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Ed Harris - Biography

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Ed Harris

Personal details

Name: Ed Harris
Born: 28 November 1950 (Age: 64)
Where: Tenafly, New Jersey, USA
Height: 5' 9"
Awards: Won 1 Golden Globe, nominated for 3 Oscars, 1 BAFTA

All about this star


Filmography: The Complete List

Complete this list: Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Miranda Richardson, Toni Collette, Eileen Atkins and . . . No, complete it with a male actor, a male actor who's bright, sensitive, courageous and strong enough to survive and shine amidst the greatest female cast in decades (if not ever). That's what was needed for The Hours, about the effect of Virginia Woolf on successive generations of women. They had to find that man, a real man who would have presence but wouldn't dominate. Russell Crowe? Too rough, too moody. Tom Cruise? Too megalomaniacal, too much of a film star. No, they needed a guy of actorly presence and great human dignity, who could convince but not feel the need to steal every scene. It simply had to be Ed Harris.

Harris spent the first period of his career as a guy everyone liked but no one could remember. Perhaps this was due to his rare talent and intelligence. Always imbuing his characters with conflicting personalities and desires, Harris never appeals directly to our baser instincts. When he's a hero, he has dreadful failings too. Thus people don't want to be him like they want to be Mel Gibson - because he's acting the part of a real person and isn't simply a celebrity actor playing himself. And when he's a villain, he has a clearly recognisable good side, or at least understandable. Everyone chuckles about the comedic nastiness of Anthony Hopkins's Hannibal Lecter, they quote his lines, they even gave him an Oscar and let him turn up on countless chat-shows doing that funny thing with his mouth. Yet, as Blair Sullivan in Just Cause, Ed Harris was the most convincing psycho-killer in recent memory and no one mentions it. This isn't simply because Just Cause is not a great movie, but because Harris was too disturbed, too turbulent, too real. Yet his incredible ability paid off in the end. Since Just Cause he's been Oscar-nominated four times.

Edward Allen Harris was born on November 28th, 1950, into a family of devout Presbyterians in Tenafly, near the Hudson River in Englewood, New Jersey. He describes the place as very middle-class, "a sort of idyllic Fifties thing, four miles from the George Washington Bridge". His father, Robert, was a singer in Fred Waring's chorus. Waring had been a popular dance-band leader in the Twenties and later recorded with the likes of Bing Crosby but, by the time of Ed's birth, he'd moved on from radio to TV, to even greater success. Robert would appear many times, notably on the Perry Como and Carol Burnett Shows.

Ed would grow up in Tenafly, along with elder brother Robert and younger brother Spencer, cared for by mother Margaret. Attending Tenafly High School, Ed did not participate in school drama projects, unlike many of his film-star peers. Quite the opposite, in fact. For all his famed sensitivity onscreen, at school Ed was a major jock. He'd hang around Tenafly with the other kids, with his collar up and his hair (he had hair then) combed into a quiffy pompadour (this was pre-Beatles), but what he loved most was sport. And, God was he good at it. Ed was a mere 5' 9", and not particularly fast, yet he starred in two disciplines, playing catcher in the baseball side and fullback at football.

In his senior year, Ed led the football team to the league championship, and won a sports scholarship to Columbia University. But here it began to go wrong - or very right, depending on how you look at it. As with many kids who spend their early years on the straight and narrow, college opened Ed up to a new world of possibilities. "It was just overwhelming to me, the amount of people and the noise". There was the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), there was marijuana. "You start experimenting," Ed later explained "You start thinking about things a little differently and you realise you've got to do something different with your life. I stopped playing ball".

So, in 1971, after his sophomore year, Ed dropped out and followed his parents back to Oklahoma (they'd both been born there and had recently returned), earning money with odd jobs like modelling tuxedos at the Oklahoma State Fair. Having become interested in attending the theatre, he soon began to join in and spent a year in Oklahoma University's drama programme, before dropping out to perform with local theatre groups. "At first it was about attention", he'd later say "people applauding. But as I got into it, I saw acting as a way of looking at life". Opened up by college, the counter culture and, maybe, drugs, Ed started listening to different music, reading different books, trying to appreciate art. Suddenly, those years spent perfecting his sporting abilities seemed wasted (though they certainly helped make him the extraordinarily deft physical actor he is today) and, now wishing to be an aesthete, he had to catch up.

As he gained confidence onstage, so he gained it off-stage. He'd always been terrifically shy with those he didn't know. He'd found conversation with a stranger absolutely excruciating. That began to change. He graduated through bit-parts to the role of King Arthur in Camelot, for which he received his first standing ovation. Now he knew where his future lay and, in 1973, he took off for Los Angeles, enrolling at the California Institute of Arts and, in 1975, graduating with a BA in Fine Arts.

