Actors that can seamlessly shift between playing a lead role and a supporting role have always intrigued me. Gene Hackman would be my favorite in this category, but I have to say, when I look at the body of work that Ed Harris has produced… Wow! It is impressive to say the least.
Is Ed Harris underrated? I don’t know, perhaps he is amongst casual film fans, but as for serious film lovers there is no way he can be in an underrated category. There are simply some great films that would not be the same with the acting dexterity of Ed Harris. Take 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross, how many actors can hold their own in a scene as verbally intense as this one? Plus do so while sharing the screen with Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon?
Try to imagine another actor playing real-estate salesman Dave Moss. It’s hard to think of someone slotting in between Pacino and Lemmon as well as Harris did, hell, it’s probably impossible. Yet, when people talk about Glengarry Glen Ross how many drop Ed Harris’ name? Not many. Alec Baldwin’s ‘Always Be Closing’ speech will get more mentions, but it’s Harris, along with Alan Arkin, that form the backbone of a now classic film.
My introduction to Ed Harris came on cable television in the mid 1980’s when HBO would replay The Right Stuff seemingly everyday at the same time. The Mercury 7 astronauts were played by an ensemble cast, yet there was Ed Harris, clearly the leader of the pack playing John Glenn.
Harris ratchets up his character from the supportive husband to the take-no-shit, I-hold-all-the-cards astronaut in the flip of a switch, and does so all in the same scene. Notably, Scott Glenn, another of my favorite character actors enters as moral support at the end.
Harris didn’t get to play the outright lead often, but on the occasions he did, I found him hugely interesting. One film that really stuck with me was Pollock. Harris’ portrayal of the artist Jackson Pollock is incredibly re-watchable. Each time I see this movie I can pick up something new in Harris’ rendering of the complex and inventive artist.
Lastly, I love Ed Harris when he plays a cold-hearted character. Harris can play the heavy antagonist as well as anyone, whether it be the performance artist Christof from The Truman Show or the World War II Nazi sniper Major König from Enemy at the Gates. For instance, König’s arrival in Stalingrad displays everything needed to know about the character of the German sent to kill Vassili Zaitsev, and Harris introduces Major König without using a word of dialogue.
Currently, Ed Harris is playing the Man in Black in HBO’s new series Westworld. If you have not seen Westworld do so immediately. Whether Harris’ character is hero or villain we don’t know yet. What we do know is the Man in Black is promising to be one of the meatiest roles in Harris’s four-decade plus screen career. And if we are in store for more Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris meetings like the this scene, well, we are all the better for it.
Ed Harris, born November 28th, 1950 is 66 years old.