There’s no denying that Woody Harrelson is a well-recognizable A-list actor for audiences both young and old. Some may remember his Emmy Award-winning role as Woody Boyd on Cheers in the mid-’80s, while younger fans may know him as Haymitch Abernathy in The Hunger Games flicks. Regardless of the countless places you’ve seen him crop up, the actor has kept a surprisingly low profile when it comes to his private life — at least these days.
"Once you become famous, an interesting transition occurs," the celeb told the Los Angeles Times back in 1998. "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," he added. Sure enough, Harrelson has been living on the DL for years with his wife, Laura Louie, and their three daughters, but did you know the actor has been married once before? Probably not, as his hitch to Nancy Simon is so elusive, you’d be hard-pressed to find any photos of the pair — or Simon, for that matter.
As it turns out, Harrelson was a tabloid regular when he was a newcomer in Hollywood, and in true celebrity fashion, he even has a quickie marriage to prove it. Here’s what we know about Woody Harrelson’s first marriage, and the real reason why it ended in divorce.
Woody Harrelson’s marriage to Nancy Simon was all a big joke
In most instances, you’d hope that a couple marries for love. In Woody Harrelson’s case, he didn’t exactly rush to the altar the first time around for any sort of passionate romance… at all. According to the Los Angeles Times, after graduating from Indiana’s Hanover College, the actor made his way to New York, ready to start his acting career. Unfortunately for Harrelson, his big break didn’t simply land in his lap.
As the Los Angeles Times notes, after "14 months and 17 jobs," the future celeb was feeling defeated, ready to throw in the towel on his acting career. As fate would have it, however, he suddenly "landed understudy roles in Neil Simon’s [play] Biloxi Blues" — and the role wasn’t the only thing to catch Harrelson’s attention. According to the outlet, the actor "[enraged] the playwright by wedding his daughter [Nancy Simon]." Uh, what?
While we wish we could say this story had salacious goss attached to it, it looks like every party has kept pretty hush-hush about the rather irregular union. As revealed by TCM, Harrelson and Nancy "whimsically married in Tijuana in 1985 intending to divorce the following day, but when the couple returned to the storefront marriage/divorce parlor, they found it closed because it was Sunday." Awkwardly enough, they remained legally married for 10 months.
Nancy Simon’s father had concerns about Woody Harrelson
While Nancy Simon’s name may not ring many bells, her Pulitzer- and Tony-winning father’s plays might. The mastermind behind comedy classics like Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, Neil Simon "was often called the world’s most popular playwright after Shakespeare" (via The Washington Post). Needless to say, you can imagine the legendary writer’s horror when he found out his daughter married an up-and-coming actor as a lighthearted gag.
"I think at the time Neil was a little bit worried I might try to go after her money," Woody Harrelson explained to USA Today (via TCM). In the years that followed, he also made it abundantly clear he didn’t believe in being tied down. "I don’t believe really in [the] institution [of marriage]," Harrelson declared to Barbara Walters in 1997 (via OoCities.org), adding, "You can’t really say you’re gonna have and hold someone ’til death do you part because you don’t know."
Sure enough, Neil didn’t need to worry, as, according to TCM, the couple "filed for a summary dissolution at [the] time Harrelson’s career suddenly took off." We have a feeling Nancy probably dodged a bullet, too, since the actor’s newfound fame was filled with chaos and bacchanalian indulgence. "I was 24 when I became famous," the Natural Born Killers actor told The Guardian, explaining, "I got drunk on success. My ego flared up. There’s a lot of a**hole things that I did that I can never take back. I carry a whole fricking boatload of regrets."
The actor was too busy enjoying his newfound fame
Romance wasn’t the only thing on Woody Harrelson’s mind in 1985. Although that was the year he married his boss’ daughter, Nancy Simon, his dearly beloved wasn’t his top priority. "I got my first job as an understudy in a Neil Simon play [in New York]," the actor later told The Hollywood Reporter, adding, "Then the guys who did it got fired, and I was expecting to do that when I auditioned for Cheers."
The then-23-year-old landed the part of the now-iconic Woody Boyd on the legendary comedy series — the same year he married Nancy. "I couldn’t have imagined leaving [Cheers] because, really, that show made me. I mean, I was anonymous and poor before that show," Harrelson explained to The Hollywood Reporter.
Sure enough, Cheers definitely "made" Harrelson. The celeb suddenly had the A-list personality to match, or as The Guardian put it, he was "having a wild time." As he told the outlet, "There was definitely a time of, what would you call it… of Satyricon. A time of definite excess." That so-called "excess," however, could have sent the actor down a very dark path. Or, as another article by The Guardian revealed, "stardom spun his head," noting, "He drank too deeply, sowed his oats too freely, and had a number of run-ins with the police. It took time to straighten out and settle down."
Woody Harrelson was once a ‘serial womanizer’
Something tells us Woody Harrelson shocked even those closest to him when he wed Nancy Simon in 1985. After all, he wasn’t exactly the type to want to settle down. Instead, he would fill his time getting in trouble with the law, or as Barbara Walters put it (via OoCities.org), "He became Hollywood’s poster child for civil disobedience."
Along with enjoying living life on the wild side, The Hunger Games actor was also known as a "serial womanizer." As The Times explained, "During filming in the late 1980s … ‘Wicked Woody’ famously claimed to be sleeping with three women a day, spending his time ‘having as much sex’ as he could." According to the outlet, the celeb even claimed that he "felt trapped in a relationship after three hours." Yikes, how did he even last 10 months with poor Simon?
