Mark Harmon has taken control of his career.
The disappointing critical and box-office response 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 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 re-written 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 past 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, 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 a big family who owns a small farm in West Texas. When he loses the farm during the Depression, he and his wife (Lee Purcell) and their children migrate to California's San Joaquin Valley and move from harvest to harvest. The family lives in tents and works long hours for nickels a day.
"He's a real simple man," Harmon said of Robertson. "He's an ex-bronco rodeo rider. That's where he made his money to become the small rancher he was. He has a bad injury and breaks his pelvis and that changes everything. He no longer can do what he did. He doesn't walk like he used to walk. He's past the point where the choices he makes are for himself. It's all about today's salary and tonight's dinner. I see him very much as a man of tremendous spirit."
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 sticks out a little. We were trying to get down to the look of an ordinary man."
Harmon did a lot of research on the Great Depression. "There is such a library of material," he said. "There is a quote that (John) Steinbeck wrote in one of his books from an 11-year-old boy in Salinas. This kid said, 'When the farmers need their crops picked and they need us they call us migrants, and when the picking is done they tell us we're bums and to get the hell off."'
"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," he said, "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," Harmon said. "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 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."