Friday, November 11, 2011

Let's Grab a Little Gregory!

It's taken a while for this hunk to finally receive his profile in The Underworld, though it's not because we didn't care. There's no set order for what bubbles up to the surface from down here. He just happened to be one of the later subjects to have the spotlight turned on him. In fact, this happens to be one of the scant handful of stars who I have personally met, and it certainly was not a disappointment (restraining order and all... Ha!), but more on that later. For now, let's take a look at one of TV's most attractive (and underrated) leading men, Gregory Harrison.
Born under the same name that would later become famous, he entered the world on May 31st, 1950. His parents lived on Catalina Island, off the coast of southern California and he would remain on that rather idyllic spot until he was eighteen. The middle child of an older sister and a younger brother, his youth consisted of plenty of swimming and fishing. His father was the captain of a glass-bottomed boat and, though his mother (who had studied dance) helped to foster her children's artistic sides. Both of Harrison's siblings would become artists. His parents divorced, however, when he was fourteen.

He was drafted into the army in 1969, which was a trying, grueling experience for him. Used to a far freer environment, he grappled with his immediate superiors and was duly punished for it. He was honorably discharged, however, in 1971, after serving as a medic. While in the service, he learned to play the guitar and composed songs. In the early stages of his career, he believed that music and song-writing might be his path, but ultimately it was not, at least not primarily.

After his stint in the service, he kicked around in several jobs, from being a delivery boy to a construction worker to a window washer. He even did time in a then-trendy Elizabethan-style restaurant, where he played a fool of the court and encouraged diners to throw food at him! Sometimes in part of the act as “punishment,” he'd be placed in restraints and forced to let dozens of women come up and kiss him. He sought to break into acting full time and started working in local theatre.

One night, an attendee was none other than Jason Robards, who encouraged Harrison to pursue his craft in Los Angeles. He swiftly made plans to do just that. It was no easy success, though. He won the lead role in a low-budget film called Jim, The World's Greatest, written and directed by two seventeen year-olds, but it was a few years before it saw release (having been picked up after completion by Universal Studios.) It told the story of a teenage boy with an alcoholic father and a brother who is abused by him.

He also landed an uncredited part in the 1973 Tippi Hedren/Don Johnson film The Harrad Experiment (based on a scorching book about free love on a college campus – written by Robert Rimmer, of all names!), but for his trouble had to strip down to nothing and join in a coed skinny-dipping sequence.

It was 1975 before he worked on camera again. In the memorable TV-movie Trilogy of Terror (a set of horror stories each featuring Karen Black in various roles), he played a college student who may be next in line in a dangerous sexual game played by a sultry teacher. That same year, he appeared unbilled in the pilot movie The New Adventures of Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter and Lyle Waggoner. He played, ironically enough, an army medic! He also guest-starred on the hit series Barnaby Jones and M*A*S*H.

1977 brought what ought to have been a successful film based on the poster alone. Look at this (click to enlarge!) and ask yourself how you could not shell out the dough to see a movie called Fraternity Row when the poster has eight young men in jockey briefs, with their rears facing out, preparing to drop trow for a spanking and another similarly-clad man in the middle being fed a goldfish?!

The period film examined dangerous hazing rituals during the 1950s (a situation that has reared its ugly head over and over again and continues to do so even now!) This was a student project that eventually was picked up by Paramount Studios for release. The now-obscure film also starred Paul Newman's ill-fated son Scott as a chief antagonizer and Nancy Morgan (the wife of John Ritter for almost two decades and the mother of three of his children.) In what would become a motif of Harrison's, he is shown shirtless in a key scene, in this film, a harrowing one.

His next project was far more heavily viewed and served as a sterling example of the television movie for many years. The Gathering was a bittersweet holiday story of a man (Ed Asner) estranged from his children, but wanting to spend one last Christmas together before he dies from an illness. Harrison joined a very solid cast that included Maureen Stapleton, Lawrence Pressman, Gail Strickland, Bruce Davison and, as Greg's wife, Stephanie Zimbalist. Zimbalist would reappear with Harrison in several more projects as the years went by.

