Woody, born Woodrow Tracy Harrelson on July 23, 1961, in Midland, Texas, had a childhood most people have never had to face. His father, Charles Voyde Harrelson, went to prison, convicted of murder when Woody was only seven. His mother Diane, a legal secretary, raised Woody and his two brothers in Lebanon, Ohio. Growing up strongly influenced by religion, Woody went to college on a presbyterian scholarship. After obtaining a degree in 1983 in English and theatrical arts from Hanover College, Indiana, Woody went to New York City to pursue a career in acting.
His career began in New York theatre as an understudy in Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues.” Within months, he was cast as the good-hearted but dim-witted bartender Woody Boyd on the hit TV series, “Cheers.” Woody won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1988. During his time on Cheers he also played some dramatic parts on television and in the theater. In 1993 Woody appeared on the Los Angeles stage in “Furthest From the Sun,” a drama he both wrote and directed. He co-starred with Glenn Close and Laura Dern in 1991’s “Brooklyn Laundry,” directed by James L. Brooks, and has also appeared on stage in Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story,” the off-Broadway production of “The Boys Next Door,” the San Francisco production of “Biloxi Blues,”and a basketball-themed play, “2 on 2,” which he also wrote.
It was not until the end of “Cheers” that Woody’s movie career really took off. After some supporting and cameo roles, Woody landed his first lead in a major motion picture in the 1992 sleeper White Men Can’t Jump. The drama Indecent Proposal followed with mixed reviews. Somewhat typecast by his long run on Cheers and the success of his first starring role in a buddy movie, he went on to star in two more uninspired buddy movies, Cowboy Way and Money Train, carried only by the charm of the leads.
However, Woody drew more serious attention when in 1994, he starred in Oliver Stone’s controversial movie Natural Born Killers. The film polarized critics, receiving high artistic praise as well as social condemnation. In any case, it allowed audiences to view Woody in a completely new light. In 1996, he starred in The Sunchaser directed by The Deerhunter’s Michael Cimino.
Following this, Woody starred in the Farrelly Brothers’ irreverent Kingpin, a hilarious, crude comedy with a heart of gold, ‘though admittedly not for all tastes. Next, Woody won the title role in Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt. For his funny, unexpectedly poignant, wide-ranging performance, Woody was nominated Best Actor in the 1996 Academy Awards. Following critical praise, the film received unprecedented attack from feminist groups for its unconventional, sympathetic portrayal of the real-life pornographer.
Despite the controversy, film critics would no longer dismiss Woody as a light-weight actor. In his next project, Woody took on a supporting role in the low budget film Welcome to Sarajevo by rising director Michael Winterbottom. The film had a great reception at Cannes, and opened in the U.S. in November ’97 to critical acclaim. At around the same time, Woody also appeared in a wonderful cameo in the political satire Wag the Dog. This was followed by the film-noir Palmetto. Woody will next be seen in Hi Lo Country, a “modern western” set in post-WW2 New Mexico.
Woody was briefly married to Nancy Simon in 1985-6. On January 11, 1998, he and longtime love Laura Louie got married in a private ceremony in Costa Rica. Laura, formerly Woody’s assistant, had worked with Woody for more than two years before they became romantically involved in 1990. Laura is currently a partner in their production company, Children at Play, and in their health-food restaurant/oxygen bar in L.A. Together they have two young children, Deni Montana (b.1993) and Zoe Giordano (b.1996). Deni served as flower-girl at the wedding while 18-month-old Zoe slept through the ceremony on a nearby hammock.
In addition to acting, Woody has channelled his energies into various environmental causes, including the saving of the California redwood and other endangered forests. His activism evolved from his time on Cheers. Co-star Ted Danson has long been deeply involved in the American Oceans’ Campaign. On several occasions when Danson was unable to attend, Woody would take his place in the campaigns. As an environmentalist, he came to see the legalization of industrial hemp as a solution to the worldwide fibre shortage crisis.
He became a vocal champion of this much-maligned cause, even risking imprisonment. In June ’96, he planted four certified industrial hemp seeds to challenge the constitutionality of the Kentucky State law which does not distinguish between industrial hemp and marijuana. Industrial hemp has less than 0.3% THC, and is non-hallucinogenic. Proponents say it is a versatile plant that can be used instead of many wood-based products, as well as for high-protein food, machine oils and clothing. It currently produced in Canada, Australia, China and most of Europe. Thus far, Woody has won the first two rounds in court, when a trial court ruled that the states’ definition of hemp was too broad, and again when a circuit court upheld that decision. The case is expected to go to the Kentucky State Appelate Court, at which level the ruling will have state-wide impblootions.
