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Why A Full Metal Jacket Never Fit Ed Harris

He’s getting ready to turn 59 next week, and has spent more than half his life as a stage and screen actor. And during an impressive career in which he’s played the good (The Right Stuff), the bad (Pollock) and the hideously ugly (A History of Violence), four-time Academy Award nominee Ed Harris has no regrets.

Unless you count the time he said no to Stanley Kubrick. In doing so, it might have cost him his best chance to win that coveted Golden Boy.

The recipient of the 2009 Mayor's Career Achievement Award for Acting at the 32nd Starz Denver Film Festival on November 13 was reluctant to reveal many juicy details about himself or his fellow actors during “An Evening With Ed Harris” at the King Center.

Yet throughout an interview and Q&A that followed a 30-minute highlight reel of some of his formidable performances, Harris was surprisingly chatty for a guy who rarely appears on the talk show circuit.

Robert Knott, his friend, occasional co-writer (Appaloosa) and fellow actor (Pollock) was the interviewer during this onstage conversation, but had little work to do as Harris covered many significant aspects and defining moments of his life.

It took a question from the audience, though, to get the star to spill the beans about The One He Let Get Away.

Not that Harris seemed to mind that he passed up the chance to play that rotten-to-the-Corps senior drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. In fact, Harris needed Knott to refresh his memory when he was asked if there was a role he turned down that he regretted.

“I don’t really regret turning it down, but it’s notable. You remember, I think the fella won an Oscar for it,” Harris said, struggling to come up with the answer. “Uh … Oh God!”

After briefly (and privately) conferring with Knott, Harris returned to his seat. “You remember Full Metal Jacket,” he said. “The Stanley Kubrick picture. Stanley Kubrick wanted me to play that sergeant fellow, who was played by a real Army guy (R. Lee Ermey). I don’t remember what was going on with me at that time, I think I’d just finished something, but I said no to him. I remember I was sitting in our kitchen. He called me on the phone.

“I must not have met him. And he asked me if I wanted to do it. And I said no. I had to explain, have a little bit of explanation, and there was a pause. And he says, ‘You’re kidding me.’

“And I said, ‘No, I’ve thought about it.’ Anyway, I never worked with Kubrick; that was the one chance I had; but I don’t think I could have done a better job than the fellow who did it; I don’t really regret that I didn’t do it; I regret that I didn’t work with Kubrick.”

The audience excused the fact that some of Harris’ facts were as faulty as his memory. Although Ermey was nominated for a Golden Globe as best supporting actor in 1988, he neither won nor was nominated for an Oscar that year. Looking back at the winner (Sean Connery for The Untouchables) and other nominees (Albert Brooks, Broadcast News; Denzel Washington, Cry Freedom; Vincent Gardenia, Moonstruck; and Morgan Freeman, Street Smart) in the supporting category, perhaps he should have.

And just imagine what Harris would have done with the part. With those steely blue eyes and an ability to express manic rage, the man known for his explosive performances in Glengarry Glen Ross, The Human Stain and Gone Baby Gone, could have taken Hartman to off-the-chart psychotic levels. No wonder Kubrick couldn’t believe his ears.

Yet Harris seems content with the road he’s taken, long after setting the bar so high for himself by portraying astronaut/All-American hero John Glenn in The Right Stuff in 1983. The Oscar nominations didn’t come until much later.

Playing tortured artist Jackson Pollock, a guy Harris said was “even more screwed up than I ever was,” the nominee missed his only chance to win best actor when Russell Crowe was chosen for Gladiator in 2001. The others – Apollo 13 in 1996, The Truman Show in 1999 and The Hours in 2003 – were for supporting roles. Still, not bad for a kid whose high school pegged him to become a forest ranger.

Harris was a small – “and not particularly fast” – athlete from New Jersey who gave up a football career at Columbia University and caught the acting bug after attending two plays – Man of La Mancha and Tartuffe in the early 1970s at the Southwest Repertory Theater in Norman, Oklahoma.

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  • El Bicho

    Great piece but unless I missed it your title is off because it’s never revealed why

  • Michael

    Thanks, Gordon. Maybe the title wasn’t meant to be taken literally, but the fact that he turned down the chance to play the part seemed like a reason why the “Jacket” didn’t fit, figuratively speaking. Why did he turn down the role? I’m not sure even Ed Harris knows that today. If he does, he’s not saying for public consumption.

  • mon

    I am not a fan of Ed Harris’s films. So I was confused at the first glance of the title.