Mark Harmon has taken control of his career.
The disappointing critical and box-office re sponse to his last three feature films, "The Presidio," "Stealing Home" and "Worth Winning," drove People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" in 1986 to take drastic action.
Over breakfast at a funky Brentwood coffee shop, Harmon said he had let others dictate his professional life. Eighteen months ago, however, he cleaned house. He left the high-powered Hollywood publicity firm that engineered the "Sexiest Man Alive" cover, fired his manager and hired a new agent.
"I have always been a great believer in a gut reaction to something, to an instinctual reaction to something," Harmon said. "There were a couple of choices where I didn't follow that."
But Harmon is not bitter that those films failed. In fact, he said, making them was an important learning experience.
"When you see a script like 'Presidio' in its first form and you have a chance to work with Sean Connery and Meg Ryan, I mean, that is an opportunity to take," he said.
Before that film went into production, however, the script was rewritten and the original director, Tony Scott, was replaced with Peter Hyams. "That it didn't end up anything like what you first read is the luck of the draw and the director," Harmon said.
Over the last year, Harmon has strived to make choices that stretch him as an actor. "If you would have asked me a couple of years ago what I look for in a script, I would say the story. But it's not so much that anymore. I look for the story, but I look for the character and who the director is and who the people are I am working with."
As soon as he read the script for "Long Road Home," NBC's Depression-era drama airing Monday (9-11 p.m.), Harmon said, he knew he had to do it.
"I think this is terrific material," he said. "It's about your father, your father's father, my father and my father's father. There is a certain amount of pride in it that I have never played before--have never had the chance to play before."
And Harmon certainly isn't a sexy matinee idol in the drama. He plays Ertie Robertson, an uneducated man with a big family who owns a small farm in West Texas. When he loses the farm, he and his wife (Lee Purcell) and their children migrate to the San Joaquin Valley and move from harvest to harvest. The family lives in tents and works long hours for nickels a day.
John Korty ("Line of Fire: The Morris Dees Story"), who directed "Long Road Home," said Harmon is a very underrated actor.
"One of the problems with Mark is that he is so naturally good-looking," Korty said. "So people say, 'Let's make him into Clark Gable.' What I like about Mark is that he is so straight and down to earth. His favorite hobby is woodworking. I think the biggest mistake is putting him in those slick roles."
Korty had Harmon's hair "chopped into one of the worst haircuts" to make him more believable as Robertson. "Everybody was covered with dirt and grease," he said. "And it was my idea to make his ears stick out a little. We were trying to get down to the look of an ordinary man."
"Long Road Home," Harmon said, is particularly timely because of its strong parallels with the plight of farmers and migrants today. "It's important to consider however bad the Robertson family has it in the movie, there are certainly people who have it much worse and some who have it better. That's what we are like today. Anywhere you walk today you don't have very far to go to step over someone who is sleeping on the sidewalk.
"I guess what struck me most about the material, and struck me most about doing it, is this is really a story about American fight. This is about home and this is about the strength of the family unit and about getting up when you are knocked down."
"Long Road Home" was filmed in December in the small farming community of Gilroy, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley.
"It's a migrant community," Harmon said. "It's always been a migrant community. You can look at it today and say the conditions are a lot better (than in the '30s) or you can look at it and say it's exactly the same."
These days, Harmon doesn't look too far ahead in his career.
He's awaiting the release of two independent films he made more than a year ago, Nicolas Roeg's "Cold Heaven" and an Australian drama, "Till There Was You."
One thing Harmon is certain of: He no longer has a development deal at Paramount Studios. "I was there for three years," Harmon said with a smile. "They let me go. One day this guy walked into (my) office and put rug samples on the floor and paint chips up against the wall. We were told that Paul Hogan was taking our offices and we were moving--what a class act.
"I remember when I did this development deal, they have an (in-house) paper at Paramount and they wanted me to do an interview and a cover shot with me wearing the Paramount hat," Harmon said. "And I look at the article and it's so beautifully naive. I think what I am trying to do now is keep an honest perspective on the business and work hard."
"Long Road Home" airs Monday, 9-11 p.m. on NBC.