Also Credited As:Woodrow Tracy Harrelson
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Born on July 23, 1961 in Midland, TX, Harrelson was raised by his mother, Diane, a legal secretary and his father, Charles, a professional hit man convicted for the 1979 murder of U.S. District Judge John Wood, Jr. and long thought to have been one of the three hobos arrested on the grassy knoll in Dallas following the assassination of President John Kennedy. Prior to hearing about his father's arrest for murder when he was seven, Harrelson believed him to be nothing more than a smooth-talking cardsharp who divorced his mother in 1964. Despite his parent's domestic troubles, Harrelson later claimed to have grown up relatively happy, though he was deemed hyperactive by doctors and given Ritalin. With his father on trial for the contract killing of grain dealer Sam Degelia in 1968, Harrelson was living in Lebanon, OH, where he delved deeply into religion, even taking to sermonizing while also acting in numerous school plays and warming the bench for the football team. By the time he graduated Lebanon High School, his father was released from prison, only to return to the limelight for killing Judge Wood in front of his home.
After high school, Harrelson continued acting while in attendance at Hanover College, where he majored in English and theater arts on a Presbyterian scholarship. Despite propelling himself along towards an acting career, Harrelson enjoyed drinking heavily and getting into fights, especially when he landed in New York after Hanover in 1983, where he chased his dream while working some 17 odd jobs in little more than a year. Things went from bad to bleak when the young actor was dropped by his agent after he became belligerent following an unsuccessful audition for a soap opera. On the verge of giving up, his luck began to change when Harrelson became an understudy for the roles of Roy Selridge and Joseph Wykowski for the Broadway production of Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues." But Harrelson's wild side continued to shine through when he and Simon's daughter, Nancy, started dating and on a whim decided to get married while partying in Tijuana, Mexico. Planning on a quickie divorce the next day, the newlyweds were surprised to find the office closed on a Sunday. They stayed married for another 10 months, despite her father's paranoia that Harrelson was out for his money. Eventually, they filed for a summary dissolution at a time Harrelson's career suddenly took off.
After the death of actor Nicholas Colasanto, who played the dumb, but loveable Coach on the hit sitcom "Cheers" (NBC, 1982-1993), Harrelson was called in to fill the massive void - a daunting challenge for any actor. Playing the dim-witted but good-hearted assistant bartender, Woodrow Tiberius "Woody" Boyd, Harrelson managed to endear himself to millions with his constant misunderstandings of jokes, situations and just about everything else going on around him. Over the course of eight years, Harrelson was nominated for five Emmy Awards, winning just once for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1989. Meanwhile, during his long successful run on "Cheers," Harrelson began a second career in features, making his debut in a supporting role as a high school football player under the guidance of a female coach (Goldie Hawn) in the comedy "Wildcats" (1986). Keeping his focus mainly on television, Harrelson made appearances in the low-rent horror thriller "Bay Coven" (NBC, 1987) and the more straightforward crime drama, "Killer Instinct" (NBC, 1988). Harrelson then returned to the stage, performing off-Broadway in "The Boys Next Door" (1988) while mounting his own play, "2 on 2" (1988) alongside Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story" (1988) in Hollywood.
With an increasingly amplified profile, Harrelson took the next logical step and formed his own production company, Shepwood Productions, in 1990. He then made his first significant film appearance, demonstrating big screen credibility as the romantic rival of Michael J. Fox in the comedy "Doc Hollywood" (1991), though the role of a small-town insurance salesman was not much of a stretch from playing a naive bartender. Harrelson's film career received a major boost from his first lead role in Ron Shelton's comedy, "White Men Can't Jump" (1992), which proved to be one of the surprise box office hits of the year and a suitable showcase for Harrelson's relaxed and self-aware charm. Harrelson was convincing as a seemingly naïve basketball hustler who meets his match in a fast-talking rival-turned-hustling partner (Wesley Snipes) always one step ahead of the game. Both Harrelson and Snipes were lauded for their effortless onscreen chemistry. In an effort to shake off his television alter ego, Harrelson co-starred as a venal, but jealous yuppie husband who is offered a big payday by a millionaire (Robert Redford) in exchange for one night of sex with his wife (Demi Moore) in the intriguing, but ultimately preposterous psychological drama, "Indecent Proposal" (1993).