In the meantime, he'd worked as a housepainter and lived in the Sierra Madres, renting the side part of a garage for $25 a month (he was actually evicted for non-payment of rent - a level of poverty he cannot quite believe today). He took what stage parts he could, always working, always trying to improve. Ed's very vocal when it comes to actors complaining about not getting film roles. "You do theatre!" he once said "You don't spend all your time worrying about TV auditions or getting new glossies of yourself. You wanna act? Act! It's not just a job, it's part of my life". He did A Streetcar Named Desire and The Grapes Of Wrath, Julius Caesar and Sweet Bird Of Youth, plus Are You Lookin', The Time Of Your Life, Cowboy Mouth, Learned Ladies, Kingdom Of Earth, Present Laughter, Balaam and Killers' Head, travelling all over California to learn his craft. Beyond this, he auditioned for film and TV parts, over and over and over again. Finally, he got a role in an episode of the TV series Gibbsville, mostly penned by John O'Hara (though Michael Mann would write one episode) and seeing John Savage as a Yale dropout returning to his Pennsylvania mining town home to work on a local newspaper. Not unlike Peyton Place, the series would feature such guests as Joan Collins and George Hamilton, but would be cut after just seven episodes. Nevertheless, it was a start for Harris and he still remembers weeping in his car on the way home from the audition, elated with his success "after years of horrible interviews where casting directors treat you like dirt".

Gibbsville would lead to a run of minor roles throughout the late Seventies. He'd appear in Delvecchio, a series following the investigations of LA policeman Judd Hirsch, a detective also studying to be a lawyer. There'd be the TV movie The Amazing Howard Hughes where Tommy Lee Jones would play the maverick millionaire. Harris would play a pathology resident in Michael Crichton's Coma, where Michael Douglas would discover patients being murdered for their vital organs. Then there'd be an episode of The Rockford Files, three of Lou Grant, and one of Barnaby Jones, where Harris would be a counsellor in a drug rehab centre for young offenders who gets involved in dealing and murder (also appearing in that episode would be a 19-year-old Sean Penn and a 21-year-old Madeleine Stowe). Beyond these there'd be the miniseries The Seekers, where a pioneer family tried to make a life for themselves in America, the show featuring George Hamilton and a very young Eric Stoltz. And there'd be the supremely dodgy The Aliens Are Coming where creatures from outer space would take possession of their human victims. Co-written by king of schlock Herschell Gordon Lewis, it was intended as a pilot for a sci-fi series, a new version of The Invaders, and would feature Nancy Priddy, the folk singer and mother of actress Christina Applegate. Better , but not much better, would be Borderline, a fairly lame Charles Bronson vehicle where Bronson would play a patrol chief on the Mexican border and Harris would be the psychotic and murderous people-smuggler Hotchkiss. He could also be unpleasant in real life, admitting that he used to drink "a lot of beer" and get into bar brawls.

His professional life was still tough, a situation mirrored by the arty Dream On!, concerning young actors trying to make it in LA, in which he appeared alongside a pre-Pee-Wee Paul Reubens. But the early Eighties would bring an improvement in his fortunes. After appearing in the series CHiPs and Hart To Hart (later would come a part in Cassie & Co, Angie Dickinson's attempt at a TV comeback after the end of Police Woman), he'd return to the role of King Arthur as Arthur wannabe King Billy in George Romero's Knightriders. At the time, Romero was notorious for the first two parts of the zombie series beginning with Night Of the Living Dead. Now he was branching out and Knightriders, concerning a troupe of modern-day motorbike-riding jousters battling to keep their honour intact, was his first departure from horror. As the troupe's troubled leader, Ed was tremendous, dignified and purposefully innocent, struggling to keep gallantry alive in the low-minded modern age, impressing Romero so much he included him in his next project, Creepshow, involving adaptations of several Stephen King stories. Harris would appear in the first, as an obnoxious rich guy whose murdered granddad returns from the grave to exact revenge on his family, taking out Harris with a big statue. Harris would later recall his performance as a simple favour to Romero. "All I remember," he'd say "was doing a bunch of goofy dancing and falling in a grave, or something". There would be more King ten or so years later.

As well as the release of Knightriders, 1981 would see Harris star in Sam Shepard's True West for the South West Repertory Company in Costa Mesa. Since 1975, Shepard had been playwright in residence at San Francisco's Magic Theatre and had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for Buried Child. True West had premiered at the Magic in 1980 with Peter Coyote and Jim Haynie, then soon opened at New York's Public Theatre with Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle. The Costa Mesa production of the play was therefore not a huge deal for Shepard, but it did bring him into contact with Harris. It would not be long before their collaboration really bore fruit.

That same year, Harris would meet his future wife, Amy Madigan, when they were both appearing in Prairie Avenue, at the Callboard Theatre in Los Angeles, with Madigan playing a spunky girl struggling to deal with her abused and worn-out mother. Harris's efforts would be described in one review as "a dynamite performance that exuded danger and threatened to explode", and he'd duly receive an LA Drama Critics Circle Award. Madigan, a rock musician turned actress, was also just breaking into films. She'd appear in many of Harris's later movies and, in her own right, would star in Field Of Dreams and Uncle Buck, even being Oscar-nominated in 1985 (before her husband!) for Twice In A Lifetime. After dating for two years, the couple would marry in Waxahachie, Texas, while they were both filming Places In The Heart, daughter Lily Dolores being born in 1993.

1983 was a big year for Ed Harris. Aside from the wedding, he appeared alongside Nick Nolte and Gene Hackman as a mercenary in 1979 Nicaragua in Under Fire. Then he played one of America's greatest modern heroes, John Glenn, in The Right Stuff, the super-macho tale of the Mercury 7 space programme, based on the work of Tom Wolfe. Tellingly, Harris portrayed the squeaky-clean Glenn as a man dedicated to the point of madness. Co-starring in the movie and Oscar-nominated for his efforts would be Sam Shepard, who along with Harris would now enjoy a stage hit with Fool For Love. Here Harris and Kathy Baker would be holed up in a motel room, their relationship gradually unfolding - are they lovers, are they brother and sister? It was a big hit at the Magic Theatre and would transfer, with Harris and Baker, to New York's Circle Repertory Theatre in May, 1983, moving on to the Douglas Fairbanks Theatre that November. It would close in 1985 after a thousand performances, and Harris and Baker, making their off-Broadway debuts, would both win Obies. Understudying Harris for some time would be a young Bruce Willis, then Aidan Quinn, later a Harris co-star, while Ellen Barkin would at one point be back-up for Baker. Shepard himself would take the lead, alongside Kim Basinger, when Robert Altman filmed the play in 1986.

After The Right Stuff, Harris was the critics' darling. He even made the cover of Newsweek. But his movies were not making big money, causing him to comment that "To be in a film that's in theatres for more than two weeks would be a milestone". Throughout the Eighties, a painful pattern emerged. When Harris starred, the film did not succeed. Take Louis Malle's Alamo Bay, where he played a bigoted Texan fisherman war vet suffering the sight of Vietnamese immigrants moving in on his patch (he'd also have an affair with Amy Madigan). Then there was Code Name: Emerald, based on a novel by Ronald Bass, where Harris played a double agent sent to occupied Paris to make sure captured officer Eric Stoltz didn't give away plans for the D-Day landings. What about Alex Cox's weird, brilliant Walker, where Ed returned to Nicaragua, this time as American mercenary William Walker, who marched in and declared himself President in the mid-1800s. Or The Last Innocent Man, where he was a defence lawyer seduced by Roxanne Hart and persuaded to stand for her estranged husband, accused of murder? Or A Flash Of Green, where he played a journalist struggling with his ethics as he's bribed to support a new Florida land development but sympathising with green activist Blair Brown, with whom he's having a romance while his wife lies in a coma. There was some brilliant work, Harris at his most conflicted, but not a hit in sight.

When he supported, though, it was a triumph, if not necessarily a financial triumph - the Oscars certainly came flying. In Places In The Heart, where Sally Field starred as a Southern widow running a cotton farm during the Depression with a crazily varied bunch of workers, including Danny Glover and John Malkovich, Harris was terrific as the philandering husband of Field's sister, Lindsay Crouse, having an affair with schoolteacher Madigan. Crouse would be Oscar-nominated (along with Malkovich), Field herself actually winning for Best Actress. Also up that year was Christine Lahti, for her part co-starring with Harris in Swing Shift, where Hawn would play naval man Harris's wife, finding herself in factory work when he goes off to WW2. The next year, it was Jessica Lange who was nominated, for her performance as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams, Ed playing her drunk and violent but charming and loving husband Charlie Dick. Come to think of it, it's no wonder they wanted Harris in The Hours - a girl just has to stand next to the guy to find herself up for an Oscar.

Harris, of course, though concentrating heavily on his film career, would still find time for theatre. 1985 had seen him return to San Francisco's Magic Theatre to, along with Madigan, originate Murray Mednick's Scar. The next year saw him make a long-overdue Broadway debut in George Furth's Precious Sons. This concerned a middle-class family in 1949 Chicago with Harris as a dominant father, slipping between simmering aggression and sudden affection, who's crushing his sons with his overbearing hopes for them. Judith Ivey would appear as his smart, manipulative wife, the play also featuring a young Anthony Rapp, later to appear alongside Harris in A Beautiful Mind.

