In Praise Of…Woody Harrelson

Image for In Praise Of…Woody Harrelson

To some, he will forever be Woody, the good-natured, sawdust-brained barman from Cheers. But Harrelson has had a long, varied life on screen covering all sorts of performances. As The Messenger finally arrives on our screens, we take a look at some choice cuts from his career to date...

Though he’d previous cropped up as an uncredited extra in 1978’s Harper Valley PTA, Harrelson was a year into his Cheers contract when he really started pushing the idea of film roles. His first proper role was as Krushinski, a high-school jock beginning to realise that his star status is seriously beginning to wane as Goldie Hawn’s Molly McGrath takes over as coach. The movie itself didn’t exactly score a hit with the critics, but Harrelson won enough kudos to launch a career on the big screen. He also forged a strong friendship with a fellow young actor making his debut, named Wesley Snipes. More on him later...

Michael J. Fox starred as ambitious young doctor Ben Stone, whose career takes a literal diversion when he crashes in the tiny South Carolina town of Grady. Harrelson snatched a small, yet pivotal role as insurance salesman Hank Gordon, a man who nevertheless shows enough heart and brains to rise above his jealous feelings towards Ben. Despite claiming that he too could have gone to medical school – “it was the science part of it I had a problem with” – it’s Hank who later gives Ben the inspiration to return to Grady to try again with tomboy ambulance driver Lou (Julie Warner). Harrelson is charming and warm with what could have been a stereotypical local yokel role.

Harrelson and Snipes’ easy chemistry pays serious dividends in Ron Shelton’s film about hustlers and hoops. Harrelson is Billy Hoyle, a talented basketball player who trades on the idea that white guys just can’t measure up on the court. Whether he’s facing off against Snipes’ Sidney Deane or dealing with the up and down relationship with girlfriend Gloria (Rosie Perez), Harrelson makes it look easy, with his gangly ways and wonky smile. It doesn’t hurt that he also showed off some serious sporting chops, with hall-of-fame player Bob Lanier, hired to coach the leading men, commenting that they both could have played college ball.

Romantic drama time, as Harrelson’s matched up with Demi Moore playing David and Diana Murphy, a couple who gamble away their money at Las Vegas, but accept the tempting offer of craggy billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford), who wants to bed Diana. While the promise of $1 million is a hefty lure, the fall-out naturally sours the couple’s marriage. Despite being a leading man and giving his all to the role, Woody was targeted by the Razzie Awards, and “won” Worst Supporting Actor for the film. But he’s convincing as the betrayed husband who eventually manages to win his wife’s heart once again.

Oliver Stone’s stylishly shot serial-killer media satire features blazing performances from Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr. and Juliet Lewis. Harrelson drew on his own fractured family history – his father was a contract killer who died in prison – to portray psychopathic slaughterer Mickey Knox, the ‘90s Clyde to Lewis’s Bonnie. Woody, who's rarely been more electric, was pumped up between shots by Stone blasting tribal music. He gives himself fully to the performance, a dark night of the soul made that much more impressive when you consider his usually mild-mannered nature outside of acting.

After a run of action pics, dramas and few laughs, Harrelson returned to comedy for the Farrelly brothers’ raucous bowling road trip. Whether interacting with Randy Quaid’s credulous Amish type Ishmael or facing down ball-spinning legend Ernie McCracken (Bill Murray), Harrelson once more gives his all to the role, making leading man Roy Munson far more likeable than he might have been in other hands. Well, hand, since he spends the film with a prosthetic right hook. Literally. From crazed sex with Lin Shaye’s putrid landlady to his big moment, Roy’s a great comic character and Harrelson plays him with winning appeal.

If Kingpin was his big return to comedy, Milos Forman’s true-life tale of Hustler publisher and porn crusader Larry Flynt saw Harrelson score an Oscar nomination for his turn as the wheelchair-bound magnate. Flynt firmly established Harrelson as an actor who wasn’t just coasting on aw-shucks schtick. Handed a meaty role, he delivered something fully rounded. Harrelson even overcame Forman’s initial doubts: "I didn't know Woody, and the only film I saw him in, Indecent Proposal, was not very convincing to me. But I met him, we had dinner together, and I was sold on him from the first meeting. I liked him enormously."

