Question: My boyfriend and I were watching a Night Court rerun the other night and ended up having an argument about Harry Anderson. I think he was a magician before he had that show, but he said he read that he made a living as a con man. Who's right? And don't make fun of us. We fight about everything. Amy J., Genoa, Wis.
Televisionary: Me, make fun of my loyal readers? Perish the thought, dear woman, for it is you whose page hits help generate my paycheck, thus keeping me fat and happy.
The answer to your question is a little of both, but I must say the magician part is easier to prove due to Anderson's appearances on Saturday Night Live and Cheers, where he played a hustler named, appropriately enough, Harry. He's on record saying he used to run shell games in various cities before going straight, but Anderson was notorious for making up entertaining tales about his past life in order to generate good copy and mess with people's heads. "I don't think anyone really knows except maybe his wife and his dog," a Night Court story editor told TV Guide of Anderson's pre-TV life in 1985. "They'll tell [their] kid later," added another.
The way Anderson, who starred as Judge Harry Stone on the quirky hit sitcom during its 1984-92 run on NBC, told it, he spent his youth hopping from one divorced parent to the other, also staying with other relatives. He put in plenty of time living on the streets from 16 on and ran sidewalk shell games from city to city. (That particular vocation got him arrested in New Orleans and punched in the face in San Francisco, the latter event convincing him to give the hustling game up.) He perfected his magic act on the street, combined it with comedy and was signed by an agent who saw him working Hollywood's famed Magic Castle. The agent got him work in Las Vegas, which prompted the SNL
appearances, which eventually led to his own series. Not bad for a sleight-of-hand man. (And it's worth noting that the former star has returned to his roots: He recently sold his house in Pasadena and runs a magic shop in New Orleans.)
Now, the veracity of Anderson's Night Court tales is open to question. For example, Anderson insisted that the Night Court pilot script revolved around a judge named Harry who was a gifted con and performed card tricks to relax before executive producer Reinhold Weege ever met him and Weege backed him up on that. But after going further and claiming that he had the word "fun" tattooed on his shoulder 10 years before seeing that script, which called for the fictional Harry to sport the same body art, Anderson reluctantly admitted that he made that part up. ("I didn't know that," said co-star Richard Moll, who played bailiff Bull, after being informed of the deception at the time. "I thought the story was true!")
Anderson wasn't alone in coming from a colorful background. Ellen Foley, who played defense attorney Billie Young early in the show before her character was replaced with Markie Post's Christine Sullivan, was a mini-skirted rocker who sang with Meat Loaf on the bawdy hit tune "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" before trimming her tresses and donning a proper Yuppie suit for the role. ("No one seemed to notice that I still had some pink in my hair," she said.) And she wasn't alone in the tonsorial adjustment department, either. Moll sported a full head of hair when he audtioned, but producers had spotted him with a gleaming head in the dreadful 3-D sci-fi movie Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn and wanted the six-foot-eight actor to revisit the look. ("They asked me if I'd shave my head again. I told 'em I'd shave my legs for the part," he quipped.)
However, John Larroquette, who played boorish D.A. Dan Fielding, boasted the biggest rebound from a self-destructive past. In the '70s he narrated the horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, worked as a disc jockey and bartender in New Orleans, Memphis, Houston and Cincinnati and did massive amounts of drinking and drugging, all the while turning in quality acting work. "I always drank," he said in 1986. "It became my goal in life to drink. It took precedence over anything else... I would buy a quart of cognac and drink it in my parked car. That was in addition to any social drinking I did... There were nights when I forgot how many Quaaludes I took, so I took a few more just to make sure I was stoned and I'd drink a little bourbon just to wash them down."
Happily, the actor was able to go on the wagon he never said exactly what method he used after having what he termed an out-of-body experience. "I saw myself sitting at the table drunk," he recalled. "My first thought was who is that? And I realized it was me. The next morning I couldn't conceive of having a drink."
That kind of real-life difficulty was shared by several of the cast members, who in their worst days might not have been that far away from the wacky defendants walking through the show's courtroom in each episode. "I drank Jack Daniel's for breakfast like a glass of orange juice," Charlie Robinson, who played Court Clerk Mac Robinson, said of his many days struggling to make ends meet while working the graveyard shift as a security guard and looking for acting work during the day. Still, once he made it onto a hit show, Robinson had to admit the journey was worth it despite the travails along the way. "That's how you get there," he said. "You learn a little bit about pain and humility and failing."