Those who remember her at all tend to fall into two categories: die-hard Pierce Brosnan fans (especially those old enough to remember the Remington Steele era), and James Bond enthusiasts. Those in the former group will know her as the late wife of the now-Hollywood heavyweight, while those in the latter category will remember her as the fake countess opposite Roger Moore.
In spite of her ravishing beauty as well as a life story that is every bit as intriguing as that of a character from a Hollywood script, her presence has largely been for their eyes only.
From the seaside village of Avalon Beach, Australia amid the cessation of the second world war to the "woman behind the curtain" of her husband's career in Hollywood, Cassandra Harris was a multi-faceted character of her own making. While she would never make it big time as an actress herself, Pierce Brosnan might not be the Pierce Brosnan we all know had she not come along.
This is the first installment of the biography of Cassandra Harris.
The Early Years
In the most immortalizing image most have of her today, Cassandra Harris is clad in a long blue gown and diamond jewelry, traipsing through a casino as the Austrian mistress Countess Lisl. Just moments later, however, our protagonist (Bond... James Bond) learns of her double life; she's actually from Liverpool, and lives in a modest beach house on the shores of Corfu.
This was not the first time nobility of questionable repute, against real life on a picturesque seaboard, would find its way into Cassandra's background. Friends from her childhood would recall her often claiming that she had an aristocratic mother, and Cassandra herself was even once quoted as saying that her "noble origins" did not mean much in Australia "because it's such an egalitarian society."
It turns out that, though, that while she may have had a penchant for storytelling and stretching the truth on occasion, there is indeed a German baron in Cassandra's lineage - several, actually - by the name of von Stieglitz, even if a bit further up the family tree than she may have let on (they would have been her 4th and 5th great-grandfathers, respectively).
While the old family lure caught her fancy, it had no bearing on her upbringing. Cassandra was born to parents Walter "Wally" Waites, a builder and salesman hailing from Melbourne, Victoria, and Roma Alfreda (nee Atkinson), a hairstylist from Narrandera, located in the Riverina region of southern New South Wales. The couple had married in Glebe, an inner-western suburb of Sydney, in 1940.
They went on to have two daughters, welcoming the first of whom in Sydney, the month the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, on December 15, 1941. They named her Sandra Colleen Waites.
Young Sandra (as she was called then) would spend her early years in Sydney before moving with her family to the nearby seaside town of Avalon, on the Northern Beaches peninsula. Avalon takes its name from Arthurian Legend, after the paradisal final resting place of King Arthur, and by all accounts - as well as a quick glance at the photos - the land was aptly named. Its crystalline shores against mammoth triassic rock formations are the heart of its ambiance.
It was a "true blue" (that is, authentically Australian) childhood within these confines. Some of Sandra's fondest memories would be made over Christmas holidays which, Down Under, fell in the middle of summer.
"I remember the heat, the countryside, and the pure white beaches," she would later recount. "And I also recollect - and it seems ludicrous now - at noon we all trooped inside to stuff ourselves with the traditional Christmas lunch." Preceding this big feast, children would spend the morning outdoors in search of the elusive and rare "Black Prince" cicada - a kind of cricket - which flourished in the area. "It was a real triumph if you found a black prince," she said.
One particular holiday, when she was about ten years old, Sandra and her family stumbled upon more than just a black prince. "On Christmas eve," she said, "some kangaroos came into our garden and knocked down all the vegetables. In the morning when my father inspected the damage, he found one tiny baby kangaroo, about two feet long, that had been left by its mother for some reason. He brought it indoors and told me that Santa had sent it to me as a present."
She proceeded to wear an enormous apron with a giant pocket in front all through Christmas. The "baby 'roo," as she called it, kept jumping into her apron pocket, as if she were its mother. "Those are the kind of memories which make Christmases past so precious," she reminisced.
It was around this time that Sandra also began to show an enchantment with movies and theater. Another early memory weighing prominently on her mind was a time she innocently approached a box office attendant at a local cinema and asked him, "What do I have to do to be a film actress?" Her first acting appearance - on any stage - according to her For Your Eyes Only biography was to portray a weasel in a children's play at a local Sydney theater. It was also around this time that Sandra - supposedly - began her formal training at Sydney's prestigious Independent Theatre.
"All my life, I'd wanted to act but somehow I'd never discussed it with my mother," Sandra told the Australian Women's Weekly in 1971. "And I didn't know stage schools for children even existed. They told me at the theatre that parents paid fees for their children's classes, and I knew my mother couldn't afford the fees, so I decided to try for a scholarship."
In a crafty stratagem, Sandra phoned the theatre posing as her mother and claiming to have a talented daughter. She was granted an audition, for which she performed a speech of Oberon's from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, and they accepted her for classes with Independent's founder and director Doris Fitton "every evening after school."
This was all news to Independent Theatre historian Benita Harvey Brebach, however, though not necessarily total fabrication. While Sandra's name appears nowhere in the Independent's records, these saved files mainly chronicle the theatre's headliner shows. Said Brebach, "She may have studied acting there and appeared in student and children's productions, but no major productions."
Surely any ten-year-old who recites Shakespeare with poise and convincingly impersonates her mother over the phone would impress as a fine young actress. Then again, Sandra's worst habit, according to her closest friends, was her propensity for storytelling, usually fueled by personal fantasies. Whatever the validity of Sandra's stint at the Independent Theatre, the major productions she had envisioned would be a long way off. When Sandra was around eleven, her parents divorced, and like most children of divorces, Sandra hardly took the implosion of her nuclear family in stride. One friend from the time remembered her harboring bitter feelings toward her father following the break up. Wally Waites, however, would naturally deny that assertion, and to his credit, remained in the picture of his daughters' lives.
