Michael Harney gave memorable performances over the past three decades in popular shows such as “NYPD Blue,” “Deadwood,” and “Weeds.” He currently plays a prison counselor in the gritty Netflix comedy-drama “Orange is the New Black,” which depicts lock-down life in a women’s prison.
Growing up in New York City, Harney says watching movie legends on the big screen inspired him.
“I studied Spencer Tracy in a big way for years, as well as James Dean and Marlon Brando,” said Harney. “John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, too.”
While he never crossed paths professionally with those stars, he did bump into Falk once.
“After I got out of the New York theater scene, I moved to Los Angeles and saw him coming out of an office one day in Beverly Hills,” recalled Harney. “I was pretty green and completely star-struck. I started shaking his hand and explaining what an honor it was to meet him. After about 30 seconds he looked down at his hand, then looked at me, and said ‘Can I have my hand back now?’”
Born in the Bronx and raised in Queens, Harney’s life could have easily gone in another direction. “I was a pretty wild kid in those days and got into a lot of trouble.”
Fortunately, he discovered acting and says he went on to appear in over 100 plays, and even ran his own New York acting school for 8 years before moving to Hollywood.
As a teacher, he recommended young actors also watch modern film legends such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Gene Hackman. “I studied those guys relentlessly.”
Harney’s late father also had an interest in classic film actors.
“My dad was a great impressionist,” he said. “He could do Laurence Olivier, Ronald Colman, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, and many others, just as good as any professional in the business today. He performed in the navy and had a beautiful tenor voice, but he and his four brothers had to work to help support the family, so my father never got into the entertainment business professionally.”
Currently, Harney is filming the fourth season of “Orange is the New Black” which is shot at various locations around New York. Interior scenes are filmed at the historic Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens where Rudolph Valentino filmed “A Sainted Devil” and “Monsieur Beaucaire” in 1924, two years before he died.
The massive 26,000-square-foot Stage E, Kaufman Astoria’s largest, is also where the first two Marx Brothers films “The Cocoanuts” (1929) and “Animal Crackers” (1930) were shot.
“It crosses my mind often that the KAS stages have housed so many other great artists like the Marx Brothers,” said Harney. “I used to sit with my grandfather and watch their movies when I was a kid. I’m a huge Marx Brothers fan and took my son to see ‘A Day at the Races’ and ‘Horse Feathers’ recently. It’s a real privilege and an honor for me to work on the same stages that they worked and be a part of film history in that way.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 600 magazines and newspapers. Follow @TinseltownTalks