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The Life of Woody

Bob Sipchen is a senior editor of the magazine. His last article was on bass fishing

Woody Harrelson sits on a blanket near Jackass Peak, watching a bunch of teenagers smear peanut butter and jelly on pita and listening with growing impatience to their unappetizing stories. His pale blue eyes move from one narrator to the next as each waxes eloquent about a head-severing wreck or a face attacked by flesh-eating bacteria. Finally, Harrelson can’t restrain himself. “In Central America,” the actor says, “they have this insect that burrows into a person’s head . . . " As the high school students stuff their mouths with gooey food, Harrelson brings life to the image of a bug metamorphosing beneath his scalp. “One thing you can do,” he says, gesturing, “is lay a big slab of raw meat on your head and try to suffocate it. Or you can just let it grow and grow until,” his face contorts and his fingers splay, “it explodes!”

“Urgh!” “Oooh!” The students shriek with sincere appreciation. But when a talkative young man named Steven follows with a tale of a worm that incubates in a human’s mouth and makes impromptu appearances during conversations, even Harrelson is humbled. “OK, Steven!” he shouts, leaping up with outstretched arms. “You win the gross-out contest.”

Harrelson is not a guy who has much trouble getting in touch with his inner adolescent. In fact, since the day in 1985 when he infiltrated the culture with his debut on “Cheers,” people have been waiting for some semblance of an adult to emerge. On this chilly spring morning at Henry W. Coe State Park near San Jose, though, all anyone expects from him is another rippin’ yarn and a bite of coconut.

The day before, Harrelson had hiked in four miles and set up camp at Poverty Flat with these students from San Francisco’s Thurgood Marshall Academic High School. The kids came with their teachers and volunteers from the local Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings, a nationwide environmental education program. Harrelson came to fulfill the community service sentence handed him for his scramble up the Golden Gate Bridge to protest the logging of an ancient California redwood forest.

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Putting Harrelson together with a bunch of kids was not everyone’s idea of solid judicial or pedagogic

judgment. State Sen. Quentin Kopp, still angry over the enormous traffic jam Harrelson caused, calls the punishment soft and Harrelson “a selfish, thoughtless, arrogant twerp."A Kentucky teacher who invited him to her class a few years ago to discuss the industrial uses of hemp--a cause Harrelson supports to the point of wearing hemp boots, pants, shirt, jacket and cap--was fired.

Today, though, intermittent rains have soaked the hills into an aromatic balm and serenity prevails. Hiking back to the campsite over wildflower-strewn slopes, the actor chats with a multiethnic mix of students--Donnie, Otto, Antonio, Veronica--about enzymes and his strict vegan diet. He samples miner’s lettuce growing alongside the trail and lets out little bursts of song: “I . . . I’m hooked on a feeling!” He talks about clear-cutting, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and sustainable living. Mainly, though, he tells stories: about the moonless night in Costa Rica when he and a pal leaped from a cliff into the black ocean on a dare; about a self-imposed “vision quest” near Santa Barbara, where, after lying all night on a ridge, he lost the trail and got helplessly entangled in the chaparral.

These stories invariably feature Harrelson as comic relief. Which is pretty much how life unfolds on the hike back down, too. Two of the boys confess that they each lugged in a 12-pack of Coca-Cola--a horror to true backpackers, who would saw off a toothbrush handle to save weight. But Harrelson, the supposed nature boy, just gives them his crazy hayseed grin. “Now I don’t feel so bad,” he drawls. It seems his own all-hemp backpack hauled in a good 50-pound food supply--consisting solely of 10 whole, hairy coconuts.

Steven, in particular, is amused by the new kid. “Woody was telling us this story about being in a bar and he got in this fight,” he says.

“Don’t be telling that story!” Harrelson interrupts.

Steven shakes his head and grins. “There’s a movie!” he says, “ ‘The Life of Woody.’ ”

*

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Seven months after the camp-out, Harrelson wheels his motorcycle into a Santa Monica driveway, pops off his helmet and smiles. As we walk into the backyard, he’s still warbling song fragments: “And how you suffered for your sanity.”

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.”

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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.

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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.

No one, including Harrelson, disputes that Woody Boyd captured an important aspect of his true self. As often as not, his ensuing roles plumbed other aspects of his complex psyche. What’s most striking about Harrelson, on screen and off, is the devilish trickster in his eyes. But those eyes can also go hard, sinking into the sort of too-taut face you see on the streets and (this gets touchy) in prison; the sort of eyes you don’t want to engage in a dive bar because you sense that if the brain’s carburetor spurts a microgram more testosterone, a microgram more adrenaline, bad things will happen fast.