More high profile work, and another respected director came calling in the shape of Terrence Malick. The haunting, reflective, gritty World War II film features a roll call of top talent, including Sean Penn, John Cusack, James Caviezel, John C. Reilly, John Travolta and George Clooney. And while Harrelson is only one among many, his work was solid enough that the notoriously scissor-happy Malick left him firmly in the final cut. And that was at the expense of Adrien Brody, whose originally meaty role got snipped down to a near-cameo alongside those of Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman and Martin Sheen. That Harrelson made such an impression on the director does him massive credit.

While Stephen Frears’ low-key, post World War II Western tale of two men (Harrelson and Billy Crudup) whose friendship is tested by their shared attraction to a woman (Patricia Arquette) is methodical and lyrical, Woody gives it a serious shot of energy with his performance as cattle herder Big Boy Matson. Both he and Crudup threw themselves into the role and the saddle, with the bruises and sores to prove it. It’s Harrelson who truly makes a convincing cowboy, channelling some of John Wayne’s energy to play the confident, bullying Big Boy.

Though he’d returned to comedy for a small role in Anger Management, Brett Ratner’s After The Sunset gave Harrelson the opportunity to appear in a hybrid action/comedy drama, all while enjoying tropical location shoots, a “party set” atmosphere with Ratner and the company of Pierce Brosnan and Salma Hayek. Playing FBI agent Stan Lloyd gave him the opportunity to meet real life law-enforcers (the sort of people he’s run afoul of thanks to his crusade to legalise marijuana) and have some fun. He and Brosnan share great energy and while the movie’s largely stylish, throwaway fluff, it’s entertaining all the same.

Not perhaps Harrelson’s finest hour, but worth watching all the same for his work as Carter Page, a gay escort who accompanies Washington’s wealthy older single ladies to social events. It’s a definite stretch for Woody, as director Paul Schrader can attest: “I was going to do it with another actor and I lost that actor so we went out to replace him. Woody’s agent called me up and said, ‘Have you thought of Woody?’ I said, ‘Why would I? He’s never done anything like this.” But though he occasionally slips into caricature, he still offers some genuine emotion as the murder mystery deepens.

Harrelson snagged the role of hitman Carson Wells in the Coen brothers’ Oscar-scooping Cormac McCarthy adaptation. He and Javier Bardem – playing the film’s iconic, bowl-mopped killer Anton Chigurh – bonded to such a degree on their brief scene together that the pair even went so far as to scoop new dialogue from McCarthy’s book and present it to the Coens as extra material for their scene. Unfortunately for the actors, the writer/directors weren’t going for it. But they did provide Harrelson with a satisfying, shocking death-by-Chigurh scene. To craft something memorable out of relatively short screen time takes talent, and Harrelson pulls it off.

If you want an example of a successful blend of comedy and action, look no further than this zombie lark. Drawing favourable comparisons with Shaun Of The Dead, Zombieland saw Harrelson able to bring out his wild man acting side again as Tallahassee, a man who’s never happier than when he’s slaying the undead (or nibbling a Twinkie). Playing perfectly against Jesse Eisenberg’s nerdy fellow survivor Columbus, Harrelson is a constant source of delight. And he even helped the film’s director, Ruben Fleischer, land one of the movie’s highlights when he called up Kingpin co-star Bill Murray and convinced him to make a cameo.

No, we haven’t screwed up the order – The Messenger has just been sitting waiting for release in this country for nearly two years. That might partly be because of the film’s touchy, Iraq War-adjacent subject matter of a Casualty Notification Team (Harrelson and Ben Foster) talking to those who have lost serving loved ones, and partly because it wasn’t a big box-office hit across the pond. But that’s not to say it wasn’t a success – it attracted plenty of positive reviews and Harrelson scored his second Oscar nomination for his role as Captain Tony Stone, a man dealing with his own alcoholic past as he trains Foster’s Will Montgomery.

One for the future here, since Harrelson has only just landed the role, and the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ first bestseller started shooting a few short weeks ago. Harrelson will be Haymitch Abernathy, a drunken former champion of the titular gladiatorial event that happens every year in a shattered future America. When young Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) agrees to take part in her sister’s place, it’s Haymitch she turns to for advice. Though their relationship gets off to a rocky start – she’s disgusted by his sarcastic, drunken attitude – he proves himself and invaluable asset, guiding both Katniss and fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) will skill and cunning. For more on the story, take a look at our extensive guide.