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Before He Became The 'Night Court' Judge, Harry Anderson Was A Con-Man Magician

Apr 20, 2018
Originally published on April 26, 2018 9:32 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Harry Anderson, the sitcom star of the '80s NBC sitcom "Night Court," died earlier this week at age 65. Before playing the judge on "Night Court," Anderson made memorable recurring appearances as con man Harry The Hat on another NBC sitcom, "Cheers." And long before that, he was a con man, magician and street performer. Terry Gross spoke with Harry Anderson in 1989 and asked him about one of his street stunts in which he surprised people waiting in line to see the film "Jaws" by pretending to chop off his hand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HARRY ANDERSON: What you do is you buy a phony hand at the magic shop. And you get a loaf of French bread. And you hollow out one end of the French bread. And you stick the phony hand in there. It's, you know, a baguette, a long loaf, about the diameter of an arm and then on the other end, you take a turkey baster her and you fill it with stage blood, and you stick that in the other end. Then you take an old shirt. You cut the sleeve off, and you put that around the bread.

Now, standing at my table and on the street, I used to wear this big robe. I would reach over with one hand and get this ugly-looking cleaver. And at the same time, using that distraction, I would grab this phony hand and pull my arm up into the robe, bring the phony hand down on the table, bring the meat cleaver through the bread. And a cleaver going through crunchy French bread really does - if you think you're going through somebody's arm, does give you the sound of of gristle and bone. It's remarkable. Then I would hit this turkey baster a couple of times, and the stage blood would go everywhere.

And it was sensational. And I thought, this is really going to - this is going to kill them. So I did it once. I got it all set, went out there, did it once. The crowd absolutely freaked out, turned on me. A guy came up and punched me in the face. And I didn't do it anymore.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: They must have thought you were psychotic.

ANDERSON: Well, they were waiting to see "Jaws." I mean, I thought I was playing the crowd. They didn't throw a lot of money at me, no.

GROSS: Did you ever run real swindles before it actually became an act?

ANDERSON: Did I run real swindles? Oh, yeah. I mean, I started as a - on the street. I did not begin as a performer. I began running the shell game. And again, another experience with a dissatisfied customer who decided that I was not playing a game of chance. And that was another punch - broke my jaw, got me sitting down and wondering if there was an easier way to make a living. What I did was I took the stuff I knew, which was essentially cheating at cards and picking locks and running the shell game, and turned it into an act and made less money initially. But I had a better chance at survival. And then I've just been in the process of becoming more and more legitimate through the years. And now I'm a judge. Who would've thought?

GROSS: (Laughter) So how did you learn to pick locks and run a shell game?

ANDERSON: Well, it was the stuff that fascinated me. When I was a kid in Chicago, I hung around a place called the Ambassador Hotel. And they had a room there called the pump room. And that's where the old guys would come and play cards. And my dad was a salesman. And I don't recall exactly why I was spending afternoons there. But I do recall watching these old guys play cards. And Chicago is a big town for magicians and card hustlers. So when I was very young, a fellow sat me down and taught me the Three-Card Monte. And that kind of put me in a - pointed me towards easy money.

And I just learned what I could to become what they call a wise guy. Unfortunately, that was the early '50s. And the day of the wise guy was really ending. The day of the street entrepreneur was kind of vanishing. They flourished in the post-war era. But then fortunately, the history of it overlapped neatly with street performers, who made a comeback in the '60s when I was a teenager. And so I was able to step right into that.

GROSS: So you learned how to do shell games. You also learned how to pick locks. Did you use that to rob people?

ANDERSON: Oh, no. No, I didn't. Really, my only run-ins with the law were over hustling on the street. I did get - I did get busted once in New Orleans for a couple of nights for - and the irony was that that was after I had stopped actually hustling with the shell game and was doing it as a kind of a bunko demonstration.

GROSS: What was your rap when you were running the shell game?

ANDERSON: Little game of hanky poo, two for me and one for you. Hey diddle diddle, it's the one in the middle. Which one is it now? And on and on as the game required.

GROSS: So how were you discovered after playing the streets and then playing casinos? How did you make it onto television?

ANDERSON: Well, it all happened kind of quick. I was in town with my wife. She was raised in Los Angeles. And we were in town visiting her folks and playing the Magic Castle, which is a night club for magicians here in town. And I was doing my act, which at that time consisted of a stage version of the Three-Card Monte and the demonstration of the holdout. Kenny Rogers' manager, Ken Kragen, saw me. And at that time, Kenny's big song was "The Gambler." And he thought that my material was very appropriate to go along with Kenny's hit. And he asked me to open for Kenny in Las Vegas, which I did. And I was seen there, asked to do "Saturday Night Live," which I did nine or 10 times over the years.

The Charles Brothers had a new show - Glen and Les Charles had a new show in mine called "Cheers." And they thought that a con man would be a very natural character in the bar. So they hired me to do the first season of "Cheers." And somebody saw me on "Cheers" and thought that I was an actor playing a part as opposed to a guy just doing what he knew. And they gave me "Night Court." And by the time they realized I wasn't an actor, I had already signed a five-year contract. Joke's on them.

GROSS: (Laughter) Do you think of yourself as having used any cons to get your role on "Night Court?"

ANDERSON: Well, I - based on that story I'd say that's exactly how I did it. I mean, it was a little inadvertent, but it was by playing a con man. I mean, I hadn't acted. I hadn't taken lessons, and I hadn't auditioned. I had simply done what I knew. And that led to playing Judge Harry Stone.

GROSS: I've got one last question for you.

ANDERSON: What?

GROSS: OK. Now that you're...

ANDERSON: What are you, a cop? You got a lot of questions. You know that?

GROSS: (Laughter) Now that you're really recognizable because all of your work on television...

ANDERSON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Does this mean that you can't take a train and play cards anymore? I mean, you couldn't even have fun running a game somewhere.

ANDERSON: You know, that's one of the things I really miss. I used to make my living by understanding people. And the way I learned to understand them was by observing them. I would sit in a train station or a bus station or a restaurant. And I would watch people. I would watch how they related to one another. I would try to get some insight into them and make them as predictable as I could in my mind. And it was - what I guess I felt was my job. But at the same time, it was very enjoyable. I love people. I love their mannerisms and their eccentricities.

And now it's very difficult for me to anonymously sit back and watch. I tend to hide at the airport - and especially if I'm with my family, just so that we can have a little quiet time. But what I do miss is that that observation time. I used to rely on anonymity. That was one of my tools - was the fact that I could go from one town to another and that I wasn't known. Now that has really turned around 180 degrees, although, you know, I'm not complaining about - I don't mean to sound as if I'm complaining about my success here. There are things that I miss.

GROSS: Do you miss being able to run a good card game?

ANDERSON: Oh, I still play cards. You know, but now I cheat my wife at cards, you know, with no money. I just - now she's going to hear this, and she's never going to play cards with me again.

GROSS: Well, Harry Anderson, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

ANDERSON: Well, thank you. I'm glad we finally did.

BIANCULLI: Harry Anderson speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. He died earlier this week at age 65. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "I Feel Pretty," the new movie starring Amy Schumer. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN SONG, "WIGWAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.