Woody Harrelson is an actor who’s quite unlike his contemporaries. The star has taken risks over the course of his career and made the decision to be himself in interviews, despite not knowing how his fans would react. He’s known for his work in films like The People vs. Larry Flynt, Natural Born Killers, The Edge of Seventeen, and more.
As illustrated by The Hollywood Reporter, Harrelson is a star who has hustled hard to become a success story and has lived through plenty of painful experiences along the way. For example, as he explained, he was poor before he found fame, and he had a pretty tough childhood by most accounts.
Another example? He told GQ that early in his career, he had the chance to be in a play with director and screenwriter John Cassavetes, and he gave up on the opportunity because he thought he could win a role in a film. The latter didn’t eventually pan out, and the actor didn’t go back to Cassavetes. Many years later, he regretted his decision. It was a personal setback more than a professional one. He said, "I should have stuck by that guy. He took a chance on me. That was a real lack of integrity on my part."
Here’s taking a look at some of the toughest moments from the Woody Harrelson’s colorful life, including his childhood, his struggle to make a name for himself, his battle with addiction, his family life, and more.
Woody Harrelson had a tough childhood
Woody Harrelson was born on July 23, 1961, in Texas. According to Biography, he also had two siblings and had a spiritual upbringing. He mentioned in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that he was an angry child and had a lot of angst inside him. This followed him later in life. He wouldn’t hesitate to get into scuffles either. The actor explained, "When I was a kid, I had real emotional problems. I would have these tantrums. [Later] I used to fight a lot."
He also said that he’d intentionally end up getting aggressive with strangers in public spaces. The actor said, "I used to go to bars and fight the guys I thought were bullies. I’ve got scars everywhere."
He also told the Los Angeles Times that he was perceived as a strange kid. Harrelson said that he often got into trouble by doing things like slapping a teacher in a school. Later, he was moved to a private school for children with learning difficulties.
His family life was complicated
Woody Harrelson’s dad was incarcerated when he was fairly young, and his mother was a "loner" and very religious. According to The Hollywood Reporter, his mom’s career plans were disrupted when she met his father and decided to tie the knot. Harrelson said, "The longest relationship my mom had was with my dad. That was seven years." He also said that his dad was never at home, and he has memories of being 6 years old and visiting his father’s girlfriend back then, which meant that his parents didn’t stay with each other for a long time.
Additionally, as per the Los Angeles Times, he grew up listening to his mom, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Despite everything, Harrelson was grateful for everything that he had as a kid. He said, "There were certain things that were tough to deal with, also certain economic hardships, but overall I was real happy." He credited his mother for helping him pick up values, such as compassion and kindness (via GQ). He said, "She cares about the world and nature. I think she’s invested a little bit of that in me. I really do care about the world and nature and you know, she’s got a lot of energy and she really is always doing something."
Woody Harrelson’s relationship with his father was unusual
In several interviews, Woody Harrelson has been upfront about the fact that his father wasn’t much of an inspiring presence in his life. However, he told The Guardian that he knew he had inherited a few traits from Charles Harrelson, and he noticed this whenever they did spend time with each other. "I was born on his birthday. They have a thing in Japan where they say if you’re born on your father’s birthday, you’re not like your father, you are your father…," he said before adding that he was quite surprised when he realized how alike they were in some ways.
For example, they looked like each other and even laughed in a similar manner. He also said that Charles was definitely not a supportive husband to his mom nor was he a great father figure. To his mother’s credit, she never criticized her husband in front of her kids.
One of the things that Woody did appreciate about his father was a piece of advice that he gave him and his sibling (via The Hollywood Reporter). Woody said, "My dad’s main thing to me and my brother, growing up, was: Keep an open mind. That’s what he said: ‘All I’m asking is, keep an open mind.’ That’s pretty good advice from a father."
Woody Harrelson’s dad was a hitman
Woody Harrelson has a tragic detail from his past — his father was a professional hitman who was sentenced to jail in 1973 for murdering grain dealer Sam Degelia, Jr. (via The Guardian). Harrelson found out about everything by accident. He explained that he found out when was around 11 or 12 years old while listening to a radio broadcast. He basically heard someone mention his father’s murder trial and was shocked by what he heard.
He explained that he got home and spoke to his mother, but there was not much she could say as the news was already spread far and wide. Charles Harrelson had a pretty disturbing story — while he was originally sent to prison for 15 years, he was let go after five years on account of "good behavior." However, he assaulted and killed a judge later and was sent away to jail for life in 1981.
Harrelson wasn’t sure how to handle the situation and tried to get his father a new trial. He didn’t know how to feel about everything that happened. He said, "I don’t know [whether] he did deserve a new trial… just being a son trying to help his dad. Then I spent a couple of million beating my head against the wall." All that money, he said, was spent on lawyers.
Woody Harrelson experienced self doubt
Woody Harrelson may have been immensely talented, but he didn’t know the path he was supposed to follow for a really long time. As per a report by the Financial Times, he was quite religious while growing up. He said that he studied theology at Hanover College in Indiana. As he got more involved in religion, he felt unsure and realized that he wasn’t cut out for that life. He said that he started believing that religion, at the root of it all, was a "man-made construct." Harrelson decided to switch his plans and started focusing on theater instead.
The future remained uncertain. The actor took a leap of faith and moved to New York with a friend, working on getting himself noticed in the theater industry. Things got better when Harrelson landed a role on the TV show, Cheers, which was a big deal — he would go on to be a part of the show for eight years.