As the Nineties approached, the film parts grew more consistent. In Jacknife, he was excellent as a troubled veteran , lost in drink and looked after by his sister, Kathy Baker, his former co-star in Fool For Love, the pair of them helped towards hope by the arrival of friend and fellow vet Robert De Niro. For this Harris was Golden Globe-nominated. Also impressive was his performance in Agnieszka Holland's To Kill A Priest where he'd play a Polish secret policeman hunting and killing pro-Solidarity priest Christopher Lambert then, abandoned by the authorities, put on trial for murder. Harris's speech attempting to justify his violence was the film's highpoint, marking him clearly as a good man twisted by communist imperatives. Then came his first blockbuster, James Cameron's The Abyss. Here Harris played a civilian drilling expert who's called in to help locate a downed nuclear sub and comes across alien lifeforms. Much of the actors' time was spent in huge tanks of water, with Cameron driving them ever harder to achieve maximum effects. Once, the usually calm Harris exploded. "Jim was asking us to do life-threatening things in that tank and then calling us cry-babies when we complained" he recalled. Reports claimed that Harris actually slugged the director.

With thoughts of cinema superstardom now a distant memory, Harris would enter the Nineties as a renowned character actor and would immediately set about cementing that reputation. In the excellent State Of Grace, undercover cop Sean Penn (Harris's earlier Barnaby Jones co-guest) would return to his Hell's Kitchen home to infiltrate an Irish mob run by Harris and his younger brother Gary Oldman. Old friendships and old loves would be rekindled, with Penn's loyalties severely tested, but there was a dark heart provided by Harris who, though amiable and a touch lunk-headed, could also be merciless and murderous. Far less subtle, but still affecting, was Paris Trout, set in the late 1940s, where sadistic racist Dennis Hopper would slaughter the mother and young sister of a black kid who refuses to pay for a dodgy motor. Harris would play Hopper's lawyer, a habitual winner who'd rather lose when he discovers how loathsome Hopper really is, and begins to fear for his life when he falls into an affair with Hopper's wife, Barbara Hershey (a former co-star in the Right Stuff), a woman Hopper has horrifically abused, both verbally and with a booze bottle.

Another impressive addition to Harris's CV would be David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, set in a shabby real estate office thats denizens are put under extreme pressure to sell. Jack Lemmon would play a desperate old hand on the way out, Al Pacino the subtly ruthless star salesman and Kevin Spacey the heartless boss, with Harris a big-mouth hungry for success but hampered by his blustering and overly aggressive style. He even talks of breaking into Spacey's office to steal the names of potential buyers, and adds yet more emotional weight to what is already one of cinema's most powerful translations of a stage play.

Returning to the top of the bill in 1993, Harris would star alongside Diane Keaton in the HBO movie Running Mates. Here he'd play a democrat senator with a eye on the presidency, who falls for an old High School classmate, kids' novelist Keaton. She's reluctant, but he pursues her, then must decide whether to continue his pursuit once a sexy secret she's hiding threatens to derail his campaign. It was light, shiny stuff, but not as glossy as his next project, John Grisham's The Firm. Here Tom Cruise would play a hot-shot attorney recruited by a crooked law firm. Disturbed by their vicious methods, he tries to opt out but can't so, with his mother and brother menaced by both the firm and the Mob, he must find a means of escape different to the one offered by Harris, an FBI agent keen to get Cruise to hand over evidence against the firm. Also featuring would be Holly Hunter, who'd appeared alongside Harris in Swing Shift, and Gene Hackman from Under Fire.

After The Firm, the third biggest US box-office hit of 1993, Harris would return to Stephen King with Needful Things where he'd be the decent and good-hearted sheriff, trying to maintain law and order while satanic shopkeeper Max Von Sydow, a co-star in Code Name: Emerald, preyed on the townsfolks' secret desires to spread terrible chaos. And there'd be yet more King with a momentary appearance in the epic miniseries The Stand where an airborne bug kills almost everyone on Earth and the survivors are divided between good and ultimate evil. Harris would set the mood brilliantly as a general who, right at the beginning, fails to control the bug and so blows out his own brains - easily the most fraught and effective moment of the whole series.

Still Harris would maintain his theatre career, in 1992 returning to LA in a rerun of Scar. 1994 would then see him back in New York at the Public Theatre for Simpatico, a reunion with writer Sam Shepard and his Right Stuff co-star Fred Ward, Harris playing a successful guy who 15 years before has run off with his friend Ward's wife and car. Now Ward would seek payback. Also featuring would be Beverly D'Angelo and Marcia Gay Harden. Two years later there'd be Ronald Harwood's Taking Sides at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Here Harris would play the purposefully ignorant and endlessly vicious US Army major prosecuting German composer Wilhelm Furtwangler (played by Daniel Massey) for collaborating with the Nazis, Harris being Tony nominated for his performance.