By the time "Cheers" went off the air in 1993, the show had become one of the most beloved sitcoms in television history. After the show's last call on May 20th of that year - which was one of the most watched series finales ever - Harrelson went full force into his blossoming feature career. Though he failed to gain much of anything with portrayal of a country boy in the big city in the buddy actioner "The Cowboy Way" (1994), Harrelson obliterated his nice guy persona when he starred in Oliver Stone's bludgeoning satire on media violence, "Natural Born Killers" (1994), playing Mickey Knox, an ex-con who goes on a cross-country killing spree with his soul mate (Juliette Lewis), both of whom become celebrities fawned over by adoring fans and a tabloid journalist (Robert Downey, Jr.) looking to score big ratings with a sit-down interview. Though the film suffered from mixed reviews, there was no denying Harrelson's chillingly mesmerizing performance.
In an attempt to recapture past glory, Harrelson partnered again with Snipes for the action comedy, "Money Train" (1995), an uninspired piece of dreck that paired the two as foster brothers and transit cops who hatch a far-fetched plot to rob the subway car that carries the city's grosses each day. The film achieved notoriety when subway booths were set on fire in New York City in a copycat crime directly related to a scene from the movie. Even Republican Senator Bob Dole publicly called for a boycott of the film, which proved unnecessary in the long run because few people were attending anyway. Harrelson later told The Daily News in 1999 that the film remained "probably the least favorite of any movie I've ever done," and one which convinced him never again to take on a project simply for money. Meanwhile, offscreen, Harrelson began developing a reputation for being a social activist, working on behalf of organizations like Amnesty International and the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, while promoting industrial hemp as a commercially viable, environmentally-friendly cash crop - a stance that came back to bite him when he was arrested in Kentucky in 1996 for symbolically planting hemp seeds in direct challenge to a state law that failed to distinguish between industrial hemp and marijuana. He was also arrested that year for helping to hang a large banner across the Golden Gate Bridge with a group of environmentalists from Earth First in order to call attention to protecting the Redwoods.
Working steadily, Harrelson - who was becoming increasingly controversial due to his full-blown left-leaning politics, penchant for New Age therapies and sometimes erratic on-set behavior - turned up in three diverse high-profile roles, playing a one-handed former bowling hustler in "Kingpin" (1996) who takes on an Amish protégé (Randy Quaid), an initially unsympathetic physician taken hostage by an ailing renegade Native American teen in Michael Cimino's "Sunchaser" (1996), and the controversial pornographer Larry Flynt in Milos Forman's biopic, "The People vs. Larry Flynt" (1996). Though largely forgettable in the first two films, Harrelson was entirely convincing as the Hustler founder whose routine court battles over the First Amendment conversely landed him in a wheel chair and in the public consciousness. Despite critical raves, the film failed to do well at the box office, perhaps partly due to the public frowning at the notion of Larry Flynt being portrayed as a champion of civil rights. Though Courtney Love's portrayal of Flynt's doomed wife Althea earned the lion's share of critical attention, an increasingly versatile Harrelson was perfect as the mercurial scumbag and earned his first Oscar nomination.
Continuing to maintain a steady feature career, Harrelson delivered a flamboyant performance in the relatively small role of a spaced-out U.S. journalist in "Welcome to Sarajevo" (1997), a portrayal that gained layers of depth as the picture progressed, notably in scenes following his return from discovering Serbian concentration camps. He was suitably heroic as "good old shoe" Sergeant William Schumann in Barry Levinson's political satire, "Wag the Dog" (1997). In "Palmetto" (1998), he played a reporter released from prison after new evidence surfaces proclaiming his innocence, only to be lured by the bewitching wife (Elizabeth Shue) of a dying millionaire into a kidnapping scheme involving her stepdaughter (Chloe Sevigny). Next, he delivered an outstanding performance as the larger-than-life hellraiser Big Boy Matson in "The Hi-Lo Country" (1998), fleshing out the powerful life force provided by screenwriter Walon Green. In this underrated, hard-edged romance, his Big Boy personified the dying breed of rugged individualists unable to compete against corporate farming taking root in the post-World War II west. After delivering a memorable cameo in Terrence Malick's elegiac war opus "The Thin Red Line" (1998), he returned to his comic roots as Matthew McConaughey's rakehell brother in Ron Howard's "EDtv" (1999).
Switching gears again, Harrelson reunited with Ron Shelton to star alongside Antonio Banderas as a pair of washed-up boxers attempting to rejuvenate their careers in Las Vegas in "Play It to the Bone" (2000). Aside from a starring role in the little-seen caper comedy "Scorched" (2003), Harrelson appeared primarily in cameo or supporting roles in films such as "Anger Management" (2003) and "She Hate Me" (2003), preferring instead to make news in his offscreen life as a proponent of vegan diets, the co-owner of a San Francisco oxygen bar and as an outspoken hemp activist and environmentalist. In 2004, the actor returned to the big screen in the amiable caper film "After the Sunset" (2004), playing an obsessed FBI agent trying to goad his retired jewel thief rival (Pierce Brosnan) into one more big score. In "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" (2005), he played the drunken bum husband of a housewife (Julianne Moore) who keeps her impoverished family afloat winning jingle contests while he drinks away the meager wages from his grueling job. After a supporting turn as a one-time local hockey hero-turned-big city lawyer in "North Country" (2005), Harrelson joined the ensemble cast for Robert Altman's fictional take on Garrison Keillor's long-running radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion" (2006), a loose anthology depicting the program on its final broadcast and populated by its usual strange cast of performing talent.
After spending several years largely out of the public eye, Harrelson reemerged with a string of supporting roles in several high-profile films. After playing the drugged-out friend of an undercover narcotics cop (Keanu Reeves) in "A Scanner Darkly" (2006), he delivered a brief, but memorable performance as a self-assured bounty hunter who crosses paths with a down-and-out Vietnam veteran (Josh Brolin) on the run with $2 million in drug money belonging to a ruthless killer (Javier Bardem) in "No Country For Old Men" (2007). Harrelson next played a poker player entering a tournament in hopes of saving his grandfather's casino in "The Grand" (2007), then portrayed the flamboyantly gay son of a Virginia senator who moonlights as a paid escort for middle-aged women and gets embroiled in a murder scandal in "The Walker" (2007). After co-starring alongside Will Ferrell in the goofball comedy "Semi-Pro" (2008), Harrelson starred opposite Emily Mortimer in the international thriller "Transsiberian" (2008) before bringing his activist nature to the screen in "Battle in Seattle" (2008), a dramatic look back at the 1999 protest against the World Trade Organization that went from a peaceful demonstration to a full-scale riot.
Harrelson continued his hot streak into the new year, starring in the hit horror comedy, "Zombieland" (2009), in which he played, Tallahassee, hunter of the undead, who leads a group of zombie neophytes through a post-apocalyptic America. In "2012" (2009), director Roland Emmerich's massive CGI epic about the end of the world based on the ancient Mayan calendar, he was a whacked-out conspiracy theorist whose prophesies about the world's demise are ignored by everyone. Following a supporting turn in the ensemble dramedy, "Management" (2009), he delivered a winning performance in "The Messenger" (2009), which starred Ben Foster as an Army sergeant returned home from Iraq who is assigned to the Army's Casualty Notification service. Harrelson's portrayal of his partner, Captain Tony Stone, earned the actor Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, Independent Spirit and Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor. After a low-key 2010, Harrelson returned the following year with another Oscar-worthy performance in "Rampart" (2011), this time playing a hard-drinking, racist LAPD cop whose harsh methods jeopardize his career and the relationship with his dysfunctional family. The role created more Academy Award buzz for the actor, which started when he was nominated for another Independent Spirit Award.
Harrelson went from low-budget indie to one of the most anticipated blockbusters of the year with a supporting turn in "The Hunger Games" (2012), a futuristic sci-fi adventure where American adolescents are forced to participate in televised battles to the death that are part entertainment and part government intimidation. Harrelson portrayed Haymitch Abernathy, a former winner of the Games-turned-middle-aged alcoholic who serves as a mentor for Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a 16-year-old who volunteers for the deadly battle in order to replace her younger sister. That year also saw Harrelson deliver an exceptionally adroit performance as Steve Schmidt, senior strategist for Senator John McCain (Ed Harris) during the 2008 presidential campaign in "Game Change" (HBO, 2012). Based on the political tell-all of the same name by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, it focused on the selection of and consequent disillusionment with vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) in the months leading up to the McCain-Palin ticket's election loss. Harrelson's turn as Schmidt was hailed by critics and earned him an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie. That year he also appeared in Martin McDonagh's raucous "Seven Psychopaths" as a ruthless dog-loving criminal desperate to get his kidnapped pooch back.
The amiable actor had another busy year in 2013, appearing in the sly heist movie "Now You See Me" and voicing a tough-guy turkey in the underwhelming animated film "Free Birds." After reprising his role as Haymitch in the hit sequel "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," Harrelson was featured as a fearsome backwoods criminal in the gritty thriller "Out of the Furnace," also starring Casey Affleck and Christian Bale.