I was a UF senior, and less than a year away from moving to New York City, where I would begin my professional journalism career at People magazine, interviewing famous musicians and other assorted celebrities. "Guys, look," I said, pointing at the door. "Woody Harrelson just walked in!"
After a few minutes of gaping and gawking, we watched him head into the men's room. Now, I thought, is my chance. After a few minutes of debate -- Should I stay or should I go... to the bathroom? -- I decided to follow him. When I opened the door, he was washing his hands. He looked up at me and smiled.
"Hey, Woody," I said breezily, as if we were old friends. It's a technique that would serve me well in the future, when meeting people like Reba McEntire, Faith Hill and Marie Osmond, who thought I must have been an old friend whose name she couldn't quite place when I ran up to her and exclaimed, "Hey, Marie!" backstage at the American Music Awards. She hugged me and promptly introduced me to her dad and her sons.
Harrelson was just as cordial, though there was no family for me to meet. I asked what he was doing in Gainesville, Florida, of all places. He explained that he was shooting a movie called Doc Hollywood nearby, with Michael J. Fox. Now I was really starstruck, and not just because of the company he was keeping. He was as cute in person as he was on TV, and his piercing blue eyes made it hard for me to stop staring into them.
It was an awkward moment for sure, but I had to keep the conversation going.
"So what's it like to work with Kirstie Alley? I love her."
It was one of the dumbest questions I'd ever ask a famous person, but Harrelson pulled his weight, keeping up his side of the exchange. If he thought it was weird that I was asking about his Cheers costar instead of him, he never let on. After a few more awkward minutes, I let him go.
The funny thing is, had I had my first Woody Harrelson encounter after watching his performance in Rampart, I would have been too terrified to do what I did that Saturday morning back in 1990. The film's poster describes his character as "the most corrupt cop you've ever seen on screen," and that description isn't too far off. Since I'm not a big fan of movie violence, I was hesitant to stick it into the DVD player after sitting through the gore-free The Ides of March (which, despite some glaring flaws, I loved, especially the Ryan Gosling vs. George Clooney staredown near the end).
But with such an interesting cast -- which included Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Robin Wright and Sigourney Weaver, all actress I adore but never would have expected to see in the same film -- I couldn't resist. I enjoyed the movie, but what made me more uncomfortable than the occasional violence was how appealing Harrelson and his character were to me. He was a dirty murderous cop, but I found myself rooting for him anyway. I wanted him to clean up his act and earn redemption. I wanted him to mend his ways and his relationship with his daughters and ex-wives (sisters, played by Heche and Nixon, in a bit of casting genius).
It was like reading The Talented Mr. Ripley all over again. That was the first time I fell for a killer. None of the film adaptations -- Purple Noon, nor the 1999 film version starring Matt Damon as Tom Ripley -- had the same effect on me. But there's something about Harrelson's crooked smile and piercing blue eyes that are just as alluring now as they were 21 years ago in that Gainesville bathroom. No wonder he was able to get Wright, Nixon, Heche and the fantastic, uncredited Audra McDonald into bed!
If it were 1997 or thereabout, the Best Actor Oscar would be his to lose.