The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Woody Harrelson

Woody Harrelson is known for his many lovable personalities — "Hollywood's wildest wild child, a raw-foodist and eco-crusader and Iraq-war protester and marijuana-legalization champion," as Esquire put it. The Academy Award nominated actor can play goofy, macho, and frightening all in the same scene. His big break came when we joined the cast of Cheers, which GQ called "what might just be the greatest sitcom of all time" and one of "the most perfect TV shows ever." Harrelson went on to win an Emmy for this supporting role and became a regular in the entertainment industry. As of 2020, he has over 100 acting credits, via IMDb.

After a relocation to Hawaii, the Zombieland star became close buddies with his neighbor and fellow mellow lover, Willie Nelson. But Harrelson's life was never just sunsets and pina coladas. In fact, he could probably use ... a few cheers, because this is the tragic real-life story of Woody Harrelson.

Woody Harrelson's wild night in London

Once he landed a dream role on Cheers in 1985, Woody Harrelson quickly earned a reputation of fully-enjoying life. "I became a party animal. You couldn't do what I did now because of all the tweeting and Facebooking. All the s**t I did back then, I'd be hung from the rafters," he told GQ. Nearly two decades later, he still continued his celebratory ways. The actor told Rolling Stone about an unforgettable night that he wishes he could forget.

While filming in London in 2002, Harrelson found himself at a bar when two women approached him. According to the actor, the women asked if he wanted to "take a walk on the wild side." To which Harrelson replied, "I guess I do." A third woman joined in the fun, and the foursome returned to Harrelson's accommodations and enjoyed what the outlet described as "whatever-happened-next." Unfortunately for the Rampart star, "a paparazzo was able to snap a photo that soon hit the tabloids." The worst part — his then-girlfriend and future-wife Laura Louie saw these photos in the press. This "led to a good bit of groveling on Harrelson's part," and the couple worked past the incident.

A young and rowdy Texas upbringing

Looking back at his childhood in Midland, Texas, Woody Harrelson admits he may have been a lot to handle. "I had a lot of anger, a lot of rage," he confessed to Esquire. The young boy found a way to get kicked out of his nursery school and then first grade. After an incident where, supposedly, teachers accused a young Harrelson of stealing a purse, he "went around the school breaking windows with [his] bare fists." 

Harrelson's father left the family when he was only seven and this seemed to affect his mindset. "I think I was also just too soft. I was so sensitive, so vulnerable," he told GQ. As a result, Harrelson vowed to toughen up and not be pushed around. But this manifested in negative ways. He admitted to having "tantrums" and holding onto this "rage" as he grew older. "I used to go to bars and fight the guys I thought were bullies. I've got scars everywhere," he revealed to The Hollywood Reporter. His fighting ways continued even after becoming a famous actor. Like when he once punched a reporter and claimed he thought the photographer was a zombie

Woody Harrelson grew up with a villainous father

The story of Woody Harrelson's father seems more like a movie than real life. And actually, Harrelson's brothers shared insights on their childhood on the podcast Son of a Hitman, via Entertainment Weekly. Their father, "Charles Harrelson, was sentenced to two life terms for the slaying of a federal judge in San Antonio." The patriarch was a contract killer and also a big-time gambler. Prior to his 1979 arrest "for the assassination of U.S. District Judge John Wood Jr., he had previously been acquitted in the death of Alan Berg, a carpet salesman, and convicted in the murder of Sam Degelia Jr., a grain dealer." Charles eventually passed away in 2007 while serving his double life sentence. In an interview with The Guardian, the only positive thing Woody cared to share about Charles was his advice to "always keep an open mind." 

Woody seldom talks about his father, who left the family when the future actor was only seven years old. But he does remember a few things about the infamous family patriarch. "He was quite a charming fellow and a gambler," Woody told The Hollywood Reporter. "He made a lot of money gambling. He cheated, but he was more of a con artist," Woody remembered. For example, Charles would invite his targets on a boat for a relaxing day of fishing. "And then he'd say, 'Want to play a couple hands?' And before you know it, the guy's completely fleeced," Woody revealed.

Mega stardom took a toll on Woody Harrelson's family life

Though many people dream of making it big in Hollywood, the life of a mega star does come with some downfalls. Sure, Woody Harrelson openly admits to partying hard as a younger man, and enjoying the benefits that come along with being a celebrity. But as he grew older and started a family, the same hard work that made him famous turned into a negative as well. "I feel like I've probably just spent too much time running around doing these movies," he revealed to NPR. Harrelson said he's "proud" and "very psyched about these movies — but I just need, I think, to chill out and spend some time at home." 

