The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Ed Harris
By Mother Brain
When we talk about character actors, we often think of Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, Gary Oldman, Robert Downey, Jr., etc. They have a way of molding into their characters so well, you can believe that the figure of fiction they are playing is real. Ed Harris, on the other hand, was an actor I never put into that character actor category until recently. I used to believe he was separated at birth from Peter Weller because they had the same steel blue eyes and sharp jawlines. He could have been a great replacement for Robocop after Weller quit the role. Now when I think about Harris’ body of work, it’s much more diverse than I realized.
The future Oscar nominee was the middle child of a middle class family in Englewood, NJ (later raised in Tenafly). He initially had aspirations to play football has he captained the Tenafly High School football team in the late 1960s. His athleticism landed him recruitment as well as enrollment at Columbia University. While playing football for the school, Harris attended some local stage productions that inspired him to make the switch to acting. Although sports gathered him attention, acting was more of a personal fulfillment for him and he never looked back. His parents would move to Oklahoma two years into Harris’ time at Columbia and he would end up dropping out, moving back with them, and enrolled in the theater department at the University of Oklahoma.
In 1973, Harris moved to L.A. and continued his studies at the California Institute of the Arts where he received his BFA and would spend the rest of the decade performing in local theater. He made a few TV appearances on shows like The Rockford Files and Lou Grant during the late 1970s and made his film debut as a pathology resident in the Michael Crichton thriller, Coma. His first leading role in film came in 1981 as the King Arthur-influenced motorcycle bad boy, Billy, in George Romero’s Knightriders. Unlike his previous horror flicks, Knightriders was Romero’s first attempt at drama and Harris was given a great deal of freedom in his collaboration with him. They would work together again the following year in the “Father’s Day” segment of Romero’s anthology film of Stephen King writings, Creepshow. This would not be the last time Harris would be involved in a Stephen King story.
Harris’ breakthrough year came in 1983 when he played astronaut John Glenn in Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff. His uncanny resemblance to Glenn won him the part and the film’s critical success helped to launch his career alongside Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, and his good friend Sam Shepard. Although most of his film work after Right Stuff was forgettable, Harris earned more success on the stage when he was nominated for a Tony Award for the Broadway production of Precious Sons in 1986.
1989 saw Harris in two films that made him one of the most sought after character actors in Hollywood. First he teamed opposite Robert De Niro in Jacknife, the story about two Vietnam veterans facing their demons and getting caught in a complicated love triangle. It earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Next, Harris headlined James Cameron’s underwater epic, The Abyss. The story about a U.S. rescue team encountering an unusual species in the deep ocean was the most difficult shoot in Harris’ career. As Bud Brigman, Harris had to undergo diving training to prepare for the underwater sequences and during the shoot, his suit was filled with liquid and he held his breath while towed 30 feet below the surface of a water tank. It nearly drowned him which was just one of many incidents on a grueling six month schedule that left Harris and the cast completely wrecked. Though the film was a critical hit and groundbreaking for its early use of CGI, Harris refuses to discuss the film. Yet, his performance and his complicated relationship with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio got the industry buzzing.
There was uncertainty about Harris accepting his next role as an Irish gangster in State of Grace after the injuries on The Abyss set, but he still managed to pull through despite nearly losing the role to another actor. Again, Harris delivered the goods acting alongside heavyweights Sean Penn and Gary Oldman. This set the tone for most of the early 1990s as Harris delivered five star performances opposite Al Pacino in Glengarry Glen Ross, Tom Cruise in The Film, Max von Sydow in Stephen King’s Needful Things, Sean Connery in Just Cause, and Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon.
In 1995, Harris played NASA flight director Gene Kranz in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. Instead of astronaut training like he had for The Right Stuff, Harris prepared for his role at a flight controller school with the real flight directors from the Apollo 13 mission and studied hours of video to understand the techniques and language of the job. It paid off big time and Harris received several accolades including his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The following year, Harris made an interesting bad guy turn as General Hummel in Michael Bay’s The Rock. The role was the brain genius of the late producer Don Simpson who based him on a real American soldier who criticized the government for failing to acknowledge the deaths of soldiers on covert operations. Harris effectively conveyed a sense of honor and nobility while taking terrorist-style tactics to get his message across. Films such as The Rock and Jacknife made Harris a major activist in supporting hospitalized veterans. Harris also collaborated with Clint Eastwood and Gene Hackman in the thriller, Absolute Power, followed by Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon in the romantic comedy, Stepmom.
More critical acclaim for Harris came from his role as a mastermind of the ultimate reality show in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. He was the last minute replacement for Dennis Hopper in the role of Christof, the ambitious creator of the fictional world that Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank lives in. It was another unusual antagonist role for Harris who had to come across as a surrogate father keeping Truman safe from the real world while also dictating his destiny at all costs no matter how much Truman desires to leave his home to pursue true romance. The final scene with Harris on the loudspeaker talking to Carrey in a godly voice to make him stay is chilling to watch and listen to. He won his first Golden Globe for the film.
In 2000, Harris starred and made his directing debut as the famous abstract artist Jackson Pollock in the self-titled biopic. It was a childhood dream of Harris whose father gave him a copy of Pollock’s biography as a kid and he spent a whole decade trying to bring it to screen. He would do all of his own painting and cast good friends like Marcia Gay Harden, Val Kilmer, and his real life spouse Amy Madigan in various roles. It earned universal acclaim and another Oscar nomination for Harris as Best Actor.
Harris seems to get better with age for every film he stars in: The figment of Russell Crowe’s imagination in A Beautiful Mind, a poet diagnosed with AIDS in The Hours, a German major in Enemy at the Gates, the blue collar restaurant owner in HBO’s Empire Falls, a mob hitman in A History of Violence, and a dirty Boston detective in Gone Baby Gone. With each performance, Harris delivers something different, captivating, and simply elevates any material no matter how excellent or sometimes mediocre (i.e. National Treasure 2 and Milk Money).
In 2012, Harris won his second Golden Globe for his depiction of Senator John McCain in HBO’s Game Change, the story about the 2008 Presidential Campaign. Like many of Harris’ past performance, he brought complexity to a unique public figure. Unlike the Senator McCain we’re used to seeing these days on television, Harris played him as a man of honor whose constantly conflicting with the politics of the Republican party as well as his own ego. I’d say Harris’ work made many people on the left look at McCain differently the film aired.
Recent work from Harris includes an inspirational high school English teacher in WWE’s attempt at a serious drama, That’s What I Am, a Miami detective in Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain, a voiceover cameo as the Mission Control in Gravity, and the mysterious Wilford in the underrated sci-fi thriller, Snowpiercer. He also played the voice of Jason Hudson in the video game, Call of Duty: Black Ops. Harris will be coming to series television in 2015 as the Man in Black in the small screen remake of Westworld for HBO. What more can be said about the man? He’s like a fine wine that’s just getting better with age.