Ed Harris Seeks the Man Behind the Uniform

Special Features   Ed Harris Seeks the Man Behind the Uniform


Broadway almost didn't get Ed Harris for Taking Sides, the six-character play, co-starring Daniel Massey, by Ronald Harwood (author of 1982's Tony-nominated The Dresser). His popularity in such movie blockbusters as last summer's The Rock and 1995's Apollo 13 (for which he received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor) has kept him busy in front of and behind the camera. And, on his first read of the play, Harris felt his character was too cut and dried.

Harris plays Army Major Steve Arnold who's assigned to the American sector of 1946 occupied Berlin to investigate symphony conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler (played by Massey, who originated the role in England) for Nazi collaboration during the war and his participation in the Ministry of Culture's drive to ban "Jewish, Bolshevik music." Furtwängler was cleared of charges by fellow Germans, but the Americans were determined to build a case against him.

"There's little known about why we went after him with such vengeance," said Harris. "There was supposition the Russians wanted him because of his fame. It became a competition, with our guys saying, 'No way.' " Since no testimony or transcripts of the investigation exist, the confrontation between the conductor and the American major is supposition.

Harris liked the play but "found Arnold too black and white. From the London reviews it seemed he was the stereotypical ugly American versus a cultured European." Alexander Cohen, a producer of Taking Sides, doesn't easily take "no" for an answer. He felt the character of Arnold was a perfect fit for the screen persona Harris has nurtured and which made him a popular film star.

"Alex kept saying, 'You've got to do this,' and 'You're a fool if you don't.' " reported Harris. "I replied I'd love to but couldn't take seven months off. I also felt I couldn't do that to my family [he and his wife, actress Amy Madigan, have a young daughter, Lily]." In the end, they compromised on three months.

"I found a lot of complexity to this guy, which thanks to [director] David [Jones] I was allowed to discover during the rehearsal process. For one thing, you're never quite sure where he's coming from, which might just be a ploy. And he's a lot smarter than he lets on."

Unlike some military types he's played, say in The Rock, Harris explained, "this guy doesn't care about protocol. Before the war he was an insurance claims assessor, and now he's interrogating prisoners of war, with carte blanche as to how he goes about it."

Though Harris found similarities in Arnold to characters he's played, "I wanted to make him a little different, so I picked up on the humor in Ron's script, finding more than I expected, and ended up with a composite of someone, hopefully, I've made into an original."

Similarities aside, there are differences. For one, Arnold hates‹"or," says Harris, "claims he does"‹Beethoven, of which Furtwängler was a renowned interpreter, and all classical music.

Harris came from a Tenafly, New Jersey, family steeped in pop and classical music. His father, Bob, was a singer with Fred Waring and on Perry Como and Garry Moore's TV variety shows; later he managed symphony orchestras.

Harris, who became "a pretty good high school football player" with the Tenafly Tigers, played his freshman year at Columbia University. When his parents relocated to Oklahoma at the end of his junior year, he entered the University of Oklahoma.

"Football and baseball consumed me since age five," Harris said, "but it ceased being fun. Everybody was bigger and faster. I had good instincts as a running back, but I wasn't great."
Seeing theatre that summer, he thought acting looked like something he could do. "A whole new world opened. The closest thing to scoring a touchdown was doing a play and having audiences applaud. I liked the cheers. Still do!"

What got him noticed initially? "A certain presence, I guess, and not being afraid to try something new. I didn't set out to be noticed. I was honest about what I was doing. I have a good b.s. meter and know when I'm telling a lie."

After a restless year off, in 1973 Harris entered Los Angeles's CalArts [California Institute of the Arts], graduating with a bachelor of fine arts. His physicality‹the word often used to describe Harris's magnetism‹worked well for him in regional theatre, and in the mid-seventies got the attention of film casting directors.

The Right Stuff (1986), with Sam Shepard, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid and Fred Ward, the story of the birth of America's space program, catapulted Harris as astronaut John Glenn to stardom. He found his movie niche playing eclectic characters‹everything from psychotics to heartthrobs, which didn't make him easy to classify. He seems most comfortable playing a variation of himself‹tough, macho, scrappy, intense, unpretentious.

Harris was nominated for a Best Actor Tony Award for his 1986 Broadway debut (opposite Judith Ivey) in George Furth's Precious Son (Rent's Anthony Rapp was one of his sons). In 1994 he returned Off-Broadway and won the Lortel Award as Best Actor in the New York Shakespeare Theater's production of Sam Shepard's Simpatico (opposite Beverly D'Angelo).

The actor feels there's nothing more invigorating than live theatre, "rehearsing, having a different audience each performance and coming up with the goods as I explore and grow into the character. In film you don't have that opportunity. The rehearsal is the shoot. You know who your character is when you finish the film."

The fun roles, Harris observed, were those "quite far away from myself," like the real-estate salesman in the film of Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and Lassiter in the TV remake of Riders of the Purple Sage (1996), which he and Amy Madigan produced and starred in.

Onstage, there was the battling lover Eddie in Sam Shepard's Fool for Love (his 1983 Obie Award-winning Off-Broadway debut, which Shepard, a San Francisco drinking and theatre buddy, wrote for him); and Lott, an effete guy dying of TB and fixated on his dead mother (even wearing her gown), in a 1976 production of Tennessee Williams's Kingdom of Earth..

"Nothing really is that far away," said Harris, "because we have so many elements to who we are. That's what is fun about acting, to be able to explore all those aspects of yourself."

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