Some Interesting Facts
Woody has been honored for his activism by such environmental groups as: American Oceans Campaign, Rainforest Action Network and the Colorado Hemp Initiative Project. As a child Woody was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. “I went through two or three kindergartens. I was violent . . . but it is something that I learned to deal with.”
Following the feminist backlash against The People vs. Larry Flynt the studio tried to distance itself from the film. Prior to Oscar night, Larry Flynt had complained bitterly that he did not receive an invitation to attend the ceremony, citing that there had never before been a living subject of a nominated biopic who had not been invited. At the last minute he managed to obtain a ticket to attend. According to EW magazine, it was Woody who got him the ticket.
Woody has posted a $500,000 bail for cancer survivor and longtime medical marijuana proponent Todd McCormack, after the 27-yr-old was arrested for cultivating large quantities of marijuana in his Bel-Air home. McCormack insists the plants are not for profit but to help treat his illness and that he is an amateur scientist breeding many strains in an attempt to improve their therapeutic value. He will be represented by Alan Issacman, the civil liberties lawyer portrayed in Flynt, and who had won the Supreme Court Case depicted in the film.
In November ’96, Woody and 8 other environmental activists scaled the Golden Gate Bridge to hang up a banner in protest of logging of the Headwaters Complex. This caused a massive traffic-jam as traffic officers closed several lanes when the activists refused to come down. For this Woody will serve a sentence of 25 hours of community service—he has been ordered to teach school children about the environment. “I apologize in the sense that I feel I didn’t really think [the protest] through or think what the ramifications would be,” Woody told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We were doing what we thought was right, but unfortunately some people got caught in the middle.” Self-examining, Woody came to the conclusion that he had initially been a hypocrite. “I had no desire to take responsibility for the traffic, but when I heard about the couple who met because of it and are getting married, I wanted to take responsibility for that.”
Over 1,500 people have been arrested in northern California since September 15 in an effort to save the 60,000-acre Headwaters Complex, the largest unprotected ancient redwood wilderness left on earth.
Woody owns his own small piece of rainforest in Costa Rica, and spends much time in his reportedly rather primitive, commune-style living quarters there. Woody is a certified yoga instructor.
The actor who played his screen brother Jimmy Flynt is Woody’s real-life brother Brett Harrelson. Criminal defense lawyers in San Antonio have asked that a new trial be granted for Woody’s father,
Charles Harrelson, for his 1982 conviction of killing a federal judge. Harrelson is currently serving a life prison term in a maximum-security area of a federal prison for the killing of U.S. District Judge John H. Wood on May 29, 1979. While Harrelson’s lawyers have asked that the motion be sealed, sources tell the San-Antonio Express-News that the government allegedly suppressed evidence that could have been favorable to Harrelson at trial.
There is a subcultural belief that Woody’s father, Charles Voyde Harrelson, was one of the three hobos taken away from “the grassy knoll” after JFK’s assascination.
A Few Words from the Oasis Founders, Woody and Laura:
Seeking a retreat from the environmental madness in the U.S. we went in search of a tropical location and landed in Costa Rica in 1993. Indeed we had found an oasis. But the illusion was soon shattered when we personally witnessed truckloads of ancient trees being extracted from the rainforests. Our hearts sank. But instead of criticizing the situation, we decided to act on a vision we have always imagined…
Noah’s Ark. This is the basis of our intention for Oasis Preserve International. A few crucial ecosystems still exist that house planetary information in their vast seed banks that will be the key to our survival as we cross the threshhold into the 21st century.
Unfortunately big business and money driven economies are gaining momentum in every part of the world and industry is destroying our rainforests at alarming rates. As indigenous tribes come into contact with developing nations they encounter greed disguised as opportunities to better their lifestyles.
By educating indigenous people of their rights and providing them with clean alternative technologies such as solar and hydro-electric power instead of petroleum or coal based resources, we will encourage sustainable communities that support rather than destroy the land, water and air.
We have great hopes for Oasis Preserve International and invite you to join our efforts. It is time to share the responsibility and joy in guiding our planetary evolution.
We bring you Oasis Preserve International to provide our children, your children and those to come secure access to nature’s ecosystems still in tact and capable of sustaining all life in natural balance.