Known almost as much for his off-screen pastimes as his on-screen characterizations, Woody Harrelson is an actor for whom truth is undeniably stranger than fiction. Son of a convicted murderer, veteran of multiple arrests, outspoken environmentalist, and tireless hemp proponent, Harrelson is colorful even by Hollywood standards. However, he is also a strong, versatile actor, something that tends to be obscured by the attention paid to his real-life antics.
Born in Midland, TX, on July 23, 1961, Harrelson grew up in Lebanon, OH. He began his acting career there, appearing in high-school plays. He also went professional around this time, making his small-screen debut in Harper Valley P.T.A. (1978) alongside Barbara Eden. While studying acting in earnest, Harrelson attended Indiana's Hanover College; following his graduation, he had his first speaking part (one line only) in the 1986 Goldie Hawn vehicle Wildcats. On the stage, Harrelson understudied in the Neil Simon Broadway comedy Biloxi Blues (he was briefly married to Simon's daughter Nancy) and at one point wrote a play titled Furthest From the Sun. His big break came in 1985, when he was cast as the sweet-natured, ingenuous bartender Woody Boyd on the TV sitcom Cheers. To many, he is best remembered for this role, for which he won a 1988 Emmy and played until the series' 1993 conclusion. During his time on Cheers, Harrelson also played more serious roles in made-for-TV movies such as Bay Coven (1987), and branched out to the big screen with roles in such films as Casualties of War (1989) and Doc Hollywood (1991).
Harrelson's big break as a movie star came with Ron Shelton's 1992 sleeper White Men Can't Jump, a buddy picture in which he played a charming (if profane) L.A. hustler. His next film was a more serious drama, Indecent Proposal (1993), wherein he was miscast as a husband whose wife sleeps with a millionaire in exchange for a fortune. In 1994, Harrelson appeared as an irresponsible rodeo rider in the moronic buddy comedy The Cowboy Way, which proved to be an all-out clinker. That film's failings, however, were more than overshadowed by his other film that year, Oliver Stone's inflammatory Natural Born Killers. Playing one of the film's titular psychopaths, Harrelson earned both raves and a sizable helping of controversy for his complex performance. Following work in a couple of low-rated films, Harrelson again proved his mettle, offering another multi-layered performance as real life pornography magnate Larry Flynt in the controversial People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996). The performance earned Harrelson an Oscar nomination. The next year, he earned further praise for his portrayal of a psychotic military prisoner in Wag the Dog. He then appeared as part of an all-star lineup in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998), and in 1999 gave a hilarious performance as Matthew McConaughey's meathead brother in EdTV. That same year, he lent his voice to one of his more passionate causes, acting as the narrator for Grass, a documentary about marijuana.
In 2000, Harrelson starred in White Men collaborator Ron Shelton's boxing drama Play It to the Bone as an aspiring boxer who travels to Las Vegas to find fame and fortune, but ends up competing against his best friend (Antonio Banderas). The actor temporarily retired from the big screen in 2001 and harkened back to his television roots, with seven appearances as Natha, the short-term downstairs boyfriend to Debra Messing's Grace, in producer David Kohan's long-running hit Will and Grace (1998-2006). After his return to television, Harrelson seemed content to land supporting roles for several years. He reemerged in cineplexes with twin 2003 releases. In that year's little-seen Scorched, an absurdist farce co-starring John Cleese and Alicia Silverstone, Harrelson plays an environmentalist and animal activist who seeks retribution on Cleese's con-man for the death of one of his pet ducks. Unsurprisingly, most American critics didn't even bother reviewing the film, and it saw extremely limited release. Harrelson contributed a cameo to the same year's Jack Nicholson/Adam Sandler vehicle Anger Mangement, and a supporting role to 2004's critically-panned Spike Lee opus She Hate Me. The tepid response to these films mirrored those directed at After the Sunset (2004), Brett Ratner's homage to Alfred Hitchcock. Harrelson stars in the diamond heist picture as federal agent Stan Lloyd, opposite Pierce Brosnan's master thief Max Burdett.
Audiences had three chances to catch Harrelson through the end of 2005; these included Mark Mylod's barely-released, Fargo-esque crime comedy The Big White , with Robin Williams and Holly Hunter; Niki Caro's October 2005 sexual harrassment docudrama North Country, starring Charlize Theron; and the gifted Jane Anderson's period drama Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio. In the latter, Harrelson plays, Leo 'Kelly' Ryan, the drunken, increasingly violent husband of lead Julianne Moore, who manages to hold her family together with a steady stream of sweepstakes wins in the mid-fifties, as alcoholism and the financial burden of ten children threaten to either tear the family apart or send it skidding into abject poverty.
Harrelson then joined the cast of maestro auteur Robert Altman's ensemble comedy-drama A Prairie Home Companion (2006), a valentine to Garrison Keillor's decades-old radio program with a strong ensemble cast that includes Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan and Kevin Kline. He also works wonders as a key contributor to the same year's Richard Linklater sci-fi thriller Through a Scanner Darkly, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's 1977 novel that, like one of the director's previous efforts, 2001's Waking Life, uses rotoscoping to animate over live-action footage. It opened in July 2006 to uniformly strong reviews. As Ernie Luckman, one of the junkie hangers-on at Robert Arctor's (Keanu Reeves) home, Harrelson contributes an effective level of despondency to his character, amid a first-rate cast.
After Harrelson shot Prairie and Scanner, the trades announced that he had signed up to star in Paul Schrader's first UK-produced feature, Walker, to co-star Kristin Scott-Thomas, Lauren Bacall, Ned Beatty, Lily Tomlin and Willem Dafoe. Harrelson portrays the lead, a Washington, D.C.-based female escort; Schrader informed the trades that he envisions the character as something similar to what American Gigolo's Julian Kaye would become in middle-age. Shooting began in March 2006. He also signed on, in June of the same year, to join the cast of the Coen Bros.' 2007 release No Country for Old Men, which would capture the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Harrelson showed off his versatility in 2008 by starring in the Will Ferrell basketball comedy Semi-Pro as well as the thriller Transsiberian. He continued to prove himself capable of just about any part the next year with his entertaining turn in the horror comedy Zombieland, and his powerful work as a damaged soldier in Oren Moverman's directorial debut The Messenger. For his work in that movie, Harrelson captured his second Academy Award nomination, as well as nods from the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards, and the Screen Actors Guild - in addition to winning the Best Supporting Actor award from the National Board of Review. In 2012, the actor appeared as the flawed but loyal mentor to two young adults forced to compete to the death in the film adaptation of author Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi