From the PEOPLE Archive: Pierce Brosnan Remembers the Wife He Loved and Lost to Ovarian Cancer: 'She Made Me the Man I Am'
Look back on PEOPLE's 1992 cover story on the British actor, as he reflected on his wife's memory four months after her death — and the profound impact she had on his life
Pierce Brosnan, who stars in AMC’s new Western series The Son, recently opened up about losing his wife and daughter to ovarian cancer. Look back on PEOPLE’s 1992 cover story on the British actor, as he reflected on his wife’s memory four months after her death — and the profound impact she had on his life.
WHEN HIS AGENT PHONED PIERCE Brosnan in early March to tell him that his latest film, The Lawnmower Man, was a box office hit—a Brosnan first—the 39-year-old Irish-born actor remembers how he “whooped and hollered” with his two boys, Christopher, 19, and Sean, 8, in the country kitchen of their sprawling fieldstone-and-stucco Malibu Hills house. Later he would share the good news with his daughter, Charlotte, 20, a student at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. But at the time, still euphoric, Brosnan decided to go out to the garden to deliver the happy message to his wife, Cassie, who died last December of ovarian cancer at age 39.
“Cassie used to sit in that chair over there, under these trees, so I just went there and I talked,” Brosnan says, reminiscing poolside at his hilltop home, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean. “I told her, ‘Well, darling, I know you’re up there moving the pieces around.’ ”
In fact, during their 14-year marriage, Cassandra Harris, an Australian-born actress, had always kept the pieces in motion—nurturing her husband’s career, pushing him to try new things, even deciding they should move from England to America in 1981. Last summer, despite her illness, she encouraged Brosnan to take on The Lawnmower Man, a science-fiction thriller in which he plays a scientist who turns a retarded gardener into a superhuman genius. And last fall, as Harris’s condition deteriorated, Brosnan shot Live Wire, an action thriller—expected to be released this August—that casts him as an FBI agent who defuses bombs. “I did it because Cassie said it would be good to do,” he says. “She has made me the man I am, the actor I am, the father I am. She’s forever embedded in every fiber of my being. She’s there with me every day. I was so blessed to have met someone like that.”
Four months after his wife’s death, Brosnan seems energized by memories of Harris so powerful and so resonant that she is almost a presence in that chair in the garden. Yet conjuring her can be an ordeal. “There is an incredible cruelty in it all,” he observes, “losing a person you shared everything with. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever experienced bereavement, and it’s overwhelming.”
The grief can strike unexpectedly. “If anybody saw me driving on the Harbor Freeway the other day,” he says, “they must have thought there was a lunatic in the car. Before you know it, you’re screaming at the top of your lungs, ‘Why? Why?’ ”
Yet sometimes, after raging, he will start to laugh. “Cassie never tolerated sentimentality,” he explains. “She comes gently to me and touches me on the shoulder to say, ‘Come on. Buck up. Enough of this.’ ”
What especially buoys Brosnan are the happy times they shared. “Cassie and I were rogue genes that just met in life,” he says. Actually it was a mutual friend who introduced them in London in the mid-’70s. Brosnan was appearing in Filumena, a play directed by Franco Zeffirelli. He had ridden a bicycle to his friend’s house, his pants bunched at the ankles with bike clips, his hair slicked back for his role in the play. “I looked absolutely ridiculous,” he recalled with Cassie in a 1983 PEOPLE interview. “But I was totally bowled over by this beauty.”
“I had no interest in him at all,” said Harris, the granddaughter of a German aristocrat and his English-born wife. Briefly wed to a fellow architecture student in Australia, Cassie later married British producer Dermot Harris (brother of actor Richard Harris), who died of a heart attack in 1986 and who is Charlotte and Christopher’s father; Cassie and Pierce had Sean in 1984. “Here was this funny-looking man with this short haircut,” she remembered thinking of Brosnan. “But we had much in common—acting, books, music—and once we started talking, we never stopped.” They were married in 1977.