It's easy to understand why he would miss life at home. Harrelson and his wife Laura Louie have been married since 2008, via The Hollywood Reporter, and the couple has three daughters together. Oh, and the whole family lives in paradise — Maui, Hawaii. During the interview with NPR in London, the actor shared his grueling schedule working in film. "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 said, adding, "I'm just a little knackered from the whole process." Quite simply, he was "just ready to go home."

A family relationship cut too short

While his father served time for heinous crimes, Woody Harrelson grew up with the support of the strong women in his family. This included his mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. He fondly remembers his childhood in Texas and special bond with his great grandmother Polly. In an interview with GQ, the White Men Can't Jump star called her "a real pistol," and recalled that Polly "could tell a story and everything about her was great." 

While Harrelson lived in New York, he briefly visited back home and luckily met with Polly. But it would unfortunately be his last time. "I regret the last chance I had to see my great grandmother when my mom said, 'Now you be sure to stop by there on your way to the airport,' and I was running late and I'm like, 'I'll see her next time,' and I didn't get a chance to." And sadly, Harrelson never got the opportunity to record all the amazing memories Polly carried. "I wish I'd written down her stories because there were some great stories and she knew all this stuff about her mom and her mom's mom and now that's all gone.

Woody Harrelson burned a few bridges

Even with a dream career, Woody Harrelson is still upset by a few missteps along the way. In an interview with GQ, the actor recalled a moment he considers his biggest regret. At the time, Harrelson was in Los Angeles working alongside famous actor/director John Cassavetes on a play. Harrelson admitted, "I had a full realization of how amazing this guy was, although I didn't understand in terms of his larger body of work and his influence on independent movies."

The younger Harrelson, then in his mid-20's, was in the running for a movie set to film in Rome. So, he bailed on the stage show with Cassavetes. But Harrelson ended up not getting the part in Italy. Though he claims Cassavetes "would have let [him] back in the play," Harrelson never returned. "One of the worst decisions of my life," Harrelson told the mag, adding, "I regret not coming back when I could have." Though Harrelson admitted that professionally, it may not have hurt his career chances, he messed up "on a personal level." Harrelson confessed, "I should have stuck by that guy. He took a chance on me. That was a real lack of integrity on my part."

Trouble with the boys in blue

Once an unabashed partier and bad boy, Woody Harrelson unsurprisingly found himself periodically in hot water. At his worst, Harrelson fought the law and the law won. The Solo: A Star Wars Story star recounted his first incident during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Police stopped a young Harrelson and his friend for jaywalking. The actor claimed he didn't have identification but the officer caught him in the lie. Realizing he must have had an ID to enter into the local bars, Harrelson claimed the officer yelled, "Don't lie to me again, punk!"

As Harrelson recalled, after the policeman "smashed [him] against the wall a couple of times," he pushed off and ran away. His getaway was short lived. The officer called for backup and "soon I'm just surrounded by blue, and they had me down on the ground, knee in my throat," according to Harrelson. While in the "paddy wagon," the officers stopped to arrest another man. Once the doors opened, Harrelson ran away for a second time. "I'm handcuffed, and I'm wearing boots, and I'm running," he said. The chase ended, Harrelson wound up with a face full of mace, and he spent the night in jail. Looking back, he said, "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."

Cheers wasn't all that... cheerful for Woody Harrelson

At age 23, Woody Harrelson was out in Los Angeles taking a break from an understudy role on Broadway. With the comfort of knowing he already had a job waiting back in New York, Harrelson auditioned for a show — Cheers. As he admitted to GQ, he knew about the popular show but never watched it. And much like his future role in White Men Can't Jump, Harrelson showed up "to read looking like he just came off a basketball court," producer Peter Casey said. This same bravado irked some of the castmates, like the universally loved star Ted Danson. "So in walked Woody, who was instantly great, but offstage, it was [all] testosterone," Danson remembered. Apparently, all the guys on set tried to beat Harrelson at basketball, chess, and arm-wrestling. But the young stud was too much to handle. Danson admitted, "Woody cleaned everybody's clock in everything." 

