By Carol Wallace
March 24, 1986 12:00 PM

This was an occasion. Everyone knew it. Nearly 12 years had passed since ex-Beatle George Harrison had faced the press. Judging by the forced smile on his face, he wouldn’t have minded waiting another dozen. But there he was on March 6, eyeball to eyeball with 75 clamoring reporters at London’s chic private club the Roof Gardens. At his side was that coolest of the cool blondes, Madonna. By contrast, Harrison looked like an uneasy film exec, and in a way he was. Since 1978 Harrison had quietly turned movie mogul, financing small British films that might otherwise have languished. Few industry outsiders knew about his connection with the company HandMade Films, which suited George just fine. Now Madonna, 27, and her new husband, Sean Penn, 25, had blown Harrison’s cover. The nattering newlyweds do nothing quietly, so when Harrison sunk $15.5 million of HandMade’s funds into a romantic adventure for the Penns called Shanghai Surprise, he should have seen trouble coming. He didn’t. After just six weeks of shooting in Macao, Hong Kong and London, it appeared that the only return on his investment would be a jumbo ulcer.

No sooner did the Penns start filming in January than things heated up. In Macao, Sean’s bodyguards had roughed up a photographer. Later the film’s well-liked veteran publicist, Chris Nixon, was fired at Penn’s insistence for suggesting that Sean and Madonna pose for photos. In Hong Kong, co-executive producer Harrison visited the set and delivered a strong lecture to his stars. All was quiet until Feb. 21, when the crew arrived in London. For starters, a photographer claimed that Madonna‘s Mercedes limo injured his foot. In Madonna‘s defense, that lens-man had sprawled across the hood and fallen off. But war had been declared. There followed a near daily chain of nasty events, causing a bad case of filmus interruptus for HandMade. Overzealous newshounds complained they were being roughed up or hosed down by thuggy security types. Then Polaroid photos of Sean and Madonna intended for the director were stolen; the petulant Penns reportedly refused to work until the culprit was unmasked. Harrison’s HandMade partner, Denis O’Brien, eventually persuaded them to go to work—after five hours of filming time was lost.

That’s when Harrison, who knows something about pandemonium, took charge. Now 43, George was only a few years younger than Sean and Madonna when he made the ’60s Beatles films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! “We were really a handful then,” George once recalled. “We’d get the lines wrong and fool around on the set. It must have been hell working with us.” Harrison suggested the charm method of disarmament with the press, a tactic that had often worked for the Beatles. It was he who decided to call both sides together. Says one observer, “George was trying to get Sean and Madonna to treat the press with a sense of humor.”

Good strategy; bad execution. At the London press conference, intended as a truce, George got defensive when reporters asked about the conspicuously absent Sean. “He’s busy. Working,” said George, dismissively. Later he intercepted sticky questions that were aimed at Madonna. “Do you fight with Sean?” somebody asked. “Do you row with your wife?” countered George. For her part, the composed Madonna, speaking slightly above a whisper, revealed how she felt about Harrison. “He’s a great boss, very understanding and very sympathetic,” she said, then allowed that “He’s given me more advice on how to deal with the press than how to make movies.” Harrison scolded the press for its guerrilla tactics. “You’re all so busy creating a fuss, then writing about it as if we’ve created it for the publicity,” he said.

C’mon, George, someone said. What were you expecting?

“We expect nonanimals,” he replied.

“Speaking of animals,” someone said, “is it true that Sean was giving orders to everybody on the set?”

So much for conciliation.

For Harrison, who is steadily earning respect as a top film producer in Britain, the Shanghai shenanigans couldn’t have been more unwelcome. He had rarely been seen in public in the past decade and had seldom granted interviews. Yet those who know him saw the press conference as an encouraging sign that he was finally coming out of his shell. Another sign: George’s appearance on Carl (Blue Suede Shoes) Perkins’ January Cinemax special, Harrison’s first concert performance in more than a decade. “I think in some ways he is just recovering from being a Beatle,” says Monty Python pal Michael Palin. “I think he’s deciding now that he can’t live locked away all the time.”

HandMade, which Harrison established with American investment banker O’Brien, was the start. The company’s initial project was to bail out Monty Python’s Life of Brian, an irreverent spoof of religion, which had lost its financial backers. After the 1979 movie proved a hit, HandMade sought other properties. So far the company has released 11 films, including Time Bandits, The Missionary, Privates on Parade and A Private Function. Last January Harrison and O’Brien were cited by the London Standard for their contributions to England’s film industry. Harrison is more than a silent partner. He helps choose the movies that will be made, offers casting suggestions, occasionally turns up on the set and, in the case of Shanghai, serves as music director and has a cameo as a nightclub singer.

He hasn’t completely turned his back on singing. Perkins coaxed him into appearing in the Cinemax show with no arm-twisting: He simply asked Harrison by way of a videotaped invitation that Perkins made at home and had delivered to George. “I thought I was wasting my time,” says Perkins, 53, “because I read he would never go before a live audience again.” But George seemed overjoyed to play with Perkins, the man who had greatly influenced his own guitar style. He also invited ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, who turned up, and Paul McCartney, who didn’t. Other guests included Eric Clapton, English rocker Dave Edmunds, country’s Roseanne Cash and three members of the now disbanded Stray Cats. Harrison went out of his way to put people at ease. “There’s no pretense about him, none,” says ex-Stray Cat Jim Phantom. On the night of the Cinemax taping last October at London’s Limehouse Studios, it was George who was the bundle of nerves. He stood backstage wringing his hands and smoking—something he had given up. Indeed, when he first came out on stage to furious applause, it looked as if rigor mortis had set in. But after his opening song, Everybody’s Tryin’ To Be My Baby, George relaxed and took command. Raves Phantom: “He can still play and man, he sings like a bird still. Just fabulous.” Said another eyewitness: “Afterward, he couldn’t stop talking about it. You really got the idea the performance bug was biting again.”