Harrison was given quite a break in 1977 when he was chosen to star in his own TV show, a program based on the 1976 sci-fi film Logan's Run. I loved that movie as a kid, but the television version was a low-budget, pale re-imagining with stars (Harrison, The Sound of Music's Heather Menzies and Randy Powell) in no way, physically or emotively, resembling their big screen counterparts Michael York, Jenny Agutter and Richard Jordon. An android character played by Donald Moffat was also added to the regular cast.

The departure from the character types of the parent movie might not have been as big an issue had the series not dumbed down the overall concept and stripped it of adult components such as romance between the leads. Ultimately, it wound up as a weekly chase show with Harrison and Menzies trying to keep ahead of Powell, who relentlessly sought them to punish them for escaping the domed city. At least one episode reunited Menzies with her Music sister Angela Cartwright, which had to be sort of neat for fans. In any case, only 14 episodes were filmed. Now, it's just cheesy fun to look back on this pre-Star Wars bit of science-fiction.

A far more notable and prestigious assignment came his way next. He was cast in a pivotal role in the epic miniseries Centennial. You know, I have to laugh when I see four-hour TV-movies being presented as “miniseries.” In the 1970s, a miniseries was just that, a lengthy, installment-based, star-filled event, usually with plenty of drama, sweep and scope to it. Centennial collected a galaxy of performers and put them to work settling the western half of The United States, primarily near a fictional town called Centennial. The miniseries was 21 hours long without commercials!

Harrison played an Amish boy who is accused of an assault he didn't commit and is shunned as a result. He marries a grown orphan girl (Stephanie Zimbalist) and the two set out to create a new home out west. They trudge their covered wagon through the open country, encountering all sorts of hardships before finally stopping to settle. He and Zimbalist fostered significant chemistry together, making their segment one of the best in the series. For this program, he was aged significantly as his character grew older and older (which eventually turned a bit preposterous given that he was only twenty-seven in real life!) Still, it was a mammoth project and one he could be proud of.

He and Zimbalist worked together again in 1979 in the telefilm The Best Place to Be. Oh to be able to watch this one. Just look at the cast: Donna Reed, Efrem Zimbalist Jr (Stephanie's father), Leon Ames, Rick Jason, Madlyn Rhue, John Phillip Law, Timothy Hutton, Lloyd Bochner, Mildred Dunnock, Gloria Stuart and Betty White! It, like countless other TV-movies, is lost out there in Limboland somewhere.

A terrific opportunity came Harrison's way in 1979 and that was another shot at a series. It not only was a success, running for more than 7 years, but made him a household name. Trapper John, M.D. was actually a spin-off/sequel of M*A*S*H, the title character having been played by Wayne Rogers in that series (set, of course, during The Korean War.) He was offered the role again in this update, but turned it down. The connection between the two shows was vague at best, with Trapper eventually coming into its own. In any case, the producers of M*A*S*H wanted to claim royalties from the show, so a court ended up ruling that the series was a spin-off from the original film M*A*S*H, thus preventing such a thing from occurring. Pernell Roberts (previously of Bonanza fame) took on the role of a caring, but sometimes prickly doctor.

Like countless shows before it, a young upstart was cast opposite the established physician in order to provide contrast and, at times, conflict. This is where Harrison came in as Dr. George Alonzo Gates, better known as “Gonzo” Gates. While Roberts was a secure and reliable presence at the hospital, Harrison was, at least at first, a free-wheeling nonconformist who lived on the parking lot in a ramshackle RV nicknamed The Titanic. He could sometimes be found sunbathing on top of it, always a welcome sight.
What really put Harrison on the map in my household (and surely many others!) was his appearance during the opening credits. Taken from the very first episode, from the moment when the lead characters have their first face-to-face discussion, Harrison was depicted emerging from a shower stall. Roberts (referring to a just prior surgery) tells him he's got “great hands” and Harrison shoves the stall door open, revealing everything else to Roberts, and says, “Thanks! The rest of me's kind of cute, too.” Just ask any gay man of a certain age what he remembers about the show Trapper John, M.D. and see if this image isn't one of the first things he mentions! I all but licked the TV during the credits sequence (and this being long before the days of the VCR, you'd better be damned sure you had the TV on at the right time and could commit the image to memory because it was going to be at least another week before the chance to see it rolled around again.) It was, quite simply, one of the greatest opportunities to see prime beefcake, ever so fleetingly, on TV at that time.