But the instant sitcom fame only added to his separation from others. Harrelson told The Guardian that prior to Cheers, "I'd been gregarious — someone who enjoyed the company of others." But once the show started, "the pressure of people that I didn't know constantly wanting to talk to me made me recoil and become less outgoing." Harrelson confessed it even "had quite a negative impact. I went through a period of arrogance and having my head up my a**."

Woody Harrelson struggled in New York

According to The Guardian, Woody Harrelson pursued his dream of performance by studying English and Theater at Hanover College in Indiana. Once he graduated, a close friend was accepted into the prestigious Juilliard School. The buddy asked Harrelson to relocate with him to New York, and the hopeful actor accepted. Harrelson told The Hollywood Reporter about his plan upon arrival, "I'll just try to get into some summer stock — which I didn't." And like many young talents who move to The Big Apple for a chance at fame, he continued to find himself without work. "You go to a thing, it's like a cattle call. Zero offers," he remembered. 

As Harrelson continued, unsuccessfully, to search for roles in the theater, he just about gave up. "I figured I'd try to segue into some regional theater, just work my way into production," Harrelson said. Of course, he landed the aforementioned understudy spot on Broadway just before hitting the jackpot with a starring role on Cheers. But he confessed that before this, times were difficult. "I was anonymous and poor before that show," he told The Hollywood Reporter.

A terrifying experience ruined Woody Harrelson's big celebration

Once Woody Harrelson landed the part of Woody on Cheers, he knew it was cause for celebration. The show was already wildly popular and this was Harrelson's first major gig. As a reward to himself, Harrelson purchased a Porsche. All that excitement came crashing down in one night when a stranger robbed Harrelson as the actor approached his car in a Hollywood parking garage. "A guy came up and robbed me," Harrelson revealed to The Hollywood Reporter, adding, "Put a gun to my head. That was really an uncomfortable night."

According to the actor, the robber stole Harrelson's money, and he wanted the new car as well. As Harrelson searched for the keys, he claimed the assailant "said he was going to count to five and needed the keys before he got there." Harrelson vividly remembered hearing the count get to four and thought, "I'm going to die now." So, how did he get out of it? At the same moment "someone else entered the garage, and scared the man away," according to THR.

Woody Harrelson faced intense backlash

Early in his career, things seemed to be almost perfect for Woody Harrelson. After landing a successful role on Cheers, he exploded in popularity with his role in White Men Can't Jump alongside the often disliked Wesley Snipes. Afterwards, he starred in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. Not only did the film have a famous director, a young Quentin Tarantino wrote the original script, the Los Angeles Times reported. The movie was highly controversial because of its subject matter and violent themes. In an interview for Fade In, Harrelson said he was negatively affected by all criticism surrounding the film. "It was terrible," he confessed.

A few years after Natural Born Killers, Harrelson portrayed publisher Larry Flint, which earned him a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards. He remembered being "so invested emotionally. Everyone worked so hard on it." But once again, Harrelson was caught up in controversy about the film. He specifically referred to famed feminist Gloria Steinem's campaign to discourage movie goers. "So for Gloria Steinem to go around the country and tell women to make sure they don't see it, and to make sure their husbands don't see it ... that hurt," Harrelson confessed. He told The Hollywood Reporter, "I wanted to take some time off after that. I needed to back away from this job."

More trouble in London for Woody Harrelson

In his early 20s, Woody Harrelson considered a different career than acting. "I was still entertaining the notion of becoming a cop — either a cop or FBI or Secret Service," he told The Hollywood Reporter. But after an incident that landed him in jail for a night, he said, "I stopped wanting to be a cop, for sure." And after he became a successful actor, Harrelson once again found himself tied up with the law. According to The Guardian, police arrested Harrelson in 2002 "following a bizarre taxi chase through the streets of London." Apparently, while Harrelson took a cab from a nightclub back to his hotel, the actor broke an ashtray and door lock in the vehicle. "He had suddenly gone completely bonkers," the taxi driver said. 

The article continued that "Harrelson reportedly jumped out of the cab following the incident and swiftly hailed another before speeding off with the first driver in hot pursuit." The police trapped his getaway car and yet, Harrelson still had more fight in him. "The actor is reported to have fled on foot before eventually being stopped," the article said. Harrelson spent the night in a London jail. The actor later explained his side of the story to The Telegraph but conceded, "I'm not excusing my behavior. I was a freaking idiot."