Anyone who’s been following him for the past three decades knows that Woody Harrelson has had an interesting career. After starting out as good-natured straight man Woody Boyd in the iconic sitcom Cheers, in which he starred from 1985 to 1993 for a total of 200 episodes, Harrelson made an about-turn. In 1994, Harrelson starred as spree killer Mickey Knox in Oliver Stone’s incendiary Natural Born Killers, setting Harrelson up for a career as an edgy character actor often cast as unhinged bad guys.
Since his transition to ‘serious actor,’ critics have showered Harrelson with praise. Three Oscar nominations and a supporting role in the immensely popular Hunger Games franchise have followed. Harrelson’s acting career, though, doesn’t even compare to Harrelson’s wild life story. Here are 20 things you never knew about the actor.
20. His father was a hitman
Before we get on to the fascinating life of Woody Harrelson, let’s start with the absolutely mindblowing story of Charles Harrelson, Woody’s father.
Convicted of armed robbery the year before Woody was born, the troubled Charles subsequently disappeared from his son’s life until 1981.Credit: Bettmann
This was the year that Charles reappeared to Woody on national news, arrested for the murder of a district judge in Texas.
It was the second murder Charles was convicted of, having earlier served time for killing Sam Degelia Jr. It later emerged that Charles had been a hitman.
Charles was given two life sentences. He attempted to escape from prison in 1995, but this attempt failed.
Charles died in jail of a heart attack in 2007. His son had occasionally visited him in prison.
19. He worked at an amusement park when he was a teenager
Harrelson spent a lot of his teenage summers working at a local amusement park.
In 1979 he spent the summer working at Kings Island, an amusement park just outside of Cincinnati.
Interestingly, Harrelson wasn’t the only celeb who worked at Kings Island back in the day.
Actor Nick Lachey also worked there, as did actress Carmen Electra and sports reporter Lewis Johnson.
Harrelson may not have known it at the time, but his teenage summers proved to be valuable experience later on in life.
Harrelson surely drew on his experience while filming the amusement park scenes in Zombieland.
18. He snuck out of dinner with a former US president to get high
We’ll get to Harrelson’s politics in more detail in a moment, but for now let’s just say that Woody is not a fan of a certain president.
In fact, the actor has confessed that he found it hard to spend any time with the man during their one sustained encounter.
Back when Harrelson met him in 2004, the president was still just a money-obsessed property mogul.
In 2018, Harrelson told the Observer about his meeting with the man: “Talk about a tough dinner to get through,” he said.
“All he could talk about was money. After about 45 minutes, I was like ‘excuse me’, and walked outside” – and lit up.
“It was brutal. I’d never met a more narcissistic man,” Harrelson went on to say on the HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher.
17. He’s an “anarchist” activist
In conversation with Politico in 2013, Harrelson summed up his political outlook as such: “I don’t believe in politics.”
“I’m an anarchist, I guess you could say. I think people could be just fine looking after themselves.”
Despite this libertarian view, Harrelson has been a committed activist over the years, once withholding his taxes in protest over George W Bush’s war in Iraq.
Harrelson described the conflict as a “racist and imperialist war” in a 2002 article he wrote for the Guardian.
Another one of Harrelson’s biggest concerns has always been the environment. He has attended numerous environmental rallies and demonstrations in his time. Once he went as far as scaling the Golden Gate Bridge to unfurl an ‘Earth First!’ banner.
More recently, in 2019 he spoke alongside musician Billie Eilish about the need to act on climate change.
16. He helped to invent a tree-free paper
Harrelson’s environmental credentials extend beyond protests and demos – he’s currently actively trying to halt deforestation through innovation.
Harrelson is a co-founder and the face of Prairie Pulp & Paper, which makes paper from 80% wheat-straw waste and 20% Forest Stewardship Council certified wood fibre.
According to the company, a tree is saved with every two boxes of PP&P paper bought.
In 2013, Harrelson told Forbes his reason for his investment: “I realised that even if you stop them from cutting this forest or that forest, they will cut down something else.”
“It’s like the game wack-a-mole. The only real solution is to change the way paper is made.”
Since launching in 2013, PP&P has gone from strength to strength and is still doing some serious numbers to this day.
15. He only eats raw and dried vegan food
Now we’ve established Harrelson’s environmentalist credentials, it shouldn’t come as a shock to learn that the actor is also a vegan.
Not only does Harrelson shun meat and animal products, but he goes a few steps further than that.
Harrelson subscribes to a raw vegan diet, eating only uncooked and unprocessed foods. He doesn’t eat sugar or flour either.
He’s committed to veganism and has converted many people to the cause, including Hunger Games co-star Liam Hemsworth.
He even joined Paul McCartney, Joaquin Phoenix, and Evanna Lynch in entreating the Pope to go vegan for Lent in March 2019.
Harrelson was also named PETA’s Sexiest Vegetarian in 2012, alongside fellow vegan and actor Jessica Chastain.
14. He’s best buds with Matthew McConaughey and Owen Wilson
Besides ultimate best bud Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson has a fair few other famous friends.
Among Harrelson’s closest friends are fellow Texans and perennially laidback dudes Owen Wilson and Matthew McConaughey.
Before McConaughey and Harrelson co-starred on True Detective, the two appeared alongside each other on EDtv and Surfer, Dude.
McConaughey has always spoken warmly about his friend. “We really get on a similar frequency and roll with it,” he said in USA Today in 2014.
The two also warmly greeted each other when they reunited on the red carpet at the 2018 Oscars.
Harrelson is also good friends with Back to the Future star and Parkinson’s research advocate Michael J Fox.
13. He directed the first film to be broadcast live into cinemas as it was shooting
Harrelson isn’t just radical in his personal life – artistically speaking, he’s been pretty revolutionary as well.
On January 19, 2017, Harrelson’s first film as director, Lost in London, was released into cinemas – live.
The film featured cameos from Harrelson’s friends, Willie Nelson and Owen Wilson, who starred as themselves.
Shot in a single take, Lost in London was the first film in history to be broadcast live in theatres as it was shooting.
The film was widely praised by critics – who accepted minor flaws as part-and-parcel of shooting the film live – for its ambition and Harrelson’s creativity.
It currently has a 75% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 8 reviews, as well as an average rating of 6.3/10.
12. He’s a big soccer fan
Harrelson has acted in some pretty sports-orientated films in his time, including Kingpin, a bowling comedy, White Men Can’t Jump, a basketball buddy movie, and Wildcats, an American football comedy.
In real life, however, Harrelson’s preferred sport is soccer. Over the years, the actor has taken part in a number of charity soccer events including Soccer Aid.
In Soccer Aid 2010, Harrelson scored the winning goal for the Rest of the World team.
Revisiting the experience on the David Letterman Show in 2013, Harrelson explained how he managed to score the important goal.
“I did an acting maneuver. As I sat the ball down I looked to the side that I wasn’t going to kick it to,” he said.
Harrelson has also been known to randomly join in kickabouts around the UK and has been spotted supporting Oxford United FC.
11. He almost became a priest
Before he settled on becoming an actor, Harrelson considered another career path – back in his school days, he was still very religious.
It was while studying at a Presbyterian college that Harrelson thought about becoming a minister.
Ironically, Bible study is what turned him away. In 2009, Harrelson told Playboy: “I was getting into theology and studying the roots of the Bible, but then I started to discover the man-made nature of it.”
“I started seeing things that made me ask, ‘Is God really speaking through this instrument?'”
“My eyes opened to the reality of the Bible being just a document to control people,” he went on.
“At the time I was a real mama’s boy and deeply mesmerised by the church.” Harrelson found his true calling of acting shortly thereafter.
10. He used to own an oxygen bar in LA
It’s almost unsurprising that Harrelson, a self-proclaimed hippie, used to own an oxygen bar called O2 in LA.
He opened the bar in West Hollywood in 2001. “It gives you a nice little buzz,” Harrelson explained to the LA Times back in 1997.
Whether there are really any health benefits of taking extra oxygen is a topic still hotly contested to this day.
Harrelson’s bar served air from a tank for $13, while you could have ‘flavoured’ air for $2 extra.
The business venture was short-lived, however, and the bar shut down after just a few years.
There are still plenty of oxygen bars kicking about Los Angeles, however, so don’t worry if you never made it to O2 – there are plenty more to choose from!
9. He was arrested in 1983 for dancing in the middle of the road and holding up traffic
If anarchist Harrelson doesn’t strike you as a law-abiding, docile kind of guy, you’d be exactly right.
In June 1983, when he was just 21 years old, Harrelson was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.
He’d been caught dancing in the middle of the road and was holding up traffic by doing so.
That wasn’t all – Harrelson then went on to jump out of the moving police van in which he was detained following the arrest.
He reportedly laughed maniacally while leaping from the vehicle before punching one of the officers attending him in the face.
Somehow, Harrelson got off relatively lightly, despite attacking a cop – he wasn’t given any jail time and was made to pay a $390 fine instead.
8. He realised he was in love with his future wife while living alone in a tent in Kenya
A lot of famous actors love to vacation in the middle of nowhere to get away from the stress of celebrity, and Harrelson is no different.
Back in 1991, Harrelson spent several weeks in Kenya to get away from the chaos of Hollywood.
He spent the time living in a tent on his own on the outskirts of Nairobi.
It was during this time that Harrelson realised he was in love with his now-wife, Laura Louie.
“I went to Africa and I’m sitting around the fire out there, in Nairobi, thinking about her, fantasising about her,” he recalled in the Guardian in 2012. “I came back from Africa and I couldn’t even say I was in love with her because I was so nervous.”