Harris had moved from Sydney to London at 19 to join the National Theatre, but she had become best known for her role as Countess Lisl in the 1981 James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. She subsequently introduced Brosnan to Albert (Cubby) Broccoli, producer of the 007 epics, who wanted to make Brosnan the next Bond after Roger Moore. But not even Bond himself could have escaped from the ironclad contract that locked Brosnan into the final season of Remington Steele, the 1982-87 NBC detective series that had made him a star in the U.S. Instead, the keys to Bond’s Aston Marton went to British actor Timothy Dalton. “It wasn’t meant to be,” Brosnan says now with a shrug.
Subsequently, the big screen beckoned him, Harris and their children to India in 1987 for The Deceivers, in which Brosnan played an Englishman pretending to be an Indian. It would be the family’s last real holiday. Harris’s stomach was swollen, and she was feeling unusually tired. So when they returned to London in late November, she went right to her doctor, who ordered exploratory surgery the next day. “Life,” Brosnan says, “turned around on a dime.”
Harris’s surgeons discovered a malignant growth on her ovaries. “From day 1, we really had a fight on our hands,” says Brosnan. “This wasn’t a shadow or a small tumor—this had invaded Cassie’s being.” But his wife, he adds, “took her destiny in her own hands with incredible courage and grace.” She wisely questioned every prescribed treatment and decided which ones to take, which to reject. “You must,” Brosnan insists. “As frightened as you are, you have to second-guess. I was the quiet party, but I was always there for her.”
Still, there was a lot of pain: eight operations and chemotherapy for a year and a half. (The couple also tried holistic medicine and, briefly, macrobiotics, which they found of limited value.) After each session, Harris would go to bed until the nausea and fatigue passed. “Sean would sometimes play doctor,” Brosnan recalls. “He would nurse her, and then she would feel good and get on with her life—organize the children, plan my career, redecorate this house.”
She and Brosnan first saw the Malibu residence two years after Harris’s cancer was diagnosed and two days after she had undergone another chemo treatment. She was losing her hair and feeling rotten, but she hiked around the hilly, six-acre property, sliding downhill on her backside when necessary, then sat by the pool with her husband as they made the decision to buy. “This house has been such a comfort,” he says now, gazing across the pool. “The serenity of it gave Cassie so much joy.”
Even when she was very sick, recalls producer Jerome Hellman (Midnight Cowboy), a family friend, “you’d come into that house, and it would be all wellness. The kids would be screaming and leaping into the pool and doing somersaults,” while Harris watched from her chair.
But illness ruled their lives. They learned that Harris’s mother, who died of ovarian cancer when Cassie was in her teens, probably passed along a genetic susceptibility to the disease. Now Charlotte has regular checkups, and Brosnan urges any woman with a family history of ovarian cancer to do likewise. “This is a silent killer,” he warns, adding that there is a blood test, CA-125, that can detect tumor activity.
Gilda Radner, in her memoir, It’s Always Something, was one of the first celebrities to warn about the risk of inheriting ovarian cancer (four relatives had died of the disease), and she used to phone Harris daily, although they never met. Jill Ireland, who lived close to the Brosnans in Malibu, was another faithful friend. The women provided support for one another, but when first Radner died (in May 1989) and then Ireland (one year later), the Brosnans were devastated. “Still, Cassie’s resolve never diminished,” Brosnan says proudly.
Then he sighs and pauses. “I never asked Cassie if she was scared. I regret that. I didn’t want to ask, because she had so much fight.” But there were times, he says, when she would say, “I need you,” and those moments “cut like a knife.”
Last December, about a week before she entered Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Hospital in Los Angeles for the last time, she and Brosnan were lying together in bed. “I was in a helpless state of…confusion and anger,” Brosnan says haltingly. “She was comforting me. She said, ‘Please, darling, don’t worry. It’s just a life winding down.’ What can you do?” He falls silent. “Up until then there was always something, some new treatment,” he says finally. “But then the options got fewer and fewer. At the end, Cassie didn’t want to be resuscitated [by] any machines.”
