An Ode to the Dumbledores
Updated: Oct 26
On October 1st of 2002, legendary Irish actor, Richard Harris passed away from Hodgkins Lymphoma. Not only was this a tragic loss for the acting community and Ireland, but it also had a great effect on the series Harris was starring in: Harry Potter. Harris made a splash in the first two Harry Potter films but unfortunately passed away before the second installment could be released. The world lost its first Dumbledore. On September 27th of 2023, the world lost its second Dumbledore when Sir Michael Gambon passed away from Pneumonia.
So to celebrate the lives of these two amazing actors and the role they had in common, let's look back at the actors who once got to call themselves: Dumbledore.
When two different actors play the same character, it's hard not to compare them and try to decide which is the superior version. Although Richard Harris and Michael Gambon's portrayals of Dumbledore are wildly different, there is strength in their differences, and comparing the two is neither necessary nor productive. There is plenty to celebrate in both of their performances, and the fact that there are two actually makes the franchise stronger.
The Harry Potter franchise is a series packed with interesting and complicated characters in terms of both heroes and villains. There isn't really a role that isn't difficult to play but Albus Dumbledore remains one of the most nuanced and complex characters, a challenge for any actor. It takes a special kind of actor to portray the greatest Headmaster Hogwarts has ever seen. One must be able to convey is expertise, patience, wisdom, confidence, and an air of importance that can only accurately be described as "Dumbledore-ness."
While Gambon might have been in more films, Harris was the original Dumbledore. His portrayal highly contrasts with his counterpart's, but that doesn't make it any less strong. Harris' Dumbledore is the stereotypical wise, old wizard with long white hair and an even longer beard, and I believe he is the most accurate portrayal when it comes to the earlier books in the series. Harris' Dumbledore is very soft-spoken and patient, but most importantly, there is an air of benevolence and well-meaning nature to his version of the character that Gambon's does not have. The audience trusts him, the characters trust him, and you never get the feeling that Dumbledore has something to hide. You can tell it was a role initially meant for Ian McKellen because of how he undeniably resembles the gentle yet powerful wizard, Gandalf from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Although the majority of people prefer Michael Gambon's portrayal of Dumbledore, his version would simply not work in the first two Harry Potter movies, and that's because of their stories and how they are filmed. During The Sorcerer's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and his two best friends are for the most part, innocent children, they have gotten into plenty of trouble and shenanigans but their misfortunes rarely seem sinister. Chris Columbus directed the first two film installments in a way that makes them great family movies. They have beautiful, classic soundtracks by John Williams, the characters are fresh-faced, lovable, and curious. They are films where the audience can sit back and marvel at the new magical world they have just discovered through their screens. It is a world of whimsical hijinx with high stakes and a positive message. It is a world meant for a gentler Dumbledore, the one Richard Harris plays. Although I can absolutely understand why some people prefer Gambon, there is no doubt that these movies would not be as good if one of the pivotal characters did not fit the tone of the film.
Richard Harris was not only a great actor, but also a cultural icon in Ireland. To this day there are statues of him throughout the island, especially in his beautiful hometown of Limerick, which just so happens to be my mother's hometown. While it's a shame he couldn't stick with the franchise for longer, Ireland and of course, my mother, will always have a special place in their hearts for Richard Harris.
When people think of Dumbledore, they probably envision Michael Gambon's version first and foremost, and reasonably so. Gambon not only starred in six of the eight Harry Potter films, but also starred as the character during his iconic death and also took over right around the point in the series where Dumbledore was becoming his own fully-formed character.
At the same time the series changed its Dumbledore, they also changed its director, and that could not have come at a better time. Michael Gambon's first performance as Dumbledore was in The Prisoner of Azkaban, which still remains one of the most revered in the series. At the same time, Alfonso Cuarón took over as director, leading to a much grittier, darker interpretation of the iconic story. The lighting is no longer warm and cheerful, scenes are dingy and grey with an almost Twilight-esque appearance. It is during this movie where the main trio starts getting into the most danger they have faced so far, the film includes much more death, misery, and serious subjects than its two predecessors. Alfonso Cuarón masterfully directed this movie, and casting Michael Gambon as Dumbledore was just what the film needed to cement the new, darker tone. Unlike Richard Harris' portrayal, Gambon's Dumbledore is not nearly as gentle or trustworthy, he is brooding and wise but lets his emotional show much more, and his sheer power is almost intimidating.
It is at this point in the series where some real, permanent villains were beginning to be established, and Dumbledore needed to be a wizard that the audience could believe was feared by the other side of the magical world, Gambon does this perfectly. In The Goblet of Fire, we even see Gambon's Dumbledore let his emotions get the better of him in terms of anger, frustration, confusion, and regret. In a lot of ways, he seems much more imperfect and human than Harris' version. Continuing Harris' Dumbledore past more than the Columbus films would have been a mistake and the films would not have had as much of an impact.
The passing of Michael Gambon is also another tremendous loss for Ireland, this time for the other side of the island, in Dublin, where he was born. But his legacy will still live on through the countless amazing performances he gave throughout his career.
Despite the tragedy of both Richard Harris and Michael Gambon passing away, they both made memorable, lasting contributions to the Harry Potter franchise by both leaving and arriving. And although both of their portrayals are very different, they both brought their own kind of uniqueness to the character in ways we will never forget.
In the past few years, J.K. Rowling has almost completely tarnished the legacy of Harry Potter with her bigoted views, but it is because of people like Harris and Gambon that the series will still be seen in a good light. So thank you both, for giving performances that millions of people still hold dear in their hearts, and thank you for contributing to a series that made so many childhoods better.
Suaimhneas síoraí, gentlemen.