Sandra's mother, Roma, soon remarried to a Sydney native by the name of Ronald David Gleeson, who was a machinist by trade. Both Sandra and her younger sister Diane assumed their stepfather's surname. The new marriage would also bring them a new sister, Christine.
As a teen, Sandra attended Narrabeen Girls High School (now Narrabeen Sports High School) from 1955 to 1957. In her second year, she received the honors of "History Prize" and "Most Improved Girl," but left at the end of her third year upon passing the Intermediate Certificate Examination, an exit exam enabling students to leave high school before completing graduation.
Summers were usually spent with her family at a popular local holiday resort called Palm Beach, also part of Sydney's Northern Beaches region. It was there where Sandra would meet her best friend in her teenage years, Denice Reynolds.
"We spent most of our time in the sea or on the beach," Reynolds (now McDougall) would later recall. She went onto describe Sandra exuberantly and as a person who, unlike most adolescents, already knew what she wanted to do with her life. "She was popular, full of life, loyal to her friends, and adventurous. Nothing got her down. She got on well with her mother and stepfather, and if there was a party, it would usually be at her house because her parents were very relaxed about that sort of thing."
Sandra had confided in Denice about her career goals, which centered around her childhood dreams of acting and modelling. "She certainly had the face and figure for it," Denice said. "She was tall and slender with long legs and a beautiful facial structure."
Professional Beginnings And A First Romance
Sandra had been working for a real estate agent after leaving high school, and decided to finally make a serious attempt at fulfilling her childhood dreams.
In 1960, Sandra enrolled in Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). The now-world class professional training institution was the first of its kind in Australia, and with teaching having begun in 1959, Sandra was among its first classes of trainees.
Her first year was marked by playing minor roles in several student productions, however, in July of 1962, she managed to score the lead in a production of Thornton Wilder's Skin of our Teeth. The show would be directed by Norman Philbrick, a visiting American professor from Stanford University. A review of the play in the Tharunka Kensington stated the following: "Sandra Gleeson had the biggest part, and her only problem was to sustain the 'exuberance' -- she almost did." Sustaining exuberance at this time would have been no easy feat; Sandra would lose her mother to ovarian cancer just a few weeks after giving this performance.
While at the NIDA, Sandra met Bill Firth, an aspiring architect who was taking a building course at the affiliated University of New South Wales. Firth would go on to become a well-known Sydney architect and businessman, but not without first falling head over heels for the striking thespian from Avalon. According to him, the two met through a friend. "She wanted to borrow some tights, so I lent her a pair of my sister's and then asked her out," he said.
Meanwhile, Sandra remained at the NIDA for one more play (in a supporting role), and then dropped out before the end of the course. She made her television debut in 1963, in the Sydney production of the British screen play, The Long Sunset. Following, she and Bill Firth would marry in 1964, on the heels of her first paid acting gig as the sexy German airline stewardess in an adaptation of the French comedy Boeing, Boeing. The show premiered in Sydney's Palace Theatre.
Boeing Boeing's featured role was played by British luminary Peter Jones, famous for starring in the hit BBC sitcom, The Rag Trade. He would later remember Sandra as "a delightful girl."
For Sandra's new husband, however, living with her could be just as maddening as it was delightful. "I loved Sandra very dearly at first," he later recollected, "but she wasn't averse to stretching the truth and this landed her in all sorts of trouble. I found it difficult to cope with because you never quite knew what was for real."
Best friend Denice Reynolds recalled similar interactions. "The further Sandra went in life the greater her imagination grew," she said. "In every interview I read, she had knocked at least eight or nine years off her age. I learned to take a lot of what she said with a pinch of salt."
Following a successful run in Sydney, Boeing Boeing subsequently toured the country, visiting Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth. Though the long-awaited beginnings of a dream come true for Sandra, her new itinerant lifestyle proved an additional nail in the coffin for her marriage. "It wasn't much fun being on my own in Sydney with Sandra hundreds of miles away," Bill Firth said. The couple divorced, but remained friends.
Despite the woes of her personal life, Sandra's professional life seemed to be on the rise. She landed a part in the popular Australian talk show Beauty and the Beast, in which "Beast," Stuart Wagstaff, along with an all-female panel, discussed problems presented to them by viewers. She was also cast as the female lead in one of renowned director Bruce Beresford's first ever films, entitled Five Days. Her role was that of the girlfriend of an American GI on leave from Vietnam. An unruly imagination and "stretching the truth," would soon prove far from her biggest sin when she would shock her country's then-conservative television chiefs by filming one scene nude in the movie, hand in hand with her co-star, on a moonlit beach. Even though it was far from a pornography scene - an artistically shot silhouette from back view - it was enough to get her fired from her role on the Beauty and the Beast panel.
"I received a letter saying I was sacked," Sandra would later reveal. "I couldn't believe it because the picture was really a very tender, romantic love story - and we weren't actually naked anyway, we wore body stockings."
Still, she was frequently hounded about the risque scene, and by the late sixties, her career had come to a standstill, and Sandra decided to take her talents to "swinging" London.
Proceed To Part 2 & 3
- The Complete Biography of Cassandra Harris (Part 2)
Part 2 of this series.
- The Complete Biography of Cassandra Harris (Part 3)
Part 3 of this series.
- Australian Stage Credits
Cassandra's early acting credits, dating back to her days as a student at Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in the 1960's.
- IMDB Profile (Australian Credits)
Only her television debut of "The Long Sunset" is listed.
- "There's Nothing Like an Irish Lover" -- Australian Women's Weekly
Australian Women's Weekly feature on Cassandra (as Sandra Gleeson), dated January 20, 1971.