Birthdate: November 28, 1950
Birthplace: Tenafly, New Jersey, USA
The model of the ideal movie actor’s career, without any extreme highs or lows, just consistently outstanding work, is hard to come by. But Ed Harris (birthname: Edward Allen Harris) can easily claim it, with one of the most sustained quality filmographies among working American actors.
Neither a movie star nor a nameless character actor, Harris is the definitive actor-artist respected for his unwavering seriousness balanced with a total lack of pretension, a figure who’s never appeared in a tabloid headline (and hasn’t yet won an Oscar either, despite four nominations). On top of this, Ed Harris is an accomplished writer-producer-director, with three features, including his latest, The Ploughmen, co-starring wife Amy Madigan, and daughter Lily Harris, ready for release in either 2022 or 2023.
Ed Harris is both a throwback to an earlier generation’s brand of lived-in masculine realism, in the vein of Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda, and a defiantly contemporary artist, famed for working with playwrights like Sam Shepard (his first major award was an Obie for his stunning performance in Fool for Love in 1984) as well as new writers in the Los Angeles theater scene, as well as major, groundbreaking filmmakers.
All of these combined perfectly in one of the 1980s finest “debut” film performances, as John Glenn in Philip Kaufman’s glorious The Right Stuff (1983). (It wasn’t his first movie—Harris had already worked twice with cult filmmaker George Romero, and had a bit parts in Coma (1978)—but for audiences, it felt like it.)
This one performance transformed Ed Harris’ trajectory, sending him on a wonderful string of movies that defy the commonly held view that the 1980s was the worst decade in movie history. His stellar run started with Swing Shift (1984), Places in the Heart (1984); Victor Nunez’s fine mystery, A Flash of Green (1984); Louis Malle’s Alamo Bay (1985), with Amy Madigan; Ronald Bass’s Code Name: Emerald (1985) with Max von Sydow, Horst Buchholz, Helmut Berger, and Patrick Stewart; Karel Reisz’s Patsy Cline-biopic, Sweet Dreams (1985), with Jessica Lange; Alex Cox’s original anti-Western, Walker (1987), with Harris in one of his best and most overlooked performances.
Agnieszka Holland’s fine To Kill a Priest (1988) with Christopher Lambert, Tim Roth, Joss Ackland, and Timothy Spall; Jacknife (1989) with Robert de Niro and Kathy Baker; the beloved Field of Dreams (1989) in which he memorably played The Voice; and the first of James Cameron’s super-spectacular blockbusters, The Abyss (1989).
Hard as it may be to believe, Ed Harris actually topped this remarkable decade with the 1990s earned him two Oscar nominations, and confirmed his “script sense” (the gift to be able to read a script and see the final film’s potential) is second to none. The Oscar nods were for Harris’ second Space Race performance, in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998). This started a trend: Harris was in the Oscar hunt for three of the next four years—for Best Actor in his own directorial debut, Pollock (2000), and then for Supporting Actor in The Hours (2002) with Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman.
There are too many strong Harris performances in the 1990s and 2000s to list more than a few standouts, and even those are hard to differentiate, so consistent in his work and caliber of projects. But no Ed Harris survey can fail to mention these: David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), with Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, and Jonathan Pryce; Sydney Pollack’s The Firm (1993) with Tom Cruise and Gene Hackman; John Bailey’s overlooked noir, China Moon (1994) with Madeleine Stowe; as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13, with Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon, and Gary Sinise; as Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt in Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) with Anthony Hopkins; and The Truman Show (1998), with Jim Carrey and Laura Linney.
Ed Harris expanded his repertoire as a filmmaker, with the outstanding debut, Pollock (2000), which he followed eight years later, as writer-producer-director-star, in the excellent Western, Appaloosa (2008), with Viggo Mortensen, Renée Zellweger, and Jeremy Irons. He also worked with Mortensen in David Cronenberg’s brilliant A History of Violence (2005) and collaborated repeatedly with Howard, including A Beautiful Mind (2001) with Russell Crowe.
Harris became the ensemble actor par excellence, in such films as Robert Benton/Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2003), with Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, and Gary Sinise; Ben Affleck’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone (2007), with Morgan Freeman, Casey Affleck, Amy Ryan, and Michelle Monaghan; Peter Weir’s sweeping The Way Back (2010), with Colin Farrell and Saoirse Ronan; Logan and Noah Miller’s Sweetwater (2013), with January Jones and Jason Isaacs; Michael Bay’s uproarious Pain & Gain (2013), showing off Harris’s comic chops.
If anything, some of Ed Harris’ darkest and most indelible roles have appeared recently, in a dazzling gallery of memorable turns in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2013), as Cymbeline in Michael Almereyda’s brawny version of Shakespeare’s rarely seen Cymbeline (2014) with Ethan Hawke, Milla Jovovich, John Leguizamo, and Dakota Johnson; Darren Aronofsky’s disturbing allegory, Mother! (2017), with Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.
As an American living in Greece with a dark past in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s acclaimed The Lost Daughter (2021) with Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, and Dakota Johnson; to say nothing of his sinister Man in Black in HBO’s ambitious Westworld (2016-2022), one of Harris’s few TV roles. Harris returned to the realm of blockbusters in Top Gun: Maverick (2022) with Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, and Jon Hamm.
Ed Harris was raised in Tenafly, New Jersey by Margaret and Robert Harris, who sang with the Fred Waring Chorus. He was the middle son, of brothers Spencer and Robert. Harris played football in high school, and then at Columbia University, where he caught the acting bug after watching New York theater. While his family relocated to New Mexico, Harris studied drama at the University of Oklahoma and then transferred to the theater department at the California Institute of the Arts, where he graduated in 1975. He has been married to actor Amy Madigan since 1983. The couple has a daughter, actor Lily Harris. His height is 5’ 8”.
Real-life Figures: Ed Harris has enacted numerous historical and real-life figures, ranging from Ludwig van Beethoven to Gen. George S. Patton, artist Jackson Pollock to rebel warrior William Walker, from Watergate villain E. Howard Hunt to NASA astronaut hero John Glenn.
Hollywood Star: Harris received a Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 2015.
Protest: Ed Harris and his wife Amy Madigan refused to stand and applaud Elia Kazan for his honorary Oscar in 1999, staging silent opposition to Kazan’s act of “naming names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Close Study: To prepare for his role in Pollock, Harris built an art studio on his property and learned to paint in Pollock’s distinctive “drip” style.
Oscar Man: Not only has Ed Harris received four Oscar nominations but six of the movies in which he is a co-star have been nominated for Best Picture: The Right Stuff, Places in the Heart, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, The Hours, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013). Harris has also been directed by nine Oscar-winning directors: Cuarón, Warren Beatty, Oliver Stone, James Cameron, Ron Howard, Robert Benton, Sydney Pollack, and Clint Eastwood.
Space Man: Ed Harris has played either astronauts or mission control directors in three movies, including The Right Stuff, Apollo 13, and Gravity.