Ed Harris takes a look back at his career. Everything from bringing an astronaut down to earth, a dying artist to life, and a psycho ex-husband to the brink

By Dave Karger
Updated October 30, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Ed Harris Photograph by Anton Corbijn

Ed Harris knows that a little of him can go a long way. Earlier this year he earned an Oscar nomination for just a few minutes’ work as AIDS-stricken poet Richard Brown in ”The Hours.” Now he’s equally memorable — and utterly frightening — in five scenes of ”The Human Stain,” playing Lester Farley, the psychopathic Vietnam veteran who torments his already-troubled ex-wife (Nicole Kidman). ”I only know one actor that I would say, ‘Here are five scenes, and you have to make a whole character,”’ says ”Human Stain” director Robert Benton. ”And that’s Ed Harris.” Over two decades of film work, Harris has had to make his mark largely through smaller roles — three of his four Oscar nods have come in the supporting category — and the actor understands precisely why. ”It’s the way the business is run,” he says plainly. ”I’ve never been the lead guy in any film that’s made any money.” (Here’s an exception: ”Radio,” the feel-good football drama in which he stars, grossed $13.3 million in its opening weekend.)

Those who’ve worked with Harris say he’s as captivating off screen as he is on. ”We did a table read for ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ and he was sitting opposite me, and he took his shoes off under the table, and I watched,” says Jennifer Connelly, who also costarred with Harris in ”Pollock.” ”I thought, Now that is the definition of a charismatic person. He takes his freaking shoes off and I’m watching!” Looking out over the Pacific from his backyard in Malibu, Harris, 52, reminisces about some of the roles that have kept us fixated.

Harris’ first lead role came as the hog-riding King Billy in George A. Romero’s cult riff on the legend of Camelot. ”Yeah, King Arthur on motorcycles. It sounded totally bizarre to me. But I had always been a major Camelot fan; I played King Arthur in a production in Oklahoma City when I was first starting out.”

Harris’ portrayal of astronaut (and future politician) John Glenn hit theaters just as Glenn was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. ”They had my picture on the cover of Newsweek saying ‘Can a Movie Make a President?’ or something, which really was not good for the movie because it made it seem like it was some political thing. I know the box office was disappointing at the time, but it’s certainly held up over the years. I just went to a 20th-anniversary screening. It was a little excruciating watching it. I think I’m a much better actor than I was then. Some of the scenes, I was squirming a little bit.”

THE ABYSS (1989)
A three-month shoot became seven on James Cameron’s underwater alien epic, which featured an incongruous (and now infamous) happy ending. It didn’t help matters when the cameraman ran out of film during one intense scene. ”I was slapping Mary Elizabeth [Mastrantonio] when she’s going into hypothermia and trying to wake her up. I’m screaming at her and literally slapping her face. And I see the light go out on the camera. And nobody says ‘Cut.’ So I said, ‘You guys just ran out of film, didn’t you?’ Mary Elizabeth just got up and said, ‘We are not animals!’ and walked off the set for a few hours until she calmed down. When I saw the film the first time, and that tie-dyed-looking thing comes up out of the water, I was just furious, because we had really worked our asses off, and the film was really good up to that point. On the DVD there’s a different ending, which, whether you like it or not, at least makes more sense.”

Harris’ biggest dud was this ”Pretty Woman” knockoff starring Melanie Griffith as a hooker hired by a kid to date his widowed dad. ”Actually, some people really enjoy that. There are kids who have watched that thing over and over again. But it’s a little sexist and kind of stupid.”