Casting Harrelson in “Natural Born Killers,” director Oliver Stone spoke ominously of the actor’s “shadow side.” In the film, Harrelson’s murderous cult-hero character tells a reporter: “I came from violence. It was in my blood. My dad had it.” In a newspaper interview, the real Harrelson confessed: “Violence was almost an aphrodisiac for me.”

Even more believable than Harrelson’s blood lust, though, is his carnal lust. In “Natural Born Killers” (with Juliette Lewis) and “Indecent Proposal” (with Demi Moore) and “Palmetto” (with Elisabeth Shue and Gina Gershon), he and his co-stars evoke a mutual worship, a passion for the mind-altering power of flesh pressed against flesh. In the early “Cheers” days, Harrelson’s womanizing became legend. He charmed his way into the hearts of celebrity girlfriends, and he sometimes had sex with three women a day. “Woody’s got so much testosterone coursing through him you can’t really compete,” actor Ted Danson told one reporter.

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Woven into this “grand debauchery” period, though, were the seeds of the next Harrelson. He discovered vegetarianism. He found yoga. He started meditating.

Now he may be changing again. Career-wise, December’s looking good. He has a high-profile cameo in the hyper-hyped “The Thin Red Line,” plays his most heroic role to date in the intimate “The Hi Lo Country,” and is shooting his first-ever guest appearance on the “Cheers” spinoff “Frasier.” “I can’t tell you how happy that makes me,” he says. “Woody Boyd is still the favorite role that I’ve ever played.”

Yet as he sits cross-legged on his lawn discussing where he may be heading, Harrelson treats his work as something of a distraction. “Once you become famous, an interesting transition occurs. You go from being the class clown and the guy who’s showing off to get attention to this place where you have people’s attention. So I went the other direction. It’s not like I turned into a recluse, but I was a lot more guarded.” Only in the last couple of years, he says, has he edged back again. Friends have shown him letters he wrote before the breaks came, when connecting seemed important. “These letters are just so beautiful,” he says. “This is a beautiful guy. I like that guy. I wanna be that guy.”

*

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Harrelson paces like a cougar in a small cage--paces, ruminates and, every now and then, gives the big hemp-covered mattress that fills this small room a walloping barefoot kick. It got chilly in the yard, so we came inside, left our shoes at the foot of the stairs, and now sit in a space that’s entirely white except for sprigs of magenta bougainvillea around the windows.

Interviews, Harrelson says, can be like therapy for him. And for all his questing, he’s never been in therapy. (“I know this is a cop-out, but I’m not a big fan of having a mercenary listener.”) So he talks until the sun goes down and the room gets so dark that we can’t see each other. But this war of the Woodys is too amazing not to watch. So I snap on a lamp and notice that sweat has appeared on his brow, so relentlessly is he wrestling with himself--pinning himself, body-slamming himself, twisting his own head in the ropes of self-analysis.

Somewhere along the line, he sprawls on the bed in a wide-legged yoga position, and using Travel & Leisure as a lap table, rolls a big joint from a bag of aromatic buds. “One reason I’m smoking this, I think, is to uncensor myself,” he says. Then he’s off again, jumping onto his environmental soapbox--"The first car Henry Ford built was grown by farmers. It was hemp! You see him in old films hittin’ that old car with a sledgehammer, and the sledgehammer breaks!"--then apologizing, moving on to his devotion to his family, and to his acting, which, by and large, he hasn’t liked so far.

It’s “Money Train” that really gnaws at him. He took the role to work again with Wesley Snipes, his partner in “White Men Can’t Jump.” “But I also did it for the money,” he says, giving the bed a solid kick. “And it’s been a long time before I could even acknowledge that out loud.” Whump. “I’ll never do anything for money again.” Whump. “You know, when Tracy Chapman sings ‘all that you have is your soul,’ I take it seriously.”

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One review said that “Money Train” revealed Harrelson’s lack of gravitas. It said he can be “quite charming playing a goofball, a con man, a lovable rogue, but he has none of the weight necessary to pull off tragic dimensions . . . " “Whether or not I have the depth of personality, well, you know, that remains to be seen,” Harrelson says, taking the question literally in stride. “I like to think I do.” So far, though, his performance in “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” for which he received an Oscar nomination, is one of the few that doesn’t make him grimace. Another is his latest, in “Hi Lo Country.” “I’m just so damn proud of the movie.”

In treatment form, Harrelson’s “Hi Lo” role would look much like the one he played in the sappy buddy pic “Cowboy Way.” But “Hi Lo” is of another cinematic universe. The script was adapted by Walon Green, who wrote Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” The film is a beautiful, hard-edged romance about the post-WWII extinction of a mythic American breed--as personified by Harrelson’s Big Boy Matson.

