Most people over 40 know him as the lovable albeit naive bartender Woody Boyd from the long-running, hit TV show “Cheers” that ran for 11 seasons from 1982-93. Those under 40 perhaps know him best as Haymitch Abernathy from the “Hunger Games” or the somewhat deranged serial killer Mickey Knox in the disturbingly violent “Natural Born Killers.” He has also assumed the role of infamous Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flint in “People vs. Larry Flynt” and basketball hustler Billy Hoyle in “White Men Can’t Jump.”
However you know him, Woody Harrelson has definitely carved a unique niche in TV and film by playing characters as diverse as the man himself.
Over the years, Harrelson, 52, became quite a legend at his alma mater, Hanover College, as his acting career rose to prominence. So it was not surprising, then that the college would fill Collier Area with students, faculty and alumni on March 29 to honor their famous 1983 graduate, actor and environmental activist with an honorary doctorate degree, the highest honor bestowed by the Hanover College Board of Trustees. Tickets were free but were carefully controlled as to who received them, said college president, Sue DeWine, who presented the degree to the Lebanon, Ohio, native.
Photo by Matthew Maupin, Hanover College
Actor Woody Harrelson on March 29 receives an honorary doctorate degree from Hanover College President Sue DeWine. He later spent time visiting with students.
“We gave out tickets to 800 students and about 500 faculty and alumni, then we cut it off,” DeWine said during an April 25 telephone interview. “We had about 25-30 alumni from his class who came back for the event.”
Returning to campus more than 30 years after he first walked across the stage to earn his bachelor of arts in English, Harrelson, received the title doctor of humane letters in celebration of his work on stage, TV and films, and for his social justice and environmental sustainability efforts.
“We played the theme song from “Cheers” when he walked into the arena, and then played the theme song to the “Hunger Games” when he walked out,” DeWine said. She and former Hanover College drama professor Tom Evans traveled to Atlanta last fall during filming of the “Hunger Games” to meet Harrelson and invite him to visit the campus to accept the honorary degree.
While the purpose of Harrelson’s visit was to accept the honorary degree, it is what happened after the ceremony and over the weekend that will be remembered most by those students and alumni who had the opportunity to spend some time with the actor. Harrelson attended a reception with drama students at the on-campus pub, The Shoebox. He bicycled around campus with some alumni. He visited his fraternity house at Sigma Chi, where he played a game of soccer with some students.
“He had so much fun that he stayed an extra day,” DeWine said.
On Sunday night, DeWine and her husband, Mike, took Harrelson and his friend, Bob Jones, to dinner at Boneyard Grill in Madison. They called ahead to arrange for them to dine in the private reception room next door to the restaurant. “We also wanted to warn them that Woody is a vegan, and we wanted to make sure they would be able to prepare a meal for him without meat,” DeWine said.
Boneyard Grill co-owner Christian Hanson took the call. He quickly rushed out to the local grocery store to gather some organic vegetables to make a salad. During their visit, Harrelson was very talkative and friendly, and he even posed for photos and signed autographs for a small crowd that gathered outside, Hanson said.
“When he came into the room here, he started doing yoga moves. And he kept right on talking to us the whole time. It was sort of weird, but he was very low key and friendly,” Hanson said.
DeWine said she also was struck by Harrelson’s easy going demeanor and openness to the Hanover College students and Madison community. “We have had a lot of celebrities and dignitaries visit here at Hanover College, and they always come with an entourage or bodyguard or agent, but he did not have anyone with him except for a couple of old college friends who showed up to greet him. He handled the people well who came up to him. He was very gracious and very relaxed. He looked like he was at home.”
Harrelson was born in Midland, Texas, and has two brothers. His parents divorced in 1964. His father, Charles Harrelson, was a hitman who was convicted for killing a federal judge in San Antonio. He died in prison. Woody moved with his mother to her native Lebanon, Ohio, where he was raised. He attended Lebanon High School, working through much of high school as a woodcarver at King’s Island Amusement Park.
Two years after graduating from Hanover College, he joined the cast of “Cheers” in 1985, replacing the bartender “Coach,” played by Nicholas Colasanto, who died that February. It was the fourth season of “Cheers.” It lasted seven more.
A gifted actor who switches back and forth effortlessly between comedy and drama, Harrelson first endeared himself to audiences in “Cheers.” His performance earned him five Emmy nominations and a win for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.
Afterward, Harrelson moved into film and has had an impressive run in films such as “No Country for Old Men,” “Zombieland” and the aforementioned “Natural Born Killers” and “The Hunger Games.”
In 1996, he earned his first of two Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations with “The People vs. Larry Flynt” for his sympathetic portrayal of the adult-film mogul. Lauded by critics, the film boosted Harrelson to A-list actor status.
His career then took a serious turn with parts in several political films, including “Welcome to Sarajevo,” “Wag the Dog” and “The Thin Red Line.” He earned the attention of critics again in 2007 for the drama “No Country for Old Men,” for which he won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Cast.
In 2012, Harrelson’s role in the critically acclaimed drama “The Messenger” earned him several award nominations, including his second Golden Globe and Academy Award nods. In total, his film career has spanned nearly 60 films.
That same year, Harrelson and his friend Frankie Hyman penned the off-Broadway play, “Bullet for Adolf,” which he also directed.
For television, Harrelson has had guest spots on such shows as “Will and Grace” and the “Cheers” spinoff, “Frasier.” Earlier this year, he appeared with Matthew McConaughey in the acclaimed HBO series, “True Detective.”
In addition to acting, Harrelson has been an outspoken advocate for the environment, including efforts for preserving the California redwoods, involvement in the American Oceans’ Campaign and legalization efforts for the use of industrial hemp. He is also involved in a business venture to produce a paper product from wheat.
“We plan to use the paper in our alumni magazine,” DeWine said.
In 1985, Harrelson married Nancy Simon, daughter of playwright Neil Simon. But the marriage only last 10 months. In 2008, he married his former assistant, Laura Louie, co-founder of Yoganics, an organic food delivery service. Harrelson and his wife live in Hawaii and are the parents of three daughters.
“We have been trying for several years to get Woody to come to Hanover College to receive an honorary degree, and we finally did it,” DeWine said. “It was fun to have him back on campus, and our students really enjoyed it.”
Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout.
Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email: Don@RoundAbout.bz.