Of course, he was rarely called upon to be semi-nude thereafter, but he still developed a cute, caring, at times passionate character who was a pleasure to watch. How many of you out there recognize the other regular cast member shown with Harrison in this shot? He was in every single episode of the show for the length of its 151 episode run, but is far better known now for his work on the Broadway stage. Billed as Brian Mitchell, he is more familiarly known as Brian Stokes Mitchell now, star of Ragtime and a Tony winner for Kiss Me Kate.

During Harrison's time on Trapper John, he worked on several other projects. One was the TV-movie The Women's Room, a feminist drama based on a popular book. In it, he played the young lover of Lee Remick, a woman returning to graduate school and whose friends in the story are played by some powerhouses such as Colleen Dewhurst, Patty Duke, Tovah Feldshuh and Tyne Daly. He also appeared in Enola Gay: The Men, the Mission, the Atomic Bomb, all about the decision to use a nuclear bomb during WWII.

In 1980, he formed his own production company along with a friend of his (who handled much of the business end of things) called Catalina Production Company. This led to the creation of many stage projects and television movies, many starring Harrison. The first one was a wild success, not only scoring a ratings hit, but eventually becoming a home video blockbuster for reasons which should be readily apparent. For Ladies Only concerned a fledgling, unsuccessful actor who finds that he can make a ton of money by working as a male stripper. Before long, he's become king of a Chippendales-like night club where he shucks off his clothes and parades around in skimpy briefs.
His costars in this were Marc Singer (as a fellow dancer and drug addict), Viveca Lindfors, Dinah Manoff, Louise Lasser, Lee Grant and, as his girlfriend, Patti Davis (better known as the daughter of Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis Reagan!) Not solely an excursion into seminudity, the piece did attempt to shed a little light on its subject and present some moral lessons as well. Coinciding with the airing of the movie was a white-hot poster of Harrison in his Z (for Zorro) briefs. At this moment, he was quite possibly the hunkiest person I had ever witnessed in my life (I was fourteen!) I still think he looked damned amazing.

Also produced by Catalina Productions, but with an eye towards a higher plain of respectability was 1983's The Hasty Heart, based on a play that had previously been made into a 1949 movie starring Ronald Reagan, Patricia Neal and Richard Todd. In this version, a filmed rendition of the play, actually, presented on Showtime, Harrison was joined by Cheryl Ladd and Perry King. As a wounded soldier aching to go home, but who may never get there, Harrison demonstrated acting talent that some of his other projects didn't allow him to show off.
Another TV film that same year, produced by his company, was The Fighter. This one concerned a Vietnam veteran barely making ends meet who discovers that boxing could bring him and his wife (played by Glynnis O'Connor) some much needed income. There is a similarity in theme with this to For Ladies Only in that both men want to pursue a legitimate career, but find that they can get ahead further by exploiting their physicality. This was something Harrison struggled with all along himself. He wanted more than anything to be known for his acting ability, something he worked on incessantly, but seemed to find the greatest success when he peeled off his clothes and showed the world his physique.
Speaking of that, Harrison, as a CBS television star, was frequently called upon to participate in the occasional (legendary) specials called Battle of the Network Stars. These programs were astonishingly popular in the late '70s/early '80s not only because they pitted celebrities from the big three networks competing against one another for prize money and bragging rights, but also because three of the events required the men to don tiny, snug Speedo swimsuits! As an athletic, in-shape young man, Harrison was a valuable member of his team.
In 1980, while competing on one of the specials, he was spotted by rival contestant Randi Oakes, of NBC and the series CHiPs. A former model-turned-actress, she fell for him on the spot and before long, the two were an item. (No weak, demure flower herself, on one episode of BOTNS, she actually picked Harrison up and carried him to the dunk tank!) In December of 1980, they married and have remained so to this day. They have three daughters. Oakes gave up acting altogether in 1985 to become a stay-at-home mom and wife.

A rare feature film came along in 1984. Razorback was an Australian-made thriller about a wild boar who is killing people, women and children included, leading Harrison to head out after it. His wife, a wildlife documentary filmmaker, is one of the victims, which spurs him into action. The little-known film was another mild hit on home video and has been noted for its creative visuals and cinematography.

