In the Sahara With Richard Harris

The veteran actor describes some of the epiphanies connected with his portrayal of Abraham

GOD works in mysterious ways. Certainly, Richard Harris believes so.

We are sitting in the sweltering Sahara sun under a tiny scrap of shade provided by a single umbrella. The desiccated, rust-red land stretches uninterrupted as far as the eye can see. After 10 weeks of shooting, Harris has just finished his final scene for ``Abraham'' - to be aired internationally (on TNT in the United States) on April 3. ``Abraham,'' scheduled to be shown as two 90-minute movies, will in fact be the first installment of a highly ambitious, multinational, 30-hour retelling of the Old Testament. Harris, who plays the title role in this initial production, is clearly delighted with how the filming has gone. ``Every day was magic,'' he says.

But more than that, the actor is convinced the cast and crew were not working entirely alone. He cites the previous day's shooting of the patriarch preparing his son, Isaac, for sacrifice to God. As usual in this area of the world, it was a very warm, still day. ``Yet, when the camera turned with me holding the child up - a hurricane,'' recounts Harris, shaking his head. ``I don't know. Coincidence? I think: maybe it was a gift. Maybe it was. Who knows? But I'll tell you, it was frightening.''

He also tells of filming the moment when God comes to Abraham and promises him and his descendants the land of Canaan. Three wind machines were on hand to blow a nearby tree. Simultaneously, they all broke. But the director ordered the crew to proceed anyway. ``And when the camera was turned on,'' Harris says, ``the winds howled down from the mountains and blew that tree, not to mention the whole area. And when the director said, `cut,' it stopped. And when he said `action' again, it went. Now I know people reading this will say, `Ah, come on, Hollywood rubbish, press rubbish.' But it's absolutely true.''

Light-years from Hollywood

Harris says the opportunity to portray the Biblical figure was particularly fortuitous. ``After the kind of Rabelaisian life I've lived,'' he muses, ``you get to the stage when you realize you are not indestructible. And you begin to think.... So the part caught me at a very good moment.''

When questioned further, the actor confides that such thoughts, as a direct result of playing Abraham, have taken a profound turn. `` `Abraham' has definitely changed me in my private life,'' he remarks.

Apart from his knees bouncing up and down virtually non-stop, Harris does indeed give the impression of a more serious, contemplative man than might be imagined. ``It's been a terrific spiritual influence, very deep and very moving. I can't tell you how. All I know is that I'm totally uplifted by it.... You know, mostly in movies you get 60 percent or 80 percent of it right. But, in this one, it seemed to have been like somebody was on the phone to me, telling me what to do. It was very strange.''

Harris has earned high praise from cast, crew, and resident ecumenical scholars alike. Script co-adviser Vincenzo Labella, who was on the film set every day, echoes the conclusions of the many others with whom I spoke when he says that the actor's portrayal of Abraham was ``absolutely superb ... a true masterpiece.''

In a movie career that spans more than three decades, Harris has done only a single film for television. He says he decided to accept this second one because Abraham is not merely a marvelous role, but, equally important to him, it was light-years form ``Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston romping in the desert in Palm Springs.'' Having done John Huston's ``The Bible,'' which he promptly dismisses with the shorthand epithet ``very Hollywood,'' Harris makes it plain that if ``Abraham'' had been a purely American film, he wouldn't have touched it.

In fact, American executive producer Gerald Rafshoon, director Joseph Sargent, and co-star Barbara Hershey aside, the rest of the team is largely European. ``There is no American influence on the film - at all!'' Harris says, when the subject is raised. ``Let's get that quite clear.''

Is he glad about that?

``Yes I am, except for the producer, who is a good guy,'' the actor concedes.

Does he believe an all-American rendering of the Old Testament would have been unacceptable to him?

``Now you want me to say something very wicked here,'' retorts a smiling Harris, playfully wagging a finger. Then, choosing his words carefully, ``The artistic side of this picture is Italian - the designers are Italian; the cameramen are Italian.... I think [Italians] are such tasteful people. Let's just say they have put the right teams together, and this is the correct temperament to make the Bible.... This is not a spaghetti Bible, I can assure you.''

No `special-effects' God

Indeed, costume designer Enrico Sabbatini (``Marco Polo,'' ``The Mission''), and set designer Paolo Biagetti have taken three years to research and develop the look of the film. It's apparent every effort has been made to ensure that this is a very different interpretation of the Bible, unlike anything cinematically that has been seen before. All the correct fabrics, designs, and building material - straw, mud, and clay, for instance, and absolutely no marble, which is the great anachronism of most Biblical films, since marble was not used until much later - have been meticulously researched and adhered to.

``We've shot a movie without frills,'' Harris says.

Producers have also carefully chosen the landscape - the area around Quarzazate, in southern Morocco, which has been virtually untouched since pre-Biblical times - to help create the feel of the film.

``Look around you,'' Harris says, pointing to the breathtaking barrenness surrounding us. ``That's $30 million-worth of production value. That in itself helps the whole texture of the piece and helps you play the part, so it's not fake.''

As for the depiction of God - obviously a sensitive issue, judging by Harris's combustive reaction when the subject is raised - the actor emphasizes that the film's Bible scholars have agreed, despite past celluloid incarnations, God did not address the patriarchs in direct anthropomorphic fashion. ``It's like you go into meditation,'' Harris explains. ``Abraham was endowed with a spirit ... and he speaks to himself. There is no Hollywood rubbish of lights on trees! I wouldn't have done the picture if they did that. That's a special-effects God.''

Harris believes, given the artistic sensitivity and scholastic integrity that has gone into this film, that it has a good chance of making a greater-than-average impact. ``I think those who are exposed to it will see the tragedy of the [current] situation in the Middle East,'' Harris says.

``I mean the real tragedy that this man, Abraham, fathered both religions, and he gave them a very simple way of life. And now look at them. And the Christian Church also gave us a simple way of life, but look at the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.... We've really screwed it up.''

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