October 28, 2002 01:10 PM

The hell-raising Irish-born actor Richard Harris, who died peacefully in a London hospital Friday, may have been irrepressible, but he is not irreplaceable.

The death of the star, whose last role was that of the professorial old wizard Albus Dumbledore in the first two “Harry Potter” movies, will force Warner Bros. to find a replacement, the Associated Press reports. (Warners, like PEOPLE, is part of AOL Time Warner.)

Shooting of the movie series’ third installment, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” is scheduled to begin in March, with Harris having been contractually bound to reprise his role, according to the studio. (The second movie, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” is set to open Nov. 15.)

“Azkaban” director Alfonso Cuaron, who will take over for the series’ departing director Chris Columbus, has not yet commented, but Warners chief executives Barry Meyer and Alan Horn issued a statement expressing their “deep and heartfelt condolences” to the Harris family. They declined to comment on the future of the Dumbledore role.

“We will find a new Dumbledore but there will only be one Richard Harris,” “Potter” producer David Heyman told Britain’s ITV Saturday.

Harris’s first big Hollywood movie was for Warner Bros., the lavish 1967 musical production “Camelot,” in which he played King Arthur. Even by then, Harris, who rose to prominence in the 1963 British film “This Sporting Life,” had been labeled by the movie press as one of the bad boys from England, Wales and Ireland. Their hard-living club also included Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Robert Shaw (“Jaws”) and Peter O’Toole.

Harris, who was 72, took ill this year after filming “Chamber of Secrets,” and on Oct. 15 his agent, Sharon Thomas, announced that he was being treated for cancer — though she added that he would likely be well enough to make “Azkaban.”

On Saturday, Thomas issued a statement saying that Harris’s family will remember him at a small private funeral in London before scattering his ashes in the Bahamas, where he had a home.

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