Around this same time, Harrison was addicted to cocaine. Though he'd previously dated Maureen McCormick (whose habit with the drug reached an almost preposterous level and even cost her her relationship with him) and saw firsthand the damages of the stuff, he somehow got involved with it himself. He was on a never-ending track of working on Trapper John, developing projects with Catalina, working in his off-time on TV movies and plays and generally working at a frantic pace. Jason Robards sage advice to him back in the early days was to “keep your nose clean,” but he hadn't.
He departed Trapper John (which was cancelled less than ten episodes later) in 1986. In the time since the show had begun, he had morphed from a cute, curly-haired guy into a sleek, chiseled man. He kept busy with various projects including Oceans of Fire, an oil rig movie in which he wore shorts throughout, and a filmed presentation of the play Picnic (again for the Showtime network), in which he played the drifter Hal and was shown shirtless for an extended time (Jennifer Jason Leigh had the Kim Novak part while Michael Learned essayed Rosalind Russell's role.)

This continued trend towards showing off his chest reached a (humorous) fever pitch the same year when he costarred in Fresno, the first (and only?) comic miniseries. This being 1986, when the glitzy prime-time soaps were in their heyday, Fresno was a lengthy spoof with elements of Dynasty, Falcon Crest and others. Carol Burnett, Dabney Coleman, Charles Grodin and Teri Garr (pictured with Harrison here) headed the cast. At no time in the 360 minute series did Harrison ever put on a shirt! Costume changes consisted of picking out a different shirt to sling over his shoulder.

In 1987, Harrison's production company put forth North Shore, in which he played a supporting role. The movie concerned a young art student who spends his summer surfing in Hawaii, coming into contact with a guru (Harrison) who instructs him in the art of surfing with his soul rather than for personal gain. Harrison was a real-life surfing nut and claims to have surfed at every viable beach available on any continent. The movie has since become a cult favorite among surfing enthusiasts.

The next year he appeared in the TV remake of a classic John Wayne/Montgomery Clift film. Red River put Bruce Boxleitner in Clift's shoes while James Arness attempted to fill The Duke's. Harrison took on John Ireland's old role. No one felt that it was better than the original, but it did give work to some good ol' cowboys who hadn't been put to much use lately such as Guy Madison, Robert Horton and Ty Hardin.

Harrison's drug problem was solved when he realized that one of his young daughters was afraid to climb onto his lap when he was under the influence. He looked into his soul and realized that if something wasn't done, he could die. He drove himself to The Betty Ford Center and sought help, determined to move past his addiction and regain his life. He remarked to the press how surprised and grateful he was that he didn't lose his wife Randi during the years of his drug abuse. Afterwards, he appeared periodically before various groups in order to provide insight into the situation and try to help others kick their habit.

Having spoofed prime-time soaps with Fresno, he found himself cast in one in 1989. Falcon Crest was on close to its last legs by then and was taking a far darker turn in its storylines. Harrison was cast as a ruthless businessman named Michael Sharpe. Series matriarch Jane Wyman was in serious health decline during the bulk of his time on the show and the emphasis switched from her machinations to more criminal (and sexual) activities, with the opening credits reflecting this as well. The show was finally cancelled and Wyman defied doctors' orders to come and film the final three episodes.

The real reason Harrison worked on Falcon Crest (in a part he didn't particularly want) was in order to secure the company who produced it, Lorimar, to develop a series for him. The show, The Family Man, was a sitcom that had him playing a widowed fire chief trying to raise four youngsters with the help of his father-in-law, Al Molinaro. The show barely lasted a season, being cancelled after 22 episodes in 1991. The next year, he reunited with Stephanie Zimbalist one final time in the TV movie Breaking the Silence, playing a rich lawyer who is temporarily working with one who works for free (Zimbalist.) During the course of his involvement in the case, he discovers he was sexually abused as a child.

Harrison had moved his family from Los Angeles to Oregon, interested in raising his daughters outside the smog-filled air and away from the obvious temptations of La-La Land. Thus, he wasn't seen as often as he had been, taking on the occasional TV movie. In 1995, he tried something entirely new. He got back in touch with his musical side and traveled to New York City in order to star Steel Pier on Broadway. Though it was given several Tony nominations, it didn't run for all that long. In 2001, he returned to Broadway in Stephen Sondheim's Follies, appearing with Blythe Danner, Treat Williams, Judith Ivey and a variety of veteran stars including Polly Bergen and Betty Garrett.

