Richard Harris or Michael Gambon – which was the superior Albus Dumbledore?

There is an age-old debate in our fandom, one that has been raging ever since the theatrical release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004. Richard Harris – the phenomenal actor who had played the role of Albus Dumbledore in the first two Potter films suddenly passed away before the shooting of the third movie and was quietly replaced with Michael Gambon, a legendary actor in his own right.

Since the replacement, there has been some degree of controversy. Fans have often claimed that Gambon-Dumbledore does not exactly capture book-Dumbledore – and in some film sequences this difference is more, shall we say, highlighted than in others.

Fans may remember a key scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Gambon-Dumbledore becomes very… agitated, when confronted with the fact that Harry may have cheated to enter his name into the Tri-Wizard tournament.

On some level, this question is almost impossible to answer – perhaps even just a matter of opinion. And yet, from all the hardcore Potter fans I’ve ever spoken to about this question Richard Harris’ version of Dumbledore emerges as the true favorite, while Gambon’s performance is consistently viewed in the negative – (with fans regularly citing the scene above!)

There is an argument in the fact that Richard Harris, due to his age, (72 at the time of his death) likely wouldn’t have been able to perform many of the battle sequences that took place in the final films, so could a Harris-Dumbledore supporter argue that Michael Gambon was a truer Dumbledore in body and Richard Harris in attitude or spirit?

Given the fact both actors portrayed the wizened old Dumbledore to the best of their ability, perhaps we can’t really say one did a better job than the other. At the end of the day we need to keep in mind answers to these questions are essentially going to be different for everyone.

For myself, I’ve always favored the Richard Harris version. Sure – that may be because I grew up with that Dumbledore in mind, given that was the time I was first introduced to the magic – but I would say I’m also biased against Gambon because he never read the Harry Potter books.

But hey, I’m a purist.

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  • retailmanager

    I think we also need to consider the Director when we look at the question of Harris v Gambon. If you compare Gambon’s portrayal of Dumbledore across the four films he was in, in each he was different. Was this because each Director wanted to set a different mood for each film? Yes, I didn’t like Gambon’s portrayal of Dumbledore in “Goblet of Fire” but I thought he was truer to the character in “Order of the Phoenix” and “Half-Blood Prince”. Thinking of the characters in “Goblet of Fire” though, they all felt angry and louder than how I imagined them in the books. Its just a shame the “Half-Blood Prince” movie was so poorly done, it would have been so good to have seen more of the Harry and Dumbledore moments so we could have seen more of Gambon’s Dumbledore.

    • AlbusSeverus89

      Gambon was in five films, not four. Prisoner of Azkaban, Goblet of Fire, Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and the second part of Deathly Hallows, but not the first.

      And for three of those films, he worked with the same director, David Yates.

      I agree that it comes down to the director and, to some extent, the writer, in how a character is portrayed. And I agree that Gambon portrayed Dumbledore differently in Prisoner of Azkaban, than in Goblet of Fire, as well as the last three films.

      He nailed the role in Prisoner of Azkaban. Sadly, that was the worst movie by far.

      Goblet of Fire was a hiccup, both in his performance and in the director’s delivery.

      The last four films – David Yates’ films – were spot on all around.

      Richard Harris played Dumbledore how I imagined he should be, but the first two movies, overall, were weak. I love that Chris Columbus stayed faithful to the source material, but it didn’t win him any brownie points in the long run.

      Michael Gambon played Dumbledore better, if only marginally so.

  • livingsportsy

    both are good actors but how do you play the part to the best of your ability without reading the book! eek

  • A Smith

    Richard Harris was in a way blackmailed into the role by his granddaughter and yes, he had read the books. He will always be my Dumbledore, even though Michael Gambon wasn’t a horrid choice… he just wasn’t as good. But then… no one will ever be as good as Richard Harris.

  • Gemma Pecorini

    Reading the books aside – that’s a decision many actors make when approaching a role. Lots of the Game of Thrones actors decide the same. I think they were both perfect. Richard Harris was the perfect Dumbledore for a young Harry – a father figure and someone secure. Michael Gambon was perfect for the Harry who needed to learn to grow up and toughen up.

    I do think though that Michael Gambon, possibly due to his age and the fact he was younger than Harris and therefore more animated, is a better actor in the long run though.