Prior to the show, Harrison gave a dinner for some of the entertainers at his Victorian mansion outside London. “He just opened the door himself in jeans, a sweater and his slippers,” recalls Cash. “He was very sweet. He has a genuine personality that just wants things to be good.” After a dinner of pasta, mussels and red wine, the rockers jammed until 4 a.m., playing rockabilly numbers in George’s lavish music room. As a gift, Harrison gave Perkins a book on religion.

Harrison seems to have found the contentment that eluded him in the ’60s and ’70s. Back then, he dabbled in drugs and pursued his search for inner peace by plunging into Eastern religions. After a creative stretch that yielded hits such as What Is Life? and Bangladesh, George entered a long dry spell. The years following the Beatles breakup in 1970 were filled with legal battles that go on to this day, and his financial affairs were a mess. A 1974 tour of the U.S. and Canada with Ravi Shankar was poorly received by fans and critics, and in 1976 Harrison lost a plagiarism suit that cost him $587,000 and helped to sour him on the music industry. The court ruled that he had “subconsciously” used the melody from the 1963 Chiffons hit, He’s So Fine, for his 1970 ode, My Sweet Lord. At the same time, his 11-year marriage to model Patti Boyd, now 41, ended in divorce; two years later she married his pal Clapton.

In the late ’70s, he cemented his relationship with O’Brien. Harrison had finally found somebody he could wholly trust, as he had the Beatles’ manager, the late Brian Epstein. And as HandMade’s boss, George had also discovered a new outlet for his creativity. His personal life settled down as well. In 1978, after a four-year romance, he married Olivia Arias. The wedding to the Mexican-American Arias, a secretary at George’s Dark Horse recording label, took place five weeks after the birth of their son, Dhani (Hindu for “rich man”). Now, says Dave Edmunds, “he has his life organized just the way he wants it.”

Harrison speaks warmly of those days with “the Fabs” but only when prodded. “He’s not a great reminiscer; I wish he would reminisce more,” says Palin. “I remember a wonderful evening when he sat down and started to play some Beatles numbers and he couldn’t remember the words.” When Eric Gardner, ex-manager of the Stray Cats, had dinner with Harrison in January, he gave him a tape of a 1964 Beatles concert, unsure how he would react. As it turned out, “It opened the floodgates,” says Gardner. “He talked about them all through the meal.”

These days George’s time is mostly spent in his 30-room mansion, Friar Park, in Henley-on-Thames, 35 miles west of London. He bought it in 1970 for $336,000 from an order of Salesian Sisters and has spent a reported $2.25 million restoring the 100-year-old edifice. It has 14 bedrooms, six baths and a state-of-the-art recording studio (he put that in, not the nuns). A staircase from the dining room leads to vast underground caverns, where one emerges into a reproduction of Capri’s famed Blue Grotto. The 35-acre estate, tended by George’s older brothers Harry and Pete, also has three lakes. A vast garden is looked after by eight workmen, one full-time botanist and the most passionate gardener of them all, Harrison. “I think his greatest ambition is to get his garden looking right,” says Palin. Adds Zion Yu, a friend and L.A. acupuncturist who treats Harrison: “He knows all the plants by name, just how much water they need and just how the sun should hit them both morning and later in the day.” One of Harrison’s rare public outings was to the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show in 1984.

Harrison’s friends say his wish for seclusion should not be mistaken for monasticism. “Whenever I’ve been to his home,” says Palin, “there have always been 10, 15 people drifting in and out.” George once said the press portrays him as a Howard Hughes: “When I tried to keep out of the limelight, people thought it was a gimmick. They couldn’t believe I simply wanted to live like this.” Perhaps, but as Palin notes, “I think he wanted to lie low, especially after the Lennon shooting.” Indeed, George has admitted that since the murder, he is “absolutely terrified” of going out in public.

He is still an auto racing fan and turns up at international events. He practices yoga, meditates and enjoys Indian music and rock ‘n’ roll, mostly the oldies. Once a strict vegetarian, he now eats some chicken and fish, and loves sashimi. Friends include Clapton, Ravi Shankar, Edmunds, Ringo (they partied on New Year’s Eve) and the Python gang. Religion remains important to him, but, Palin says, “I think he’s absorbed as much as he can, and he’s not on the quest, the search for truth as he once was.” Notes another friend: “In 1980 his conversation was laced with metaphysical stuff. That doesn’t show up in his banter these days.”

Harrison is also a doting father. In 1981 he arranged for Dhani to visit the Los Angeles set of TV’s CHiPs, a show the boy adored. “What I saw in the father was great devotion, love and gentleness,” remembers Erik Estrada, who starred in the series. “His whole thing was that little boy.” Dhani is driven to a local school in a gold-colored Mercedes; Pop has four Porsches to get around in.

Harrison also maintains homes in Australia (he’s building a secluded mansion overlooking the Great Barrier Reef) and a clifftop hideaway in Hana on the Maui coast. The home is said to contain a $3,500 carved oak toilet seat, resembling a church pew, that plays Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds when the lid is lifted. When Julian Lennon played at Honolulu’s Waikiki Shell last year, the first call he received was from well-wisher Harrison, who flew in to catch Julian’s act.

There is no doubt that Harrison puts the film business lower on his list of priorities than playing the role of country gentleman. “I just do gardening,” he said with a shrug, drawing a huge laugh at the press conference. “I really like the quiet life.” He won’t see much of that until the Penns are safely out of Britain next week. Until then, he might do well to dig deep into his own repertoire and console himself with something a very wise ex-Beatle once wrote: All Things Must Pass.