Onscreen, 1994 might have seen Harris enjoy a hit with Speed. Originally, Jeff Bridges was due to star with Harris as his mild-mannered partner who turns out to be a mad bomber. As it was, Harris's part was split in two and played by Jeff Daniels and Harris's Paris Trout co-star Dennis Hopper. Instead, Harris would have to make do with a starring role in China Moon where he'd play a homicide detective who begins a relationship with Madeleine Stowe (formerly a fellow guest in Barnaby Jones) and takes on the case when she accidentally kills her supposedly abusive husband, Charles Dance, then gradually finds himself incriminated. He'd switch well between cocky cop and innocent victim, but the movie would lack suspense. Even so, it was better than the thoroughly iffy Milk Money, where he'd play a decent widower set up by his kids with cheery prostitute Melanie Griffith.

1995 would prove far more successful. First would come the aforementioned Just Cause where a semi-retired Sean Connery would agree to take on the defence of a guy accused of the rape and murder of a little girl, much to the chagrin of detective Laurence Fishburne. As said, Harris would be magnificent as the bible-quoting maniac, in a Death Row cell near the defendant's, who flits between babbling madness and terrifying lucidity and clearly knows more about the case than he's willing to say. After this there'd be Ron Howard's Apollo 13, featuring Tom Hanks and Gary Sinise, the hero of Harris's The Stand, where Harris would wring maximum emotion from the scenario as the head of mission control. Howard would be full of praise for Harris's efforts, saying "It's what a Duvall or a De Niro brings. He's always truthful and interesting, never bland or fake, he rides that line. There's just an integrity you trust". The Academy would agree, Harris being Oscar-nominated for the first time, as well as being up for a Golden Globe.

On he went. Oliver Stone's superior biopic Nixon would see him as E Howard Hunt, the former CIA spy, deeply embittered by the Bay Of Pigs fiasco and now working as one of the president's notorious plumbers. Attempting to fix leaks by engineering the first Watergate burglary, he was convicted of burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping , Nixon of course falling with him. After this there'd be the controversial Eye For An Eye, where he'd play the husband of his former Places In The Heart co-star Sally Field, the couple suffering the rape and murder of a daughter. Field would become obsessed with suspect Kiefer Sutherland and train herself in violence to take him on, Harris struggling to calm her and keep the remains of their family intact. Critics would complain at the film's shameless vigilante message, nevertheless Field, Harris and particularly Sutherland would be impressive.

Harris's next release would be a TV adaptation of Zane Grey's classic western Riders Of The Purple Sage, directed by Charles Haid. This was a pet project that he and Amy Madigan had been working on for some ten years. In the movie, Madigan would play an independent woman in a town dominated by conservative religion, who's being pushed into a marriage that will secure her land and cattle for the local big-wig. In rides gunfighter Harris, taking the role played by Tom Mix in 1925, seeking to avenge his dead sister and getting involved in a mess of sexism, racism, rustling, kidnapping and suicide. The mood was sombre, the plot complex and the scenery awe-inspiring, with Harris and Madigan's relationship marked by an equality rarely seen in westerns.

Perhaps even better would be his turn as Brigadier General Francis X Hummel in the Michael Bay blockbuster The Rock. Here he led a squad of mercenaries onto Alcatraz, kidnapping 81 people and threatening to fire nerve gas missiles at San Francisco unless the government paid $100 million to the families of soldiers killed in covert action. This was a near-perfect Harris role - he's doing a terrible thing for a thoroughly justifiable reason - and, well backed by bomb disposal geek Nicolas Cage and wily old escape artist Sean Connery (his Just Cause interrogator), sent to the rock to foil him, he'd help make the movie a smash hit. Then came an artistic down-point - Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power. Here Eastwood would play an aging thief who sees president Gene Hackman's mistress murdered by security guards. Now everyone's after him; both Hackman's heavies, including Scott Glenn from The Right Stuff, and Harris's cop. The movie boasted a top-line cast. Hackman, Harris's co-star in Under Fire and The Firm, was marvellously flawed, Judy Davis was excellent as the neurotic Chief of Staff and Harris sparred well with Eastwood. But really Eastwood was too old for his part.

Fortunately, Harris would regain the heights immediately with Peter Weir's The Truman Show. Here he played TV super-producer Christof who creates a 24-hour soap opera around Jim Carrey, an innocent who doesn't realise he was born and has lived his whole life on a huge studio-set, surrounded by actors - his wife being played by Laura Linney, another of Harris's Absolute Power co-stars. Again, it was a perfect Harris role. Christof's show is cruel and inhuman, yet he also feels like a father to poor Jim Carrey. Strangely, Harris never met Carrey onset. Indeed, Carrey had finished filming before he ever arrived, Ed being a late replacement for former antagonist Dennis Hopper. Once again, he was Oscar-nominated. This time he won the Golden Globe. After this would come Stepmom, where a guy's former wife is dying and he must forge a strong relationship with his new girlfriend so the ex can pass away knowing the new girl will look after the kids. A tricky one for the producers. Whoever played the husband had to be so decent, so likeable that the audience didn't hate him for abandoning the sick Susan Sarandon. He had to do the right thing by everyone involved, and deserve to find love with Julia Roberts. Really, he just had to be Harris.

Harris's final film of the Nineties would be The Third Miracle, directed by To Kill A Priest's Agnieszka Holland and featuring his Riders Of The Purple Sage director Charles Haid. Here he'd play a postulator for the church, investigating a statue weeping blood in Chicago and gathering evidence so that a dead local woman might be sainted. Naturally, Harris would be forced to question his faith, all the more so when he finds he fancies the woman's daughter, Anne Heche, and then must confront the devil's advocate, Armin Mueller-Stahl. Though not treated kindly by critics, the film was interesting in the way it dealt seriously with religion and its strengths and benefits, and the inner workings of its institutions.

Harris would enter the new millennium with a pop-up part in Keith Gordon's Waking The Dead, charting the relationship between Billy Crudup's compromised politician and Jennifer Connelly's zealous activist, Harris being briefly spotted as the congressman whose sex-scandal-induced fall gives Crudup a chance at the big time. Then would come the half-baked The Prime Gig, where Vince Vaughn would play a telesales con-man who gets involved with Harris's trickster guru. Now he must pit his wits against the very best, the situation being further complicated by Vaughn's affair with Harris's girlfriend Julia Ormond. It was a promising notion, but Harris was wasted here.

Ever since his father had given him a Jackson Pollock biography for his birthday in 1986, Ed had been fascinated by the notorious abstract impressionist. He'd had a script knocking around for the best part of a decade. Now he decided to go for it and, it being Hollywood, there were no takers. None, that is, till the producers of Basquiat (the tale of a later New York artist) stepped in. They stumped up some money and Harris, keen not to compromise his vision for lack of funds, put in the rest. The movie would follow the artist from desperate alcoholism through the discovery of his style and on to fabulous success, then back into alcoholism and his final death in a car crash, Harris drawing on several old friends to help tell the tale. Madigan would play heiress Peggy Guggenheim, from whose gallery Pollock's work was launched: Marcia Gay Harden, who'd co-starred with Harris in Simpatico, would play Lee Krasner, a fellow artist and Pollock's long-suffering wife: former co-star Jennifer Connelly would also feature as a young fan with whom Pollock has an affair. Harris would be Oscar-nominated as Best Actor - quite rightly as he was brilliant, even doing his own painting - while Harden would win as Best Supporting Actress. It was a happier occasion than the ceremony of the year before, when Elia Kazan received a special Oscar. Many gave him a standing ovation, but many others, due to Kazan's co-operation with the anti-Communist witch-hunters of the Fifties, did not rise or applaud. Those who did not included Ed and his earlier co-star Nick Nolte. "I didn't stand up," explained Harris "because he hurt a lot of people".

Pollock was an artistic triumph, absolute proof that mega-jock Harris had entirely reinvented himself. But the project left him needing money, so he took on Enemy At The Gates, where he was super-sniper Major Konig, playing deadly cat and mouse with Jude Law amidst the frozen ruins of Stalingrad, Khrushchev being played by Bob Hoskins, who'd earlier appeared in Nixon. Then would come the black, black military comedy Buffalo Soldiers, set in late Eighties' Germany, where Joaquin Phoenix would play a King Rat figure dealing in drugs, guns, industrial cleaners, anything he can get his hands upon. Harris would play the camp CO, a genial sort who's no match for Phoenix's super-fence, Phoenix even sleeping with Harris's wife, Elizabeth McGovern. His weakness in the face of Phoenix would be revealed in a very early scene where he changes just one word of an obituary Phoenix has written for a soldier killed during an indoor game of American football ("Splendid . . . Don't let that word leave this base"). Harris is after promotion and, though he briefly rants at Phoenix's insubordination, he's quickly cravenly apologetic.

2002 would bring immense kudos to Harris. After adding a voiceover to the coming-of-age tale Just A Dream, directed by Danny Glover, who'd earlier appeared in Places In The Heart and Buffalo Soldiers, he'd reunite with Ron Howard and Jennifer Connelly for A Beautiful Mind. Here Russell Crowe would play John Nash, a genius at maths and economics who descends into schizophrenia before rallying to win the Nobel Prize. Connelly would co-star as Crowe's beleaguered wife, with Harris as a shady government agent who wants Crowe to become a code-cracker and help win the Cold War. The path to madness that way lies. The movie would be named Best Picture at the Oscars, with Howard and Connelly winning and Crowe nominated. At the next year's ceremony the nominations would shower down on Harris's other movie of 2002, the aforementioned The Hours, with Nicole Kidman winning. In the movie's contemporary section, Harris would play a prize-winning writer with an AIDS-related disease, for whom literary editor and former lover Meryl Streep is planning a party. Knowing the end is near and fearing the loss of dignity, he makes his choice suddenly and decisively in one of cinema's most striking and moving scenes. Quite rightly, Harris would join Kidman, Julianne Moore and director Stephen Daldry as an Oscar nominee.

Harris's next movie would see him join another all-star cast - Penelope Cruz, Bruce Dern, Jeff Bridges, Giovanni Ribisi, his former co-stars Val Kilmer and Jessica Lange, and more - for the Bob Dylan vanity project Masked And Anonymous. Here Dylan would play a famous Dylan-like singer sprung from jail to play a benefit concert, with John Goodman as a promoter on the make, Bridges a self-regarding journalist on Dylan's trail and Harris raising eyebrows as a ghost from music's history, a banjo-player in blackface, a boot-polished angel keeping Dylan on the straight and narrow. Following this would come a reunion with Kidman, Gary Sinise and Nixon star Anthony Hopkins in Philip Roth's The Human Stain, directed by Robert Benton, who'd earlier written Places In The Heart. Here Hopkins would play a college professor who resigns after being pettily but persistently accused of making a racist jibe. Hiding a secret he dare not reveal, he begins an affair with semi-literate janitor Kidman, Harris playing her Vietnam vet ex-husband, a brute who blames her for the death of their children and likes to bash her around. It's a mark of Harris's immense range that he could be both the necessarily nice guys of Stepmom and Milk Money, and the great beasts of Just Cause and The Human Stain. He'd end 2003 by playing one of his nice guys in Radio, where he'd be a good-hearted High School football coach who rescues a mentally retarded Cuba Gooding Jr from bullies and tries to involve him in the team, believing everyone could learn something from Gooding's lack of spite and dishonesty. Its message would ring true and loud, the film making good money on a medium budget.

2005 would bring another raft of awards and nominations to Harris and his colleagues. First would come David Cronenberg's A History Of Violence, where Viggo Mortensen would play a mellow family man running a small town diner. However, when he's held up by two crooks and expertly pulverises them, he makes the news and is visited by a horribly scarred Harris, a figure from Mortensen's violent past. Persuasive and menacing, Harris stalks Mortensen's family and forces him to return to Philadelphia to face his affably psychotic gangster brother, William Hurt. Following this would come the TV drama Empire Falls, based on Richard Russo's novel, where Harris would be the one to run a diner in a small town. His family has for generations worked for matriarch Joanne Woodward's, and Harris owes her for past aid, so he's trapped in his place, bolstered only by a vague promise that he'll inherit the diner when Woodward dies. He'd also have to deal with a host of other well-drawn town characters. His brother, Aidan Quinn, 22 years earlier his understudy in Fool For Love, would mock him for his lack of ambition: Paul Newman, who'd earlier starred in Russo's Nobody's Fool and bought the rights to Empire Falls, would play Harris's naughty father: Helen Hunt would be Harris's ex-wife and Kate Burton would be Woodward's crippled daughter, who's always fancied Harris from afar. All of their fortunes would rest on a secret past encounter between Harris's mother, played by his State Of Grace co-star Robin Wright Penn, and a mysterious Philip Seymour Hoffman. It was superior TV stuff, with Harris being nominated for both an Emmy and a Golden Globe, both of which would be won by Newman.

Empire Falls would be followed by the strange, affecting Winter Passing. Here struggling actress Zooey Deschanel would be offered $100,000 by publisher Amy Madigan if she can produce letters written between her mother and famous author father, Harris. Returning to the family spread in Michigan, she finds weirdo Will Ferrell and Englishwoman Amelia Warner, a former student of Harris's, living in the house, while Harris himself - frail, bedraggled and alcoholic - is living in a shed and, eccentric to the point of insanity, is battling to deliver a final novel before he dies. It was a complex piece, sad but intriguing, and another impressive performance by Harris.

Harris would end 2005 by returning to the theatre, in November delivering Neil LaBute's monologue Wrecks at the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork, Ireland. He had in fact been due to return by making his Broadway directing debut with a new production of his first stage triumph, Fool For Love, but the show had been postponed. Wrecks would see him as a gaunt, chain-smoking widower, talking about his wife who's died from a cancer possibly caused by him, and gradually, gradually revealing himself to be a self-deluding monster. In late 2006 the production would be reprised at New York's Anspacher Theatre then, in May the next year, Harris would perform it three more times at Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theatre, the proceeds going to the Archer School where his daughter Lily was a student.