“I’d been sitting there with a guitar, so I wrote this song to her, and I sang it to her and at the end of it she goes, ‘Woody, I’ve been in love with you for the last two and a half years.’”
7. He once pranked Liam Hemsworth by claiming he’d been seriously injured in a bike accident
One year, Harrelson pulled off an elaborate April Fools’ Day prank on his Hunger Games co-star Liam Hemsworth.
He detailed the execution of the well-planned prank in an interview with The Independent in 2015.
“I got our make-up artist to come over to my house and make my face look like I’d been in a bad bike wreck and skidded, blood everywhere,” he explained.
Harrelson then called Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence and told him he’d been in a bike accident.
“Then I called Liam and told him to come to the hospital to pick me up,” Harrelson revealed.
“But I made the name up and of course there was no such place.” Hopefully Hemsworth has a good sense of humour!
6. He almost said no to The Hunger Games
Harrelson dazzles as surly alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy in the Hunger Games series – but he almost didn’t play the role.
Although director Gary Ross was adamant that Harrelson was the right man for the job, the actor wasn’t particularly interested.
Speaking to The Independent in 2015, Harrelson revealed that he needed a lot of persuading to take the role.
“I turned it down and they re-offered it and I turned it down again,” he said.
“Then [the first film’s writer and director] Gary Ross called me and convinced me to do it on the phone. I’d thought the writing was good but it didn’t feel that much to do for me.”
Reading Suzanne Collins’ original books helped change Harrelson’s mind, as he realised the story dealt with pertinent issues that related directly to the real world.
5. He was considered for the role of Lester Burnham in American Beauty
1999 film American Beauty is widely regarded as one of the best films of all time, a legacy sadly tarnished by the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey.
The film scooped eight Oscar and 14 BAFTA nominations – it then went on to win five Oscars and six BAFTAs.
Harrelson must have been gutted to have narrowly missed out on enjoying the film’s widespread success.
Director Sam Mendes wanted Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham all along, but many others auditioned and were considered for the role.
Chevy Chase and Tom Hanks reportedly turned down the role, while Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis, Jeff Daniels, and Harrelson himself were also all considered for the part of Lester.
But Mendes was insistent, and ultimately the part went to Spacey. He went on to bag the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance.
4. He used to be part of a band called Manly Moondog and the Three Kool Kats
Harrelson is a man of many talents – as well as an accomplished actor, it turns out he’s also a dab hand at singing.
Unbeknownst to many, Harrelson used to perform in a band called Manly Moondog and the Three Kool Kats.
Not much is known about the band, but it seems that they were active around the time Harrelson’s career was taking off in the early 90s.
Harrelson had dabbled in music as a teenager. Back in his days as a student at Hanover College in Indiana, he was the frontman in a group called Woody and the Off-Keys.
He continued to make music with friends when he moved to New York to embark on his acting career.
Manly Moondog and the Three Kool Kats have not performed together in quite some time, but Harrelson did appear on The Killers’ 2017 album Wonderful Wonderful.
3. He stopped consuming dairy products because a stranger on a bus told him to
Harrelson is a prominent vegan for ethical reasons – but he initially stopped consuming dairy for another reason.
Harrelson had been trying to land work as an actor in New York in the early 80s, but had struggled to get jobs due to his severe acne.
One day, Harrelson was blowing his nose on the bus when he caught the attention of a random young woman.
The stranger informed Harrelson that he was likely lactose intolerant, and advised him to quit dairy.
She insisted that his acne would clear up by itself if he cut out dairy products from his diet.
Harrelson was understandably skeptical, but followed her advice and found that his skin did clear up. Not long after, he was cast in his breakthrough role in Cheers.
2. He once punched a photographer because he thought they were a zombie
For the most part, self-proclaimed hippie Harrelson seems like a genuinely chilled-out and laidback guy.
However, Harrelson has certainly got a more volatile side to his personality – which one unlucky TMZ photographer encountered firsthand.
Back in 2009, Harrelson hit a TMZ photographer in the face after he rushed up to him and his daughter.
Filming had just wrapped for Zombieland, and Harrelson claims that he was on edge due to this.
Harrelson did not denying attacking the paparazzo and instead admitted that he simply mistook him for a zombie.
Considering Harrelson had just spent months filming a movie set in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, this actually seems a fair enough excuse.
1. He missed a day of work on the final Hunger Games film to go to a Lorde concert
Nobody would doubt that Harrelson is a committed and dedicated actor – his stellar performances are proof of this.
But he did skive off work one day in order to go and see Lorde in concert.
While the cast and crew were shooting the final Hunger Games film in Berlin, Harrelson met and befriended Lorde, a young singer from New Zealand.
He invited her onto the film’s set where she met the rest of the cast before hurrying off to rehearse for a gig.
Harrelson had told Lorde he’d be there, and so he walked off set to go and watch her perform.
In his defense, Harrelson did not stay for the entire concert and rushed back to work afterwards.