In the hospital, Harris went into renal failure, and her body began shutting down. She told her husband, “I’m dying,” and he said, “Yes,” and they held hands and prayed. “I realized I was losing my Cassie,” he says solemnly. That Sunday, Dec. 22, Brosnan called a local priest, who arrived to pray with the couple (both Catholic) and left behind some pamphlets. One of them was the Book of Revelation. Brosnan began to read aloud from it while he stood at the foot of his wife’s bed. But, under stress, the words spilled out in a jumble. He stopped reading and said, “Darling, I’m making a pig’s ear of this. Here I am an actor, and I can’t even get these words in the right order.”
She whispered something that he couldn’t quite hear. So he put his ear to her lips, and she repeated, “Always an actor….” Those were her last comprehensible words to him. “It also [meant] ‘always a man, always a father,’ ” he believes. “It was wonderful to hear.”
It was two days after Christmas, on their 14th wedding anniversary, that Harris, still conscious and clinging to life, “began her journey,” as Brosnan puts it. His voice wavers but does not fail. His blue eyes, though moist, are clear and direct. “That was one of the longest nights of my life ever,” he says. At 9 the next morning, he called Christopher in Malibu and asked him to come to the hospital. About five minutes to 10, he says, “she began to go; it was time.” Then the phone rang—it was Charlotte calling from London. “I told her that Mummy was dying,” he says, “and her voice at the other end was calm. ‘It’s OK, Daddy.’ So I had Cassie in my arms, and I had Charlotte on the phone, and two minutes later Christopher came in the door, so we were all together. And that’s how she went to God….”
That afternoon, Brosnan went home to tell Sean. “I sat him on my lap and told him Mummy had died,” he says. “The tears came to his eyes, but they never fell. He just said, ‘It’s for the best, Daddy. She’s not in pain anymore.’ And that was it.”
Through their mourning, the family has become closer than ever. “You just feel more deeply now. You hug more deeply, you love more deeply,” says Brosnan. He and his sons play together, go to the beach and invite friends over for swimming parties, and Pierce talks to Charlotte by phone every day.
But he is also smart enough to know that their grief isn’t going to diminish soon. So he keeps an eye on himself and the children. He lets them see him weep, lets them know that he is lonely. And he asks them if everything is OK. Sometimes it isn’t. “I can see the pain in Christopher’s eyes, the absence in his heart for his mother,” says Pierce. An aspiring filmmaker, Chris has enrolled in a screenwriting course at UCLA. Sean, a third grader, has told Pierce he is happy talking only to his dad, but Brosnan has sought out a counselor for both son and father. He himself is an only child whose father, Tom, a carpenter, split with Brosnan’s mother (whose name he won’t divulge) before Pierce’s first birthday. She later left him with relatives while she went to nursing school in England. They reunited there when he was 11. “I know from my own childhood [that] there was enough [loneliness] bottled up, and I don’t want that to happen with Sean,” says Brosnan.
Then he brightens, throws his arms out in a gesture of joy. “I don’t want this to sound depressing,” he says. “There is still laughter in the house, believe it or not, and a great spirit of life. I have wonderful children and work!”
He will try to juggle both when Sean and Christopher accompany their dad on location to Yugoslavia later this year to film Death Train, an Alistair MacLean action thriller. On a recent afternoon, Brosnan was speaking to a visitor when his housekeeper, Roxanne, appeared, holding a phone message. Brosnan asks to be excused. When he returns, his step is jaunty, his handsome face wreathed in a smile. He has just clinched an NBC adventure series, Running Wilde, debuting this fall, in which he will star as Austin Wilde, an ex-racing car driver who writes for a motor magazine and tools around in a Shelby Cobra. Brosnan is particularly happy to have landed a TV series right now, he says, so that he can be “a daddy who goes to work in the morning and comes home at night.” He has also secured a co-executive producer credit, which will help him maintain a family man’s working hours. “Cassie,” he says, “would be happy with that one.
In the garden at that moment, Cassie might indeed have been smiling.
MICHAEL A. LIPTON
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Malibu