Noel Harrison: Actor and singer best known for 'The Windmills of your Mind'

Noel Harrison was the voice of the haunting 1960s classic "The Windmills of your Mind", the song which was first heard on the soundtrack for the film The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). It won an Oscar for best original song and became a UK chart hit the following year. "It's an amazing song," he said recently. "I don't get tired of it at all. It's almost like a meditation quality, the images keep shifting."

Harrison was born in London in 1934 to the actor Rex Harrison and his wife, Collette Thomas. His parents divorced when he was six and he moved to Bude in Cornwall, where he lived with his maternal grandparents.

When he was 16 his mother gave him a choice, as he recalled: "Would you like to stay at Radley and try and get a scholarship to Oxbridge, or would you like to come and live with me and try and get into the British ski team?" He chose the slopes of Switzerland, playing and training hard and becoming British giant slalom champion in 1953 and competing at the Winter Olympics in Norway in 1952 and Italy in 1956.

Following national service, Harrison began playing guitar professionally during the 1950s, initially in London and later touring Europe, before moving to the US in 1965. He adopted the chanson style of Jacques Brel, one of his favourite singers, and with his English accent and handsome looks found immediate success. His first hit was "A Young Girl", taken from his album Noel Harrison (1966). The piece, written by Charles Aznavour for Edith Piaf, recounts the fate of the girl who falls in with the wrong man: "A young girl / A young girl of sixteen / Child of springtime, still green,/ Lying here by the road. / Dead."

Chart success and Hollywood family connections brought him a leading role in The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., a spin-off from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., in which he co-starred with Stefanie Powers. "I was part of the 'British Invasion' spearheaded by the Beatles," he recalled. "I bought a nice house in Los Angeles. There was another US charts record ("Suzanne", by Leonard Cohen), and four years of endless TV appearances, theatre tours and star-studded social occasions. My wife and children and their friends enjoyed the house, the stables and the pool while I careered around the USA raking in the bucks."

The music for "Windmills of your Mind" was by Michel Legrand, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The piece was written for the film The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), starring Steve McQueen in the title role of the millionaire businessman who thinks he's pulled off the perfect heist, and Faye Dunaway as Vicki Anderson, the insurance agent who goes after him.

The film's director Norman Jewison wanted a musical accompaniment to the scene in which Crown pilots a glider, turning circuits in the sky: "Like a circle in a spiral / Like a wheel within a wheel / Never ending or beginning / On an ever spinning reel." The inspired addition to the soundtrack brought soaring success both for the film and for Harrison. The tune won best original song at the Oscars in 1968 ("Talk to the Animals", sung by Rex in Dr Dolittle, had won the previous year). It spent 14 weeks in the UK charts, peaking at No 8 in 1969.

"I'm afraid that, for me, recording 'Windmills' wasn't a very significant moment," he later confessed, "It was just a job that I got paid $500 for, no big deal. Norman Jewison ... liked my voice and picked me to sing his film's title track. The composer, Michel Legrand, came to my home and helped me learn it, then we went into the studio and recorded it, and I thought no more about it!"

But Harrison found that stardom did not suit him and left him yearning for a simpler way of life. When his wife returned to England with the family he set off across the US in a touring caravan with a new partner and found a 300-acre farm in Nova Scotia, Canada. However, by the 1980s his dream of self-sufficiency had not come to fruition: "The problem with living in the backwoods is you soon become like everyone else … broke. Looking for easy money we went back to LA, where I was greeted with great disinterest." He created a one-man show Adieu Jacques, about the life of his hero Jacques Brel, which he toured across the States and produced as a compilation album.

Harrison returned to Britain in 2003 and made his home at Ashburton, Devon. In 2010 he released the album From the Sublime to the Ridiculous! and the following year played at the Glastonbury Festival Spirit of '71 event. "I'm very honoured to be asked to do the festival," he said at the time. "There definitely will be a sense of the older generation passing on the flame to the younger one. I want to evoke the sense of idealism that led me to take off in the Chevy, trying to seek out a simpler life. I'd like to pass it on in what I sing and play."

Harrison, who died following a heart attack, had been suffering from kidney disease.

Noel Harrison, singer, actor and Olympic skier: born London 29 January 1934; married firstly Sara Tufnell (marriage dissolved; one son, two daughters), secondly Maggie (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), thirdly Lori Chapman; died Ashburton, Devon 20 October 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Support Workers - Mother's Help / Buddy Support Role

£8 - £11 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A gentleman with congenital achondropla...

Recruitment Genius: Training Officer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Training Officer is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Specialist - Document Management

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A leading provider of document ...

Recruitment Genius: Legal Secretary

£17000 - £17800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to work ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent