With his piercing blue eyes and penchant for characters with dramatic backstories, Ed Harris is unmistakable in any role. Since the 70s, he’s starred in over 100 films and TV shows, including Apollo 13, The Truman Show and The Right Stuff.
As a method actor, his dedication to his characters has taken some impressive and dangerous turns. Here are some things you probably didn’t know about Harris.
20. To play Jackson Pollock, he built his own studio and learned to paint
Harris undertook some serious method acting to play the artist Jackson Pollock in his 2000 film Pollock.
Harris switched cigarettes to Pollock’s favourite brand, paid a visit to the artist’s old home and spent a night in Pollock’s bed.
He also gained 30 pounds in order to more closely resemble the famed artist physically.
On top of all that, Harris also decided that he needed to learn how to paint the way Pollock did.
The actor replicated Pollock’s studio by building his own studio-barn at his home in Malibu, where he shut himself away to practice Pollock’s paint-dripping techniques.
Harris’ performance in Pollock (which was also his directorial debut) earned him his only Best Actor Oscar nomination to date.
19. The Abyss’ underwater scenes were so gruelling that Harris almost quit his next movie
In 1989, Harris dived into a 7.5 million gallon tank in an abandoned nuclear power station to film The Abyss.
Writer-director James Cameron’s underwater sci-fi thriller has long been infamous for having one of the most stressful and dangerous shoots in history.
The most nightmarish moment of all came when Harris almost drowned. The actor told the New York Times, ”the [breathing] regulator was put in upside down so that one-half of what was going into my lungs was water.”
The physical toll of filming this science fiction drama was so great, Harris almost had to decline the part of Frankie Flannery in State of Grace in 1990.
Happily, Harris he pulled through for this critically acclaimed performance, where he played a mob leader in New York City.
For years Harris refused to talk about the film or director James Cameron, but he has since admitted it rates among his best work.
18. His most embarrassing job was tuxedo modelling as a 20-year-old
Before properly breaking through into acting, a young Ed Harris once tried his hand at modelling.
However, it seems this wasn’t something the ambitious young actor had any great love for.
In a 2007 interview with the Guardian, Harris said modelling gave him the most embarrassing experience of his life.
A 21-year-old Harris took to the stage and struck pose at the 1971 Oklahoma State Fair, where he modelled tuxedos.
This foray into modelling took place when Harris was just 20, before he graduated from the California Institute of Arts.
Five years after the Fair, he would win the role of an FBI agent in the play Baalam, and his acting career was underway.
17. He replaced Dennis Hopper in The Truman Show at the last minute
In The Truman Show, Harris plays Christof, the egotistical director of the TV show that runs the life of Jim Carrey’s Truman.
It’s one of the many performances which earned Harris widespread acclaim, as well as his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
What you might not know is Harris was only drafted into the movie after Dennis Hopper was fired from the role.
Ironically, it was the real-life director of The Truman Show, Peter Weir, who cut Hopper from the part on his very first day.
Harris scooped up the role instead, and was given only days to prepare before he began filming his scenes.
Showing there were no hard feelings, Hopper sent Harris a gift: a 10-page fictional biography for Christof, which included details like the director’s award-winning film on homelessness.
16. He had a black eye while filming The Right Stuff, so he was often shot in shadow to hide it
In The Right Stuff, Ed Harris famously plays the real-life astronaut and esteemed politician John Glenn.
But for one night-time scene, the actor showed up to the set with a fresh black eye.
In a 2014 interview with Wired, Harris recalled how he happened to get this particular injury.
“I had a couple beers and I got on a luggage cart. I was skateboarding on it or scootering it out through the front doors. It went off a curb and I went flying, smacked my face on the ground.”
To conceal his “major black eye”, the producers reworked the lighting of the entire scene.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel remembered, “I actually had to have them reverse [the shot] so I could have the light coming in from another side so you couldn’t see his black eye.”
15. He married fellow actor Amy Madigan while they were co-starring in Places in the Heart together
Harris has been married to the Twice in a Lifetime star Amy Madigan since 1983.
The couple tied the knot in Waxahachie, Texas, while they were shooting a movie together.
Harris and Madigan were co-starring in Places in the Heart, a family drama with Sally Field in the lead.
Fittingly, the real-life couple played each other’s love interests in the movie as well.
Places of the Heart also stars Danny Glover, John Malkovich and Lindsay Crouse (whose performance earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination).
Madigan and Harris have worked together on a number of other films since, including Pollock and Gone Baby Gone.
14. He shunned Alec Baldwin on the set of Glengarry Glen Ross to create tension between them
Harris stars as the salesman Dave Moss in the critically acclaimed movie adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross.
Based on David Mamet’s stage play, the film was hailed by critic Philip French for featuring “one of the best American casts ever assembled.”
Harris was joined by Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce and Alec Baldwin.
Baldwin famously appears in only one scene as a senior salesman who comes into the office to berate Harris’ team.
There’s a palpable animosity between Baldwin and the others, and the cast went to efforts to maintain this.
Harris, Arkin and Lemmon apparently excluded Baldwin as they enjoyed downtime between filming, in the hopes of building tension between them.
13. He turned down Stanley Kubrick’s offer to star in Full Metal Jacket
Any great actor has great roles they narrowly missed out on playing, either because someone else got it or they foolishly said no.
Ed Harris admits he was foolish indeed to decline the offer of a role from legendary director Stanley Kubrick.
The actor reminisces, “Stanley Kubrick called me up one day and asked me to play the sergeant in ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ and I said no.”
This role was ultimately taken by R. Lee Ermey (a real-life former drill instructor with the US Marines).
Harris concedes that Ermey “as great and did a much better job than I would have done.”
“But that always make me kind of go, ‘What were you thinking about?’ It might have been that I had a few too many beers that night.”
12. He ended a press conference for A History of Violence with a shock outburst
In 2005, Harris appeared alongside Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello in A History of Violence.
The acclaimed drama directed by David Cronenberg was an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name.
The film centres on Mortensen’s seemingly everyday small town coffee shop manager, who suddenly displays a stunning capacity for violence when defending his shop from robbers.
Harris himself demonstrated the shocking power of sudden aggression when promoting the film at a press conference during the Toronto International Film Festival.
An initially bored-looking Harris stunned the assembled journalists, and possibly his co-stars and director, by repeatedly slamming the desk then hurling a glass at the wall behind him.
In between thumps, Harris remarked, “What is that? What is violence? That’s what the movie’s about.”
It’s unclear whether Harris was genuinely angry or simply illustrating a point, but it was enough for the press conference to be called to a halt.
11. He’s openly criticised his character arc on TV’s Westworld
In recent years, Harris’ most prominent work has been in the HBO science fiction drama series Westworld.
Harris has starred on the series as the mysterious Man in Black, one of the key characters on the show, since it began in 2016.
However, with characteristic frankness, Harris has openly admitted he hasn’t been too happy about his character in the most recent season.
Without giving too much away, Harris’ Man in Black has since become instead the Man in White, and is confined to a single location.
Harris told Vulture, “I signed on to play the Man in Black. I didn’t sign on to play the Man in White. So, [season three] wasn’t the most joyous season for me, I gotta say.”
The actor explains, “I’d just as soon know the full arc of my character. But, unfortunately, I do not.”
10. He threw a chair to get a better performance out of Pollack co-star Marcia Gay Harden
Harris has a reputation for great intensity in his work, and taking what he does very seriously.
And, as demonstrated at that press conference for A History of Violence, his sudden outbursts can be shocking.
This side of Harris also comes out in his directing, as happened on the set of his film Pollock.
As director as well as leading man, Harris didn’t feel he was getting the most out of co-star Marcia Gay Harden.
In order to elicit a more genuinely emotional response, Harris shocked the actress by suddenly hurling a chair.
Harden reportedly thanked Harris for this afterwards, agreeing that it helped – and her performance ultimately landed Harden the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
9. His first lead role was in bizarre Arthurian biker movie Knightriders
Ed Harris has spoken of how playing King Arthur in an amateur production of stage play Camelot inspired him to pursue acting professionally.
You might not have been aware that Harris wound up playing another version of King Arthur in his very first leading role on film.
Harris appeared as King Billy in Knightriders, director George Romero’s 1981 film about a motorcycle-riding carnival troupe.
The off-the-wall set-up sees this band of travelling performers joust on motorcycles, whilst upholding Arthurian ideals.
Knightriders proved a bit too weird for mainstream audiences and flopped, but it’s since attained cult status, and helped launch Harris as a film actor.
Following director Romero’s death in 2017, Harris said of his director, “I’ll miss him… he was an important guy in my life.”
8. He’s been declared ‘the thinking woman’s sex symbol’
Amongst his peers, Ed Harris is not necessarily the most obvious contender for sex symbol status.
After all, he rarely takes roles in which sex is a big part of the equation.
Nonetheless, the actor – noted for his old-fashioned masculinity – has no shortage of admirers.
Harris has more than once been described as ‘the thinking woman’s sex symbol’ in the press.
In 2001, he was also listed as one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world by People Magazine.
We won’t disagree he’s a handsome devil, and he’s only gotten better-looking as he’s grown older (and balder).
7. To play Beethoven, he learned violin and conducted an orchestra for real
Ed Harris is not an actor who goes into his projects without really doing his homework beforehand.
He took the challenge very seriously when cast as Ludwig van Beethoven in the 2006 drama Copying Beethoven.
Harris told the BBC that playing “probably the greatest musician that ever walked on the planet… can be a little daunting.”
The actor prepared by “playing the piano, learning the violin, having conducting lessons, reading about him, listening to all of his music – just to try to fill myself up.”
One key sequence in Copying Beethoven sees the great composer conduct an orchestra performing his Ninth Symphony – in which Harris was genuinely conducting a real orchestra.
The actor is said to have performed this task so well that, after the sequence was shot, the musicians rose to their feet and applauded.
6. He has no memory of performing the stage show Camelot
Ed Harris attributes his entire career to a 1972 stage production of the musical Camelot.
Intriguingly, the actor also says he literally has no memory of his performance as King Arthur – the role taken by Richard Harris (no relation) in the film adaptation.
Harris says, “I don’t remember doing the play at all. Really, I mean, seriously I don’t remember doing the play. I was just in another zone. I was in it.”
The actor explains that when the audience stood and cheered at the end, he “had this feeling of complete ecstasy. It’s probably the most high I’ve been ever, in any way.”
Harris says that in some sense he’s spent his whole career “trying to get back to that state where you’re just present, doing it, no thought other than doing this character in this play or this film.”
He looks back on the production of Camelot as “not a traditional kind of big breakthrough in terms of a career, but it was a big break for me personally, as a human being who has decided he wants to act.”
5. He hated being shot from so many angles on The Rock
Harris took one of his most mainstream-friendly roles when he appeared as the bad guy in 1996 action movie The Rock, alongside Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage.
Director Michael Bay’s film is more cartoonish than the sort of thing we’re used to seeing from Harris, but the actor approached at as seriously as any other film.
However, Harris admits he had some issues with Michael Bay’s directing style – in particular his insistence on shooting scenes over and over from numerous angles.
The actor complains on The Rock’s DVD commentary, “They shoot you head on, they shoot you from underneath, they shoot you right and left, they shoot you from above, they shoot you on the move. He just loved the camera.”
Harris also took exception to Bay’s preference for using tight close-up shots, as the actor feels he performs with his whole body.
Still, Harris got on well enough with Bay to work with the director a second time, on 2013’s Pain & Gain.
4. His voice can be heard in Gravity
Space drama Gravity was a huge critical and commercial success, winning seven Oscars including Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón.
Most of us probably remember it stars an Oscar-nominated Sandra Bullock, with a supporting turn from George Clooney.
However, you might not have been aware that Ed Harris is also part of the Gravity cast.
While the actor’s face is never seen, we hear his voice early on over the radio from NASA’s Mission Control.
Harris recalls he recorded his role before Bullock and Clooney shot their scenes: the special effects-heavy film was in its early stages.
This was one among a number of space-related roles Harris has taken, along with The Right Stuff and Apollo 13.
3. He was a star athlete in his youth
Before he discovered acting, Ed Harris was a talented and passionate athlete in his younger years.
He loved baseball, and he was also the captain of his high school’s football team.
Harris went on to pursue his sporting interests further once he got to college.
Harris studied at Columbia University in the late 60s, and competed in athletics while attending the prestigious university.
But he got drawn into acting instead when he starred as King Arthur in a local production of Camelot, which he said made him the “most ecstatic” he’d ever been.
Whilst working in theatre in the 70s, he went on to pursue the study of drama at Oklahoma University and California Institute of the Arts.
2. His father was a regular musical performer on TV
Harris was born in Englewood, New Jersey in 1950 to Margaret and Bob Harris.
Though his main job was in the bookstore of the Art Institute of Chicago, Bob Harris was also a performer.
Harris’ father was a successful musician and actor who performed with the famed Ray Charles Singers.
Bob’s performances on TV were widespread, and he showcased his musical talents on The Perry Como Show, the Garry Moore Show, the Fred Waring Show and the Martha Ray show.
Bob Harris and Ed Harris starred alongside each other several times, Bob first sharing the screen with his son in TV movie Riders of the Purple Sage.
Later, the younger Harris directed his father in what proved to be Bob L. Harris’ last two film roles, Pollock and Appaloosa.
1. He’s starred in three Stephen King adaptations
You might not have realised that Ed Harris has appeared in three major productions based on the writing of Stephen King.
Harris’ first chance to play a Stephen King character came along in 1982, when he starred as Hank Blaine in Creepshow.
Harris appeared in the ‘Father’s Day’ segment of the anthology horror movie, written by King and directed by George Romero (who had previously directed Harris in Knightriders).
Catching the King bug, Harris followed this performance with two more adaptations of the bestselling author’s work.
In 1993, Harris joined the cast of the movie Needful Things as Sheriff Pangborn, and later appeared in the 1994 TV miniseries adaptation of The Stand, as General Starkey.