Big Boy is a bulldoggin’, bar-brawlin’, wife-stealin’, highly principled maverick who likes to let out yelps of pure bliss, as if harmonizing with the prairie wind, the coyotes and those country-western yodelers who hit notes high enough to break hearts. But there’s more there. For all his recklessness, Big Boy is also Harrelson’s most adult character. By film’s end, he’s beginning to mature. Without letting society whup the childlike joy from him, without knuckling under to forces that would tame him, he’s facing responsibilities, including a family. Some might say that Big Boy’s on the way to becoming a man.

“Hi Lo” director Stephen Frears calls Harrelson’s approach to the role bold and compares him to Gary Cooper and the young John Wayne. Big Boy, he says, is a heroic man. “I don’t mean a man without flaws. I don’t mean a man in a white hat. But I mean a fine man, a man with passion, courage and a rare willingness to tell the truth. All of that Woody did effortlessly, really, because in a way I think that’s his own code.”

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The thing he really likes about Big Boy Matson, Harrelson says, is that “well, he is a talker, no question about that, but he’s also a doer. He gets [stuff] done. He’s got a real sense of adventure about him, a joie de vivre, you know, a real love of life. And he has integrity. To be Big Boy’s friend is to have a profound friendship. Maybe a piece of Big Boy Matson will stay in me forever, you know, like I feel a piece of Larry Flynt will stay in me.”

Macho roles--and Big Boy is as hyper-masculine as they get--seem to come naturally to this guy who, in the early ‘90s, fronted a “bluesabilly” band called Manly Moondog and the Three Kool Kats. But lately, he says, he’s been putting a lot of thought into how manhood is defined, how gender sorts itself out. (“You don’t know how much I did not want Barbie to come into my daughter’s life.”) The day before our talk, Harrelson had ripped across the desert on his motorcycle to visit a close friend in the Betty Ford Clinic. Frankie is a former street kid who grew up tough and lived hard. But now he’s reeling that macho side in, Harrelson says. “Frankie says you gotta get soft. He says being hard is just not an option. And that’s the way I feel.”

Getting quiet, pace slowing, Harrelson loops back to his boyhood: “As a kid, I was much more feminine. I don’t know how to put it, except that I had a softness about me, you know, a vulnerability.” That began changing, he says, when he was 9 or 10 and he and some buddies visited a local planetarium. “We’d always walk around with our arms around each other. We didn’t think anything about it,” he says. But that day a kid from another school shouted out “faggot!” “In some form or fashion that kind of ridicule started to shape me,” he says. “You don’t want to be effeminate. You don’t want to even be sensitive or vulnerable. So you make yourself into a tough guy--which is what I did. I started to create my own little facade.”

Harrelson talks a lot about pain--the pain of being sensitive and the pain of trying to suppress that sensitivity and the plain old pain that comes from being human. One reason he started smoking pot at 21, he says, was to deal with all that. He says he doesn’t think marijuana’s bad--not nearly as bad as many legal drugs--so long as it’s used “in a sacred way.” But a moment later he turns wistful. “I have to deal with certain issues about who I am,” he says. “Certainly I have an addiction.” When he tries to stop, for a week or as long as 50 days, “The first thing I notice is that I cry every day. . . .

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“I don’t want to just be a pothead, you know? The natural way, the straight-edge way, that’s where I’m heading, I think. I’m just dillydallying a bit on the road.” He paces, then adds: “I’ve quit from time to time in the middle of something that’s a lot of pressure, and after a couple of days, three days, my friends who were so happy for me to quit very kindly suggest that I smoke a joint. There’s no question that it helps me deal with stress. I feel, sometimes, the weight of the world.”

“But isn’t that kinda like the teachers who suggested you get on Ritalin?” I ask. “I mean, maybe your friends just can’t deal with your intensity. Maybe that’s their problem.”

Harrelson paces, thinking.

“Or maybe you are just too intense to deal with,” I offer. “There certainly are people like that.”

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“Hmm,” Harrelson says, pensive, as if he’s confronted that question before.

“Donnie! Donnie!” Harrelson shouts, and the gathered students join in. One by one the city kids slosh into the creek and stumble out shuddering. When the cheerleading fails to coax Steven into the water, Harrelson’s in his face. “Everyone here was looking at you as a hero, man! Now what? I think you’re a wimp.”

Steven meets Harrelson’s mad-dog stare with a grin. “Well, everyone here was looking at you as this big celebrity,” he says, “and now you’re just an ordinary guy.”

We’re back to last spring, to the encampment at Poverty Flat and the bank of Coyote Creek, where the students have spilled from their tents to take frigid baths. Inevitably, the peer pressure turns to the popular new guy: “Wood-EE! Wood-EE!”

