The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Ed Harris

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

Last week, we took a look at the career of beloved character actor, John Lithgow. This week’s is another iconic actor of that ilk, having arguably, never given a bad performance in his nearly forty year career…

Ed Harris

There are few actors that can go toe-to-toe with Ed Harris in terms of intensity. Heck, even in the outtakes from THE ROCK, he seems like a guy on the verge of snapping, a live wire quality that makes him pretty thrilling to watch. A natural for bad guy parts, nailing iconic roles such as his scarred killer in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE or his sadistic mob boss in STATE OF GRACE, Harris has topped the A-list as far as character actors have gone since at least 1982, when he appeared in one of his first big parts in CREEPSHOW.

Back then, he was more of an every man, and he even flirted with leading man status in films like THE RIGHT STUFF as John Glenn, the spy thriller CODE NAME: EMERALD and more (rumor has it, he almost got the lead over Fred Ward in REMO WILLIAMS: THE ADVENTURE BEGINS). While he still occasionally plays leads, Harris is like Robert Duvall, in that character parts seem to be his real bread-and-butter. Clearly, this hasn’t left him the worse for wear, and besides, character actors last longer, and the man is still in high demand.

With a huge filmography, Harris can be a chameleon, and while heavy parts, such as in HBO’s “Westworld” may seem like a more natural fit, he can really play anything, from cool-headed professionals in movies like APOLLO 13, to the romantic lead in thrillers such as CHINA MOON, to an uncanny John McCain in GAME CHANGE. He’s pretty much the best of the best.

His Best Work

To me, one of the best parts Ed Harris ever had was as Christof, the God-like creator of THE TRUMAN SHOW, from director Peter Weir (with whom he re-teamed in the underrated THE WAY BACK). Back in ‘98, the idea of a man’s life being manipulated in order to provide round-the-clock entertainment for viewers seemed insane – until just a few years later reality TV started to become a thing. Harris gives an unusual performance considering his reputation for intensity, giving Christof a quiet, almost zen-like demeanor, the perfect counterpoint to Jim Carrey’s title character.

His Most Overrated Work

Plowing through Harris’s filmography, one thing became very clear. Harris, despite his one hundred film credits, has never really given a bad performance. In fact, his nose for material has usually been solid as well, with only one film really standing out as a turd in his filmography, the Cuba Gooding Jr. vehicle, RADIO. In this, thankfully forgotten, movie, Gooding plays a mentally handicapped man who becomes Harris’s assistant in coaching his college football team, and holy moly, is this one misguided, disaster of a film. Harris isn’t humiliated like Gooding is (he went to VOD right after) but no one comes out looking alright in this one.

His Most Underrated Film

James Cameron’s THE ABYSS was something of a disaster when it came out in 1989. Badly compromised, with Cameron’s three hour epic being pared-down to a more manageable two and a half hours (eliminating a major subplot about an impending natural disaster that threatens the world), which was later restored on VHS/DVD (when will Fox release the Blu-ray?), it’s a pretty incredible film. Apparently, it was a nightmare to shoot, with Harris himself going on-record saying he almost had a nervous breakdown after dealing with Cameron’s methods. Even through it’s nearly thirty-years old (geez!), the CGI holds up amazingly well, and it’s an incredible piece of work, with Harris making an appealing everyman hero.

His Best Scene

As one of the leads in GLENGARY GLEN ROSS, Harris, as Moss, recites David Mamet’s often difficult dialogue as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Easier said that done, as I found out when I presented the scene as a final project in an acting class I did some years ago.

His Five Best Films (as a lead)

4. APOLLO 13

Up Next

Harris is busy as always, with another season of “Westworld” in the mix, along with a role in Dean Devlin’s GEOSTORM opposite Gerard Butler, and Darren Aronofsky’s upcoming Jennifer Lawrence/ Javier Bardem vehicle.


About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.