Oklahoma tough guy meets East Coast intellectual is how at least one colleague of the acclaimed actor describes Ed Harris. But there was a time, when the versatile Academy Award-winning actor ditched athletics to pursue an acting career, when not everyone gave him such an enthusiastic appraisal. "You're not going to make it," he was told. "You don't have any hair. What do you think is going to happen? You'll play bad guys all the time."
Since then, of course, Ed Harris has become known for his chiselled features, piercing blue eyes and riveting performances and not one of his four Oscar nominations has been for playing a villain.
Edward Allen Harris was born in Tenafly, New Jersey, on November 28, 1950, to Robert L Harris, a bookseller, and travel agent Margaret Harris. The middle child of three sons, he was an avid football player at Tenafly High School and New York's Columbia University, where he studied for two years before dropping out.
By then his dreams of becoming an athlete had come to an end. "When I realised I couldn't play football, I was pretty lost," he says. "I needed something I could be good at. I wasn't even thinking about making a living. It was about survival."
As a result, after transferring to Oklahoma State University, he decided to go from jock to summer stock. "It was interesting getting involved in the theatre world and meeting the kind of people that, five years prior in high school, you laughed at," he says. "And realising that they were usually pretty cool people." He graduated in 1973, and went on to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts from California Institute of the Arts in 1975.
"Acting was challenging, like sports," he says. "What was new was the creative and emotional side, because that hadn't been part of my life before." Over the next seven years he performed in more than a dozen plays and began making minor appearances on popular TV shows such as ChiPs and The Rockford Files. His breakthrough role as astronaut John Glenn in The Right Stuff came five years after his big screen debut in 1978's Coma.
Not exactly an overnight success, Ed continued his slow but steady rise, snagging his first lead role in James Cameron's The Abyss in 1989. A well-received ensemble role in 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross followed, as did his first Oscar nomination, for Apollo 13, in 1996. With that gong, it seems, Tinseltown finally caught on he would appear on Oscar shortlists three more times over the next six years.
Though legend has it that Ed and his wife, actress Amy Madigan, met and married on the set of 1984's Place In The Heart "It's a nice Hollywood story, but it's not true," says Amy they actually fell in love two years earlier while working on a stage production together. They did, however, wed in Waxahachie, Texas, while filming the movie in 1983. A daughter, Lily Dolores, was born in May of that year.
The two have worked together on at least half a dozen projects, including 2000's acclaimed film Pollock, and Ed says sharing a professional life is the secret to their marital success. "When you're working together, there's so much that is shared, so much unspoken thought and emotion that goes into the work, it really draws you closer," he explains.
With any "bad guy" predictions proven wrong long ago, Ed's taken the lead on numerous occasions, including opposite Melanie Griffith in Milk Money and Julia Roberts in Stepmom. "It's difficult not to have chemistry with Ed Harris," says his Oscar-winning Pollock co-star Marcia Gay Harden. "It's his walk, his voice, his mouth, his face, his intensity he's a man."
But despite his charisma, Ed considers himself anything but a movie star. "My career has been based on playing characters I don't have that star persona," he says. "I like to think of myself as an actor, not a personality."