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Harrelson eyes the water skeptically. Then he strips to his shorts and charges in. Twice he plunges under. Twice he comes up, screaming like a wildcat, water flying off his sunburned head. He scrambles back onto the muddy bank and dances about drying himself, his face a portrait of agony and ecstasy.

Baptism complete, the crew spends the afternoon lazing beneath the sycamores and competing in a marathon rock-throwing contest. Nailing the target squarely, Harrelson struts barefoot through the grass. “Hey, Otto!” he shouts at a heavy kid in sagging 49ers shorts. “You’re eatin’ a little crow now, aren’t you Otto?” When the students swarm like hungry hyenas around a teacher, Harrelson’s right there, hand outstretched, his voice an annoying mosquito: “Mr. Getter! Mr. Getter! May I have some sunflower seeds, Mr. Getter?”

The next morning, as the rain pounds down again, Harrelson cocoons in his tent, gnawing on coconut flesh and reading Krishnamurti’s “The Flame of Attention” as the creek chortles. Getting kids out of classrooms and into the wilds is something he’s wanted to do for some time, he says. While he can’t say what his presence here contributed to the students, he knows what it has given him. It’s the same thing his daughters show him every day: play is essential. That’s a revelation unlikely to assuage those who scream “grow up!” as they watch Harrelson flit from one seemingly crackpot scheme to the next.

“I’m the first to admit that I’m immature. Extremely immature. I’m a juvenile delinquent. I don’t know if I’ll ever grow up in a sense,” he says. And yet, when I ask him to ponder the approach of middle age, Harrelson paraphrases a quote: “It takes a season to make a crop, it takes a hundred years to make a tree, and it takes 50 years to make a man. I kinda like that.”

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Of course, talk of manhood and maturity requires context. For instance: Like most adults, I’d shoved the name Ken Saro-Wiwa into some mental file labeled “Oh, well.” Then Harrelson brings him up, eyes blazing. He reminds me that this Nigerian playwright had battled Shell Oil in his homeland and was summarily hanged by that nation’s oil-friendly dictatorship. He describes the erosion and fires, decried by the activist, as vividly as if they were visible through his tent flap. He wonders why so many people allow such incidents to fade from focus. Harrelson climbs bridges and redwoods, drives an electric car, wears hemp--he says cultivating hemp could replace all sorts of forest clear-cutting and agricultural pesticide use--because he can’t let that stuff go. He contributes to wildland conservancies. He is creating an educational organization, tentatively called the American Party, to channel people’s frustration about economic and environmental injustices. Is this immaturity or Big Boy-style integrity, a grown-up fusion of unbridled joie de vivre and controlled rage?

Courtney Love, who co-starred with Harrelson in “Flynt,” calls him “incredibly childlike.” But she also calls him “an incredibly fierce spirit.” Meeting him, she says, was “the most positive male experience of my life.” So what if “part of him’s a devil and part of him’s an angel,” and the selves are forever locked in eye-gouging combat? “Don’t you think that’s the most American thing in the world?” she asks. “I love that about him.”

Bobby Farrelly, who, with brother Peter, directed their longtime friend as a one-armed tournament bowler in “Kingpin,” says Woody questions everything. “It’s not the lazy man’s way of living life. It takes a certain amount of courage and work. He’s not always right, mind you--he hardly ever is, in my opinion; he’s not half the ping-pong player he thinks he is. But he lives his life with passion.”

“I understand,” Harrelson says, “that the ultimate paradox is that you look at the world and want to change it--because, let’s face it, it’s a recipe for disaster. But then, ultimately, you realize you have to change yourself. Not even that, you have to accept yourself. Isn’t that funny? I mean, how can that be hard--to accept yourself?”

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On the steep climb out of Poverty Flat, Donnie, Antonio, Leon and Veronica slog alongside Harrelson. Their fresh faces spill rain as they talk about football and basketball and their futures. When the group finally reaches the trail head, they crowd into a park cabin to drink hot chocolate. Harrelson sneaks up behind Veronica and puts his icy hands on her neck, inciting a squeal.

“You gonna stay in touch with us Woody?” one of the boys asks, a plaintive softness leaking through the tough-guy veneer.

“I’d like to think so,” Harrelson says. “I’d like to. But if I don’t, don’t hold it against me guys, OK?”

Here’s the thing, though. Three weeks after the camp-out, Harrelson showed up at the school. He slapped palms with his old pals, gave each student a nutrition book called “Fit for Life” and shot hoops with them in the gym. And three weeks later he went back again. Is this evidence that Woody’s working his way toward manhood? Maybe. Just don’t expect him to care how the rest of us self-proclaimed adults define that term.

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