By Aaron Hicklin
Apart from showcasing Harris’s preternatural ability to hold an audience, this early appearance establishes themes that have carried the actor through his career: charm, timing, a skill for comic subterfuge. And, yes, a weakness for hokum and goofiness. (His children, no surprise, are budding puppeteers — as I experience on a Skype call from his Los Angeles home one evening.) It’s those same instincts that come to the fore when Harris hosts the Tonys or engages in mild pratfalls, such as inhaling sulfur hexafluoride with Kelly Ripa.
“It always amazes me when Oscar-nominated actors go on award shows and read the teleprompter as if they have never seen it before,” he says. “And I know they’ve already vetted it, that their publicist or manager has already agreed to it, and yet, there they are, standing there, with that kind of ‘Who wrote this shit?’ attitude while monotonically reading off these words. Then again, I’ve gotten to do theater and know what it feels like to stand in front of live people, and a lot of movie people don’t do that ever.”
Harris has always been a theater nerd, taking annual trips as a child from his home in New Mexico to New York to cram as many shows as he could into a week. He still has the Playbills to prove it.
The director and writer John Cameron Mitchell tells a touching story of meeting Harris in 1991, during a performance of The Secret Garden, a musical based on the classic children’s novel, in which Mitchell was then appearing. “He wanted to stand backstage and watch how the show happened, from just behind the proscenium,” he says. “He stood there with a big grin on his face and watched us all coming off and on, doing the whole show. He’d been in TV and the stage was a wholly delightful place — to see the inner workings of it was, I sensed, so much more exciting to him than being on a TV or film set.”
When, last October, I went to see the sleight-of-hand magic show Nothing to Hide, which Harris directed, I was transported to a similar childhood place, thoroughly befuddled — and enchanted — by a series of card tricks that seemed to defy logic. By the show’s end I felt the same giddy joy and possibility of life that we often struggle to recapture as adults. For an hour in that theater the world was again a magical place. Harris seems like someone who never let that feeling slip. Growing up, he says, his two idols were Jim Henson and Walt Disney, two men who capitalized on bringing their inner child to their craft. Not coincidentally, they were also masterful technicians. When I point out that Harris’s enthusiasms — for the Muppets, for magic, for the circus — are the same enthusiasms that animated him as a child, he wrinkles his forehead for a moment. “It’s interesting you say that,” he says. “I never think of it as a childlike thing, but it is.”