He has received hate in the press
Woody Harrelson has faced his share of criticism as a public figure. For example, a Vice piece in 2012 lashed out at the actor. The author of the piece pointed out that they felt Harrelson wasn’t a considerate person. They said that he wasn’t fun to have a conversation with and wasn’t earnest during the conversation. They wrote, "Five minutes of uncomfortable laughter and lame responses quickly turned to questionable silence and flat-out disdain."
Additionally, as per The Washington Post, Harrelson received a lot of negative feedback when he participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session and refused to answer questions that weren’t related to the film he was working on at that point, Rampart. It was a complete disaster. The incident is considered to be one of the worst ones to have emerged from Reddit’s popular thread. One of the top-rated comments on the thread reads, "Reddit isn’t a good venue to pitch your movie, it’s a venue to pitch yourself." Another commentator was pretty open about how they felt when they said, "I liked Woody Harrelson until today."
Woody Harrelson has been in trouble with the police many times
Woody Harrelson is no stranger to legal trouble. His first experience with the police was, to put it simply, fairly traumatic. He said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that the arrest was pretty rough. He was in his early 20s and was caught for jaywalking. He resisted the cop and tried to get away but got caught by the police. He said, "It was so brutal, the way they were handling me. A bunch of students gathered around and were complaining to the cops, and the cops were vicious to them, too."
Eventually, he spent that night in jail before his mom could come and get him and was injured during his time in jail. He further said that this was an incident that he didn’t take lightly. "And that was my first experience with the long arm of the law, and it had a big impact on me ’cause I really had rose-colored glasses on [in terms of] what I thought the world was," he explained.
Woody Harrelson didn’t get time with his family
While it’s true that Woody Harrelson did achieve immense success in Hollywood and appeared in many movies, experimenting with a bunch of roles, he had to sacrifice a lot along the way. According to an NPR piece, Harrelson couldn’t be around as much at home to spend time with his wife and children, something that he wasn’t happy about.
He explained that he’s proud of everything he’s worked on so far and doesn’t take anything for granted, but it’s true that he really was away a lot on account of work. The actor said, "…I just need, I think, to chill out and spend some time at home. ‘Cause by the time I leave here, I will have been home one week in a year, in the past year. … So, yeah, it’s just not fair to my family." He also implied that the entire process can be pretty exhausting as a whole.
Additionally, he told GQ that one of his major regrets was not seeing his great grandmother for the last time. His mother reminded him that he should see her when he could, but always in a rush he thought that he’d get a chance the next time he would visit. Sadly, he never got the opportunity again. She fell sick and passed away. He said that this was something that weighed heavily on his mind. He added, "I mean you know, life is full of regrets."
His wild past followed him
Woody Harrelson realized the pitfalls of fame when he found himself embroiled in a scandal that almost wrecked his marriage. According to People, the actor got very lucky when his wife, Laura Louie, chose to stand by his side. The controversy took place back in 2002 when the actor ended up participating in a foursome in London. Things were murkier than they seemed. The actor said, "We went to my place, and one of the girls was a razzi [paparazzi] or worked for them, worked for the rags. And she got a photographer to come out. That one girl manipulated the other two."
He was pretty upset when he realized what had happened because he was sure that would be all over the news. And he was right. Fortunately, Louie was kind and considerate about everything. She said that she could imagine how difficult it must be for him to be going through the scandal. She was definitely not thrilled about the incident but chose to move past it. For the actor, the incident was something that was quite disturbing. He said, "I would’ve paid a large sum to just excise that week from my life."
Cheers was an isolating experience for him
A show that really helped Woody Harrelson make a name for himself in the entertainment industry was Cheers. According to The Guardian, the actor found fame and popularity after playing the role of Woody Boyd on the TV show. Even though the show did help him in terms of getting known as an actor and got him access to more roles, he realized how lonely the experience ultimately was for him. The actor explained, "Before, I’d been gregarious — someone who enjoyed the company of others. But during Cheers, the pressure of people that I didn’t know constantly wanting to talk to me made me recoil and become less outgoing."
He added that it wasn’t a positive outcome, and he ended up being quite arrogant at some point. Eventually, he changed for the better thanks to the support that he received from his wife and children. He said, "….They kind of loved me into a better human being."
Woody Harrelson didn’t get a chance to be vulnerable beyond his younger years
Woody Harrelson revealed in a touching interview that he couldn’t quite express his emotions and be vulnerable after he grew up (via GQ). He explained that growing up without his father and being surrounded by women meant that he was raised, in some ways, to be more sensitive when he was a kid. However, that started changing as he grew up, and he ended up embracing the other end of the spectrum.
He said that he prefers maintaining a balance. Harrelson said, "I was so sensitive, so vulnerable to getting frazzled by negative energy so naturally I kind of boomeranged. As I got older, I had to get tougher. I was fighting all the time." He added that he almost always found himself being tested, and he ended up being far less vulnerable than he used to be. Once he realized what was happening, he decided to try and be a bit of both instead of choosing extremes.
Woody Harrelson has struggled with addiction
In a conversation with the Los Angeles Times, Woody Harrelson once mentioned that he started turning to pot in his 20s to cope with pain in general. He didn’t shy away from mentioning that he knew he developed an addiction to it and found himself tearing up often when he attempted to wean himself off marijuana. He admitted, "I have to deal with certain issues about who I am."
There have been times when the actor has tried to completely stop smoking pot, but he’s realized it’s not that easy to quit. A few times, some of his friends urged him to smoke a lit bit, and he found himself going back to his old habit, knowing that it’s a good way to beat stress and cope with life. He reflected on this and said, "There’s no question that it helps me deal with stress. I feel, sometimes, the weight of the world."
He added that he doesn’t fancy being an addict and would rather be a moderate user if he could. Another point he made was that he believes that marijuana is still a safer option compared to other more lethal options out there.