"I just never believed that it made any sense, this long-term monogamy thing that humans do," the actor reflected to The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. "Obviously, you can’t have sex with anyone else, but many times you can’t even be the person that you were before. I just was incapable of long-term relationships. I was with whoever would have me." Adding that relationships felt "proprietary," Harrelson claustrophobically related being in a committed relationship to living "in a cage." We’re hoping his quickie union wasn’t that bad.
He was dealing with his own personal baggage
Woody Harrelson didn’t exactly have a conventional childhood. According to People, in 1968, when Harrelson was around seven, his father, Charles V. Harrelson, "vanished from their home in Houston, leaving his wife, Diane … to support Woody and his two brothers." While Woody would visit his dad on occasion, he told The Hollywood Reporter that this was at Charles’ girlfriend’s home — and his dad "was gone all the time anyway."
An absentee father is already disheartening enough when you’re a kid, but as it turns out, Woody’s dad was also a "convicted hitman" (via People). According to Inside Edition, it’s believed that the actor’s dad was allegedly "responsible for 20 murders," and in 1982 "was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and [was] serving a life sentence in Illinois" until his death in 2007, per the Los Angeles Times.
While Woody didn’t exactly have a close relationship with his father growing up, he surprisingly fostered a connection with Charles after he was incarcerated. In 1988, two years after his divorce from Nancy Simon, People reported that the star had been visiting his father in prison once a year. As the outlet wrote, "Harrelson, still trying to figure out his father, does not plan to launch a family of his own soon." He told the mag, "I can’t see myself getting nailed down for quite a while. I’m militantly single. I find it difficult to have sustained intimate relationships."
Woody Harrelson was focused on trying to get his dad out of prison
Although Woody Harrelson didn’t have a close relationship with his father, Charles Harrelson, after he walked out on his family in 1968, the pair formed a unique relationship after the convicted hitman’s incarceration in 1981 (via The Guardian). "I don’t feel he was much of a father," the actor told People in 1988, adding, "I’m just now gauging whether he merits my loyalty or friendship. I look at him as someone who could be a friend more than someone who was a father."
Sure enough, the pair did become friends, and Charles even managed to gush about his son during an interview from prison with Inside Edition in 1989. "I knew he had a lot of drive and a lot of ambition and it didn’t surprise me a lot when he made it," he explained. It was with that ambition that Woody decided to focus on getting Charles a retrial, calling his father’s life-long conviction a "travesty" (via People).
Considering all of this hardship was suddenly sprung on Woody while he was married to Nancy Simon and trying to break into the acting biz, it makes sense why his marriage ended in divorce. As the actor told The Guardian, he believes he and his father are "quite a bit" similar, which is perhaps why he was so set on helping him. "I don’t know [if] he did deserve a new trial… just being a son trying to help his dad," he said.
The Cheers star still hadn’t met ‘the one’
After Woody Harrelson’s 10-month marriage to Nancy Simon, he bounced back pretty quickly. In fact, according to The Times, "Girlfriends were never in short supply: Moon Zappa, Ally Sheedy and Carol Kane were just three of them," along with a five-month fling with a young Glenn Close — who was "15 years his senior."
As his fame rose, Harrelson was very vocal about not wanting to settle down — at least until he met Laura Louie. During an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the actor revealed that when a "media workshop came to see Cheers," Harrelson asked the group, "Hey, does anybody here have secretarial skills? ‘Cause I could really use an assistant." Louie ended up snagging the opportunity and worked for Harrelson for three years — until he finally realized he was in love with her. Spoiler alert: the feeling was mutual. "I gave her a promotion," the Venom star quipped to The Globe and Mail.
Harrelson and Louie married in 2008, though by that point, they had been together for 20 years. "None of my friends [expected it] either. It is kind of shocking," he told The Guardian. The actor echoed a similar sentiment during his chat with The Hollywood Reporter, gushing, "I just was incapable of long-term relationships. I was with whoever would have me [until] I met my wife."
Woody Harrelson was still growing his career
Sure, after Woody Harrelson landed the role of Woody Boyd on Cheers, everybody knew his name, but that wasn’t the case when he first met Nancy Simon. According to TCM, after finishing his time at Hanover College in Indiana, the aspiring actor moved to New York in 1983, "where he chased his dream [of acting] while working some 17 odd jobs in little more than a year." Still young and boisterous, however, Harrelson "enjoyed drinking heavily and getting into fights," even becoming "belligerent following an unsuccessful audition for a soap opera" one day.
Things changed "in 1984 [when] he became an understudy in Broadway’s Biloxi Blues" (via People). While he clearly won the heart of playwright Neil Simon’s daughter, Nancy, Harrelson was still primarily focused on his career, "and six months later [he] was cast as a football player in Goldie Hawn’s Wildcats."
Success only snowballed after that, and by the time he was hitched with Simon in 1985, Harrelson snagged his now-iconic role on the legendary sitcom. With it, of course, came a whole new slew of A-list contacts. Simply put: the rising star was hungry for it all. "The principal trouble with the entertainment industry … is ego," he explained to The Guardian. "You have a person who has a hole in their life and they want it to be filled with attention and love … Maybe they’re a glutton for love. Or maybe we all just want love, period."