Before he was Woody, he was Tracy. That's Harrelson's middle name and what he went by growing up in Texas, mostly around Houston. By the time he was seven, his father had vanished from his life, leaving no forwarding address. He had two brothers – one younger, one older – and their mom raised them solidly in the Presbyterian faith. "I used to have Bible studies at my house," he says. "I was in the choir. I was mischievous but also a real mama's boy. It was a pretty happy childhood."
It must have been a very unusual kind of happy. Before entering the first grade, Tracy had already been kicked out of at least three schools. A typical story involves Tracy being bullied by some kindergarten tough, Tracy squealing to the teacher, the teacher calling Tracy a crybaby, Tracy kicking her in the shin, the teacher telling the rest of the class to "get him," and him having to whip a belt around to keep them at bay. Expulsion followed. In another, a teacher accused him of stealing her purse; feeling falsely accused, he sassed her; she slapped him; "and before you know it, three teachers are all kind of whaling on me," after which he went outside and set about breaking every school window he could, bloodying himself as he went, not caring.
"Things like that did happen," he says, sounding almost puzzled. "Weird shit."
Around that time, he was labeled an emotionally disturbed hyperactive dyslexic and was put on Ritalin. At one point, he was placed in a school for kids with learning disabilities. Tracy loved the place. Finally, he wasn't the only one with issues. And the teachers genuinely cared. After three years, though, he left for another school and found himself having to deal with kids who knew all about his father – in 1973, Charles was convicted of the 1968 contract killing of a Texas grain dealer, a fact that Harrelson learned about from the radio – and taunted him about it mercilessly. Shortly thereafter, his mom moved the family to Lebanon, Ohio, to start over.
And that's when Tracy became Woody. "Why? I wanted to get away from...whatever," he says, a little uneasily. "It was almost like changing personalities, and I kind of did change personalities. I decided, as an act of will, to be more outgoing. I mean, there were still a lot of fights at school. The biggest one I got into was in junior high, with a bully named Tim. In the locker room, he had told me, 'Punch me in the mouth. Come on, hit me, you pussy.' I said, 'I'm not going to hit you; you hit me.' And he goes 'Bam!' I got a bloody mouth. So from that day on it was constant taunts, him calling me a pussy, a fag. He'd follow me home. He knew I was weak – not weak, but afraid. And one day I couldn't take it anymore. I threw down my books, charged him, tackled him, got him down on the ground, and just started beating the shit out of him. He never fucked with me again."
He stops for a bit, thinking about his history of fighting, which in earlier years, he seems to have engaged in with considerable gusto, once going so far as to say, "I think there's many times that if I'd been holding a weapon, I would have killed somebody" and that he possessed "an unearthly violence that just came out in spurts" and to call violence an "aphrodisiac."
"I don't know why I always seem to elicit someone's need to mock or ridicule or give me shit," he says today. "I didn't feel like it was something I was searching out. I don't know why."
For the most part, though, things got better. Harrelson was a good athlete, playing on the track and football teams, and then, shortly after Elvis died in 1977, he got up on a table in the school library, belted out a version of "All Shook Up" – "Well, bless my soul/What's wrong with me?" – to thunderous applause. Afterward, a girl he liked told him he should try out for theater. He did and found that, as much as anything, he loved the attention. And he got the girl.
He attended Hanover College in Indiana, where he began losing his religion in his second year, drank his first drink in his third year, and took his first hit of weed in his fourth year, before leaving with a degree in theater arts and English. Then it was off to New York, to lose 17 jobs almost as fast as he got them, party like crazy, drink like crazy, smoke pot like crazy, sleep with all the women he could, and try to become an actor. After two frustrating years, he finally landed a part as an understudy in the Neil Simon play 'Biloxi Blues;' shortly thereafter, an acting buddy told him that Cheers was looking to replace Nicholas Colasanto, who had played Coach and recently died, with a character who would be a country rube. And his name would be Woody. Perfect. Harrelson auditioned, got the part, and was soon showing everyone what he was all about.
"Woody," Diane Chambers says to him in an early episode, "I want to speak metaphysically."
"And you need money for the language lessons," says Woody. "No problem."
Woody Boyd sure wasn't smart, but like Woody Harrelson, he sure could be sweet.
Back in his penthouse hotel room, he kicks off his shoes, and goes into the bathroom. A bicycle is in the living area and a number of the things that make up the Harrelson experience are on a nearby table. There are various bottles of vitamins or vitaminlike substances (Insomnitrol, Vitamineral Green, vitamin C), a helping of cacao nibs, $100 in twenties, a couple of children's books, two New Orleans Saints lighters, and a single tiny marijuana bud ("Ha, ha!").
Harrelson digs up a joint and sits at a table on the balcony. Evening is coming on, with a spectacular sky about to bloom on the horizon and big bunches of birds fluttering through the air. He lights up.
"Did you have role models growing up?" I ask.
"When I was a kid, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Jesus, mostly. He was the man, for sure."
"Did you ever idolize your dad?"
"Yeah, I did. When I was a kid." He tilts his head. "Nice segue, by the way."
"Did he take you fishing or camping?"
"None of it. That never happened." He takes another hit.
"Did you ever live life the way you wanted with your dad?"
"No. In terms of our relationship, no, because I never...I would have liked to have a period of time which.... An ironic thing happened. I never told this story, but fuck it. When I was a senior in high school, I came back from a track meet and saw him sitting on the living room couch. He'd been in jail since I was seven, so for 10 years. I didn't even know he was out. I saw him, and I just started bawling. The next day, we were in his car, and my dad picked up a roach clip with a little roach in it, lit it, and offered it to me. Well, to me, this was a terrible thing. I had a really intolerant attitude about that drug, which is the ironic thing. I got so furious with him that I didn't go out with him that night, and he left the next day, and the next time I saw him, he was in prison again." He was in prison because he killed a federal judge on behalf of a drug dealer and was sentenced to two life terms plus five years. He died of a heart attack in 2007, in a supermax prison in Colorado. But why Harrelson has never told this story is not exactly clear. There's nothing in it to damage him or his father. Maybe it's because it forces him to deal with the memory of the last time he saw his dad as a free man, and it still hurts.
"Did he give you any parental advice?"
"He always said, 'Son, all I ask is you keep an open mind.' He was speaking generally. His big thing was to encourage me to keep my mind open. Also, he loathed organized religion. When I was 19, I saw him, and he said, 'Within two years, all those things you believe about religion, you're not going to believe anymore.' I thought he was out of his mind, but he was right."
"Did that lead to the party Woody?"
He smiles. "It led very directly."
He eats a few kale chips.
"Do you look more like your mom or your dad?"
"My dad. I look just like him. Well, not just like him but . . . pictures of him when he was a newlywed with my mom. We look just the same when I was that age. We have the same space between our front teeth."
And then he just sits there, staring off, with more birds collecting in the distance.