'Chicago' star Gregory Harrison makes lemonade from lemons in courtrooms, television, and theater
Television makes smaller stars than Hollywood, it's been theorized, because the actors just look smaller on that comparably tiny screen, or because we feel like we know the characters who come into our living room every night and familiarity breeds contempt.
Theater and TV veteran Gregory Harrison, who takes the stage this week at the Majestic as Chicago's enterprising attorney Billy Flynn, is a very familiar face, but while his roles have included plenty of contemptible characters, his easygoing California charm shines through. After a 30-year TV career ranging from a guest appearance on M*A*S*H ("The Nurses" episode) to a seven-year run as Dr. Gonzo Gates on Trapper John, M.D., his handsome, all-American mug is imprinted somewhere in our basal brain as the typical (pick one) doctor, GI, father, husband. Harrison's life reads almost like a made-for-TV movie. A few scenes:
* Harrison is 15 when director Frank Tashlin uses his father's boat as the title craft in the Doris Day film The Glass Bottom Boat. "I realized this magical thing called movies was just a craft," says Harrison, and he's hooked.
* During a successful theater run of Festival, Harrison falls almost to his death when a trapeze rope breaks. But not before he's spotted by a casting director who recommends him for a role in a new pilot. Harrison recovers and goes on to make a mint on the small screen. "I was nothing but good guys in the beginning," he says. Later, "it was interesting to take this familiar face and turn him into the bad guy."
* Harrison spends half a mint on live theater as his company, Catalina Productions, operates the multi-award-winning Coast Playhouse in Los Angeles for more than a decade. "I have no regrets about that," Harrison assures us. "Your artistic soul better be fed by theater, because your pocketbook won't."
* Harrison marries CHiPs actress Randi Oakes after they meet on Battle of the Network Stars. They move to the coast of Oregon where they raise four kids in idyllic splendor.
Billy Flynn, who works all the angles on behalf of his foxy, sociopathic clients (demure dresses, please ladies, and let the jury see you tear up), is not dysfunctional, or even heartless, says Harrison. "I see him as a 3-D character who loves his work, adores his clients, has great affection for the jury. He doesn't have any sense that he's ruthless in any way." Acting and courtroom lawyering have a lot in common, he adds. "I think I learned more about Billy Flynn from watching (O.J. Simpson defense attorney) Johnny Cochran than anything else." And Harrison has no contempt for either. "I think `they` really do believe everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty." •
By Elaine Wolff