Damn, damn, damn. Just got the very sad news that Harry Anderson (b. 1952) has passed away at age 65. I had the thrill of my life getting to chat with Harry for an hour or two on the phone for my book No Applause. He was a hero of my youth. I really, really, really wanted to meet that guy in person. I can see now I wasted too much time.
While more famous for his acting roles in the sit-coms Night Court (1984-1992) and Dave’s World (1993-1997), and the tv movie version of Stephen King’s It (1990), I have always treasured him for his once and future persona Harry the Hat, the con man/ magician who first came to prominence on The Tonight Show, Letterman, Saturday Night Live and Cheers in the 1980s, and on his own specials Hello Sucker (1986), and Harry Anderson’s Sideshow (1987). He also had an early role that played on that persona in the 1982 movie The Escape Artist.
Anderson was an influence on me as an aspiring stand-up comedian in the ’80s. In an era when everybody was dressing down (think Doug Henning), Anderson dressed UP, thereby bringing an aura of glamor onto the stage with him. Tall, bespectacled (wire frames), and invariably wearing a fedora, a loud tie, and suspenders, Anderson seemed as though he had stepped out of a time machine. An accomplished close magic artist, he has always been more cherished (by me) for his persona as a lovable rogue. The character he played resembled Ryan O’Neal’s in the 1973 film Paper Moon, a charming grifter who’d produce a coin from behind a kid’s ear with one hand even while he was stealing his lunch money with the other.
Anderson describes the crucial moment in his life as being an occasion when he saw Blackstone the magician perform when he was around nine years old. “Why would anyone want any other job?” he asked. So he began hanging out at the magic shop across the street from where he lived, went into street performing, then stage performing and finally went on to become a fixture on television. In addition to his best known roles on Night Court, Dave’s World and in the original version of It, he starred in made-for-tv remakes of The Absent Minded Professor (1992) and Harvey (1996) and guested on shows like Tales from the Crypt. After his Hollywood period, Anderson returned to his first love, magic, and toured and performed all over the country until recently. For years he operated a much beloved shop in the French Quarter in New Orleans (until Katrina hit). At the time of his passing he was living in Asheville. His final credits included a role in the TV movie A Matter of Faith, and hosting an episode of Gotham Comedy Live, in 2014.
Anderson was so generous a few years back in allowing me to interview him for No Applause. Furthermore, he was born in Rhode Island, as all the best vaudevillians are. His untimely passing comes as particularly wretched news.
Here he is in a segment from his tv special Harry Anderson’s Sideshow (1987):