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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Proust as Captain Laure Berthaud in 'Spiral'
tvReview: Gritty, engaging and well-acted - it’s a wonder France’s biggest TV export isn’t broadcast on a more mainstream channel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Carmichael in still from Madam Bovary trailer
film
News
i100
Sport
Serena Williams holds the Australian Open title
sportAustralia Open 2015 final report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing