Hollywood glitz and headed off to the wild coastal lands of Nova Scotia, where he literally built his own home.

"I suppose you could call it on-the-job training, but with generous neighbours on hand to give valuable advice, I built a home that had no electricity and an outside loo," he recalls.

"But what I gained from the simple life was tranquillity and the bonus of a wonderful view of the north Atlantic coastline."

Despite his move to the Canadian backwoods, Noel's career continued with Take Time, a show about songs and songwriters.

"I used to emerge each year to tour the US in plays and musicals," he says. "And, yes, I did play Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. I asked my father, as it was probably his greatest role, whether he would mind.

"He told me: 'Go ahead, everyone else is doing it.'"

Noel's other touring roles included King Arthur in Camelot, Count von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, Brian Runicles in No Sex Please, We're British and Lloyd Dallas in Noises Off.

With the rural idyll over, Noel returned to Los Angeles and resumed his singing and acting career, appearing in shows such as The Young Guns and The Tracy Ullman Show.

Ever the versatile and creative spirit, he worked as a screenwriter on a number of series - Vercingetorix, Cuba Libre and The Valley of Hinnom - and, in a more risqué mood, the softcore Emanuelle series.

An admirer of Jacques Brel, the great Belgian modern-day troubadour, Noel created a smash hit one-man show, Adieu Jacques, that has toured extensively.

He continued to act in films and won very good notices in leading US dailies for his part in Henry Jaglom's film Déjà Vu, in which he appeared with Anna Massey.

He also played a dotty millionaire in Norman Gerard's independent film The Murder at China Basin.

Before the millennium Noel, who holds dual British and American nationality, decided to return home.

He retains a quintessentially English character and when he speaks there are traces of that keen-edged accent and timbre that was the Rex Harrison hallmark.

Married three times, he has now set up home at Ashburton, in Devon with his wife, Lori, a theatrical and advertising stylist. He has one daughter and a stepdaughter living nearby.

The theatrical and musical strain is undiluted in the succeeding generation with one of his daughters, Cathryn, a successful screen, TV, stage and radio actor, and a son, Simon, who is also an actor.

Closer to his own career track is Noel's other son, Will, who lives in New Hampshire and works as a musician and songwriter.

Noel has two other daughters, Chloe, who works in the record industry, and Harriet, who trains horses.

If you were to ask Noel what was his favourite thing, the odds-on answer would be his guitar, a constant companion and with which he has played country, folk and bluegrass music.

Clearly, contentment is the major element of this phase of Noel's life, but not to the exclusion of the drive to entertain and create. Indeed, the ideas keep coming.

"I want to do a generational thing with my daughter Cathryn, an exploration of the father and daughter relationship. We are just talking at the moment, but come back and speak to me a year from now".

With his own background and father-son relationship in mind, it will be fascinating to see what Harrisons generation two and three come up with.

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