2006 would bring two very different releases. First would come a cameo in Two Tickets To Paradise, otherwise known as Dirt Nap or Life's A Trip, the directorial debut of DB Sweeney. This would see Sweeney, Paul Hipp and John C McGinley as three middle-aged losers suffering debt, depression and marital problems, who decide to leave their worries behind and take off to watch a football game in Florida. Along the way they meet Harris, a mystical and grouchy carny with only one arm but plenty of pseudo-prophetic advice, advice that changes the point of their trip. It was very much a guys' film, packed with beer-drinking, cigar-smoking and discussions of music, sport and women and, though a financial failure, was funnier and more interesting than Wild Hogs, a similarly themed hit the next year.

As said, Harris would deliver only a cameo in Two Tickets To Paradise, but he'd face more of a challenge when reuniting with director Agnieszka Holland for Copying Beethoven. Set in 1824 Vienna, this would see him, wild and be-wigged, as the deaf and cantankerous composer of the title, taking on Diane Kruger as his secretary. Being a woman , he feels she's not capable of properly dealing with his music, and scoffs at her dreams of becoming a composer herself. But, though volatile, demanding and occasionally cruel to her, he's gradually won over. Harris would work hard on the part, even learning to write music in Beethoven's hand, and the script, by the same team that delivered Ali and Harris's Nixon, was effective, yet the film was for the most part ignored.

The next year would bring three more entries to the canon. First there'd be Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck's directorial debut, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who'd recently enjoyed success with Mystic River. Set in the dirty, seedy Boston underworld, this would see a four-year-old girl, daughter of a junkie mother, go missing. Her concerned aunt and uncle would call in private investigators Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan, a couple with no experience but many connections, and detective Morgan Freeman would have them work alongside his own men, Harris and John Ashton. Naturally, Harris would not be keen on sharing responsibility with these Johnny-come-lateleys, and would butt heads with Affleck over procedure, intuition and manliness in general. Also noirish, but a lot more tangled would be Cleaner, where Samuel L Jackson would play a former cop who now works cleaning up crime scenes. Called to mop up after a bloody murder, he does his job but forgets to drop off the keys. When he does drop off the keys, householder Eva Mendes seems to have no idea that a crime has been committed or that her husband is even missing. Gradually, Jackson realises he's being framed and calls on his former partner, Harris, for help. Harris would end 2007 by, along with Helen Mirren, adding some thespian gravitas to National Treasure: Book Of Secrets, a reunion with Copying Beethoven's Diane Kruger and The Rock's Nicolas Cage. Here Cage would continue the Da Vinci Code-style adventures he began in the original hit National Treasure, the story this time involving Mount Rushmore, a missing page from the diary of John Wilkes Booth and a long-lost city of gold. Harris would appear as an enigmatic stranger who believes a relative of Cage was involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and, though no one's sure of his motives, it appears he'll kill anyone to get whatever it is he wants. It was tremendously silly, but another $200 million hit for the franchise.

2008 would be another big year. First Harris would appear in Touching Home, based on the real lives of identical twins Logan and Noah Miller, who wrote and directed the film. They'd collared Harris at the San Francisco Film Festival and persuaded him to star in this tale of twins who, having failed to make it in major league baseball, return to their hometown and work in a quarry alongside their alcoholic and homeless father. Harris, naturally, would play the father who tries to win back the twins' love, lost due to his past shameful behaviour, as the film explores the power of hope and the often crushing effect of the American Dream.

More important for Harris would be Appaloosa, his debut as director and writer. Based on Robert Parker's novel, this would see him star as a freelance lawman, abiding by a strict moral code, who, along with his longtime deputy and friend Viggo Mortensen (his History Of Violence co-star) is hired to police the town of the title, a place ruled by a wealthy and murderous Jeremy Irons. The piece would be a compelling succession of manhunts and showdowns, with the guys going after Irons and Harris being pursued by duplicitous widow Renee Zellweger, the worldly Mortensen trying to save Harris from himself when his decency threatens to bring about his ruin. Like Riders Of The Purple Sage, it would an unusually thoughtful western, and would also feature Harris's Right Stuff co-star Lance Henriksen and Harris's father, Bob, who'd earlier shown up briefly in A Flash Of Green, Riders Of The Purple Sage and Pollock.

Whatever comes next, we can expect it to be good. What makes Ed Harris so good, so memorable, is that he hates things to be shoddy. He'll work his butt off and, as in the case of Pollock, invest all his money in order to make sure everything is right. As a rule, great actors do not so this. As a tradition, great artists do.

Dominic Wills


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