His most enduring stage persona was that of Billy Flynn in Chicago, for not only did he play the part as a replacement on Broadway, but he toured extensively throughout America with the part. And that, dear reader, is what finally allowed me to meet the man. He happened to be starring in Chicago at the same time I was appearing in a stage version of Steven King's Misery. His production was in the massive main stage theatre while mine was in the smaller black box one, but his dressing room was right near the backstage entrance to where my play was.

I was bound and determined not to let the opportunity pass by for me to meet one of my earliest childhood crushes. Remembering that I had an old magazine at home with his face on the cover, I decided that that would be my entree to starting a conversation with him. One day, about 45 minutes prior to curtain, I went by his dressing room just as he'd entered from across the hall. I slithered in and offered him a welcoming handshake to the city and to the theatre itself. I explained who I was and that seemed to pique his interest (that there was, in fact, a stage version of Misery.) I was dressed in the suit and tie that my character wore at the onset of the play, but lifted the legs of my trousers to reveal the beaten, bruised, broken, metal-bracket ridden limbs that would later be shown to a shocked audience once my character had been injured in a car accident and “nursed” by the crazed Annie Wilkes.

He was agog at the sight of this and was disappointed that he couldn't see the actual show. We spoke about the magazine I brought and he reminisced about some of the other celebrities in it. He couldn't have been nicer or more accommodating to me, a complete interloper. As I looked into his fifty-four year-old face, I could see nothing but a fit, trim, deliriously handsome man who looked about half that. There is no way to aptly describe his eyes. They were almost translucent in their pale blueness. As I continued to natter on about anything and everything, he looked me deep in the eyes and stood up, unbuttoning his shirt and coming towards me. I began to back towards the door while he continued forward, getting closer and closer and less and less covered up (I still recall his trimmed chest hair, maybe ¼ of an inch long, dusting his solid chest...) I was so enraptured by this whole turn of events that I felt like I was in some surreal hallucination. As we both got to the door, he smiled and said very politely, “I'm sorry, but I have to get ready!” Ha ha! I had blathered on and on as the time for curtain (for both our shows!) had crept closer and closer upon us.

I admit that I felt rather foolish later when I realized that Billy Flynn doesn't appear on stage for quite a while after curtain, but maybe he needed to go through a few preparations beforehand. The production of Misery lived up to its name in many ways, but there is nothing that could ever make me regret doing it because I got to spend that bit of quality time with one of the men who helped form my taste in the male species!

Already by this time, he'd played gay man on film, though not flamboyantly, but in a refreshingly understated and non-stereotypical way. He portrayed the ex-lover of Eric Roberts in the 1997 movie It's My Party. The director Randall Kleiser had cast Greg long ago in The Gathering and no doubt called upon him to help round out what mostly was a cast of his friends and former associates such as Grease's Olivia Newton-John and The Blue Lagoon's Christopher Atkins among others.

There was another attempt at a series in 1999 called Safe Harbor, which recalled his boyhood days on Catalina Island. He played another widower, this time a sheriff with three children and his mother on hand. Mom was played by a post-Golden Girls Rue McClanahan. Still, like The Family Man, this concept didn't catch on and Harbor sank without a trace after ten episodes.

Over the last decade or so, Harrison has continued to be an active presence on television. He appeared in recurring parts on Ed, Judging Amy, Strong Medicine, Joey and One Tree Hill. He recently did an episode of Hot in Cleveland. “Cursed” with a gorgeous face and body that is still very much in evidence, he didn't become the acclaimed actor he might have hoped for when he started out decades ago, but it's safe to say that he's made many fans happy nevertheless. I know he was and is a favorite of mine!


Scooter said...

Thanks for the great profile. As a kid, I was not into Gregory Harrison, this is, until For Ladies Only. By the way, I misread part of your post and went on a frantic search to confirm that Stephanie Zimablist had been married to Bruce Davison!

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks, Scooter! I went in and clarified that a bit better, so there shouldn't be any more issues for other readers. ;-)

Dew Love said...

I agree 100% about the Trapper John opening. Most definitely my favorite part of the series as a kid and now as a 40 year old man....

Poseidon3 said...

Thanks, Dew Love! Glad you stopped in to check out this post. You can revisit the opening credits sequence (along with other fun ones) here: