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

Marcus Williamson
Tuesday 22 October 2013 19:19

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.

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