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COVER STORY

The Life of Woody

Wherein Our Reluctant Hero--a Hyper Kid Turned Respected Actor and Eco Hell-Raiser--Veers Toward Maturity

December 20, 1998|BOB SIPCHEN | Bob Sipchen is a senior editor of the magazine. His last article was on bass fishing

This time I start the storytelling, recounting this snippet from a trip I chaperoned to a Catalina Island oceanography camp: It's a dazzling day, with a sky so crisp and smog-free that it seems super-oxygenated as it hits the lungs. The ocean surges and spits flying fish. But the students who pack this ferry back to L.A. might as well be at the mall. They slump in boredom, their eyes as dull as an old chalkboard. Just one kid seems connected to the brilliance around him. He skips from rail to rail, pointing, drinking it in, thrumming with the day's energy. Soon a teacher notices. She puts a hand on his shoulder. "Johnny," she says. "Is it time for your medication?" A shade comes down. The exhilaration evaporates. "I guess so, Ms. Jones," he says.

"That's such a perfect story," Harrelson, 37, says from his seat on the beige lawn behind the house where he, his wife, Laura Louie, and their two young daughters sometimes stay when they can't be at their Costa Rica home. "A kid shows any life or enthusiasm or energy and that's what happens." He stuffs a messy takeout-food wrap into his mouth. "If they're not just sitting there like automatons, then you know, let's drug 'em--let's take the spark of life right out of them."

As a boy, Woodrow Tracy Harrelson was found to be hyperactive and given Ritalin. He doesn't recall how the drug affected him, he says. "I don't remember much from my childhood," he adds, a remark that our rambling converation will seem to belie. The second of three brothers, Harrelson was born in Midland, Texas, on July 23, 1961--a birth date he shares with his father, Charles Harrelson. By all accounts--and there have been many--Charles was a smart, sweet-talking cardsharp who was soon divorced from Woody's mother, Diane. The dad drifted in and out of his boys' lives until the day when 7-year-old Woody heard a radio report that he'd been arrested for murder. At this point, "The Life of Woody" would seem to take on the dark patina of an Oliver Stone treatment. Harrelson dismisses that approach. "People who know a little bit about my situation have this assumption that I had this really bad childhood," he says. "There were certain things that were tough to deal with, also certain economic hardships, but overall I was real happy."

With Charles in prison, Woody's mother, grandmother and great-grandmother raised the boys. Harrelson showed early signs of academic and artistic enthusiasm--an assignment on species extinction grew to 50 pages; he wrote a song, "Better World." Kids hammered him for the way he stood out.

"Let's face it," he says. "I was a weird kid. It's not like I was Dahmer weird or anything--I wasn't playing with animal corpses--but I definitely had a weird way of looking at things. I mean, I didn't think I was weird, but I was told I was weird a lot, so that's why I believe it, you know?" His explosions--slapping a teacher, breaking windows--earned him a "troubled" label. His salvation, he says, was a private academy for children with learning disabilities, where he stayed until the family moved to Lebanon, Ohio.

As a teenager, Harrelson was so deeply religious that he gave sermons, so shy that he had a hard time talking to girls. Then he began to change. On the high school football team, he mainly warmed the bench. But he did find a way to grab applause. Leaping up on a library table one afternoon, he belted out "All Shook Up." That performance led to roles in school plays, and when he went on to Indiana's Hanover College, he kept acting.

While he was in college, a subplot in his life story took a twist. Harrelson's father, recently released from prison, resurfaced in the news, this time for the contract murder of a Texas federal judge. Charles Harrelson received two life sentences without parole. Over time, through the visitors' glass, father and son established a rapport. Last summer, with national media watching, Harrelson and his brothers appeared in court to support their father's ongoing bid for a retrial.

It was at the beginning of Charles' latest incarceration that Woody lost religion and began his romp with freedom. After graduation, when a pal moved to New York City, Harrelson followed. He found the city so invigorating that he stood up in front of a packed bus and made an announcement: "You know, I've been here in New York City two weeks, and I'm lovin' it!" But 14 months and 17 jobs later, the city's charm had worn thin. Harrelson got into brawls and became bed-bound with self-pity. Just as he was ready to retreat, the breaks came. First he landed understudy roles in Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues." (He'd later enrage the playwright by wedding his daughter on a Tijuana lark.) Then NBC hired the 23-year-old actor to play bartender Woody Boyd on "Cheers." Harrelson promptly turned the character into an American male icon of the '80s--a sweet, slightly daft bumpkin who neatly offset bar owner Sam Malone, the self-assured lady-killer.

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