Ed Harris continues to build critical acclaim -- The actor turns in a strong performance in ''Apollo 13''

By Anne Thompson
Updated July 21, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Ed Harris’ resume was perfect for the part. Maybe too perfect. As Apollo 13‘s Gene Kranz, the wired-for-sound NASA flight director who, in 1970, marshaled the Mission Control forces and guided three astronauts to safety in their disabled space capsule, Harris, 44, already knew the territory — 12 years earlier, he’d got his first taste of fame as astronaut John Glenn in 1983’s The Right Stuff.

”I was a bit concerned about the Right Stuff connection,” admits Apollo director Ron Howard. ”They’re very different kinds of films, and I didn’t want the media to make a big thing about the connection.” Harris wasn’t concerned. ”I think there are more than a couple of actors who’ve played cops or cowboys several times during their careers,” he told Howard. ”So I don’t see why there couldn’t be more than one NASA employee in [my] career.”

Given his Apollo reviews, he might consider playing a few more. In The New Yorker, Terrence Rafferty called Harris’ performance ”electrifying…the actor…commands the screen as if by right.” Praise indeed, considering that Harris’ character seldom steps out from behind his desk, let alone leaves the control room. ”If there’s a surprise in the film, it’s how emotionally moving it is on the Mission Control side,” Howard says. ”It’s what a Duvall or De Niro brings. He’s always truthful and interesting, never bland or fakey, he rides that line. There’s just an integrity you trust.”

Milquetoast has never been Harris’ style. In more than 20 film roles in 17 years, the actor, who was raised in suburban New Jersey and rural Oklahoma, has become known for his ability to portray prototypically American, virile, passionately intense characters. He won a 1983 Obie for his role as a desert drifter in the Sam Shepard play Fool for Love, took up arms as a mercenary in 1983’s Under Fire, and plumbed the depths of an underwater oil rig foreman in 1989’s The Abyss. He’s played a womanizing husband (1985’s Sweet Dreams), an Irish gangster (1990’s State of Grace), a browbeaten real estate salesman (1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross), and a demonic serial killer (1995’s Just Cause). ”Harris,” says Howard, ”is one of those actors every director would like to hook up with eventually.”

Of course, Harris’ intensity doesn’t always make for a relaxed atmosphere. One morning, on the L.A. set of the John Schlesinger thriller Eye for an Eye (in which Harris and Sally Field play a couple whose teenage daughter is murdered), the actor acts out. As he rehearses a trickily choreographed, dramatic kitchen scene, Harris begins to boil long before the pasta water. He has barely delivered his final line when he notices several roving crew members. ”There are too many f—ing people on this set!” he suddenly bellows, pounding the counter for emphasis with a five-inch kitchen knife that sends salad fixings flying. The people in question stare silently. ”This is supposed to be our home! It’s supposed to be intimate,” he seethes. ”I’m sorry,” he says firmly, ”but this is just difficult.”