In 1994, Woody Harrelson played the role of a mass murderer in the Oliver Stone crime drama Natural Born Killers – a film notorious for inspiring multiple copycat crimes upon its release. The perpetrators of tragedies such as the Columbine High School massacre and the Frontier Middle School shooting were said to have been inspired by events from the film. However, this isn’t the only time Harrelson has been closely linked to tragedy. His father, Charles Harrelson, was a hitman, most famously carrying out the first-ever murder of a sitting federal judge in the United States.
The actor, who made his breakthrough in the mid-1980s in the NBC sitcom Cheers, was never close to his father, stating that he barely saw him at home. By the time Harrelson was seven, his father was on trial for the murder of Alan Harry Berg, although he was acquitted in 1970. However, soon after he was tried for the 1968 murder of Sam Degelia. He was paid $2000 for the murder of the grain dealer, yet it took until 1973 for the criminal to be jailed. Despite a 15-year sentence, Harrelson was released on good behaviour after five years.
In an interview with the Guardian, Woody claimed that he didn’t discover the reality of his father’s absence until he was around 11 or 12, stating: “I was listening to the radio and it was talking about Charles V Harrelson and his trial for murder and blah blah blah blah and I’m sitting there thinking there can’t be another Charles V Harrelson. I mean, that’s my dad! It was a wild realisation.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for Harrelson to implicate himself in another murder, this time it was the assassination of US District Judge John H. Wood Jr. Harrelson was hired by drug lord Jamiel Chagra and paid a whopping $250,000. Chagra was at risk of a life sentence for drug smuggling and was set to face the notoriously harsh judge in court. As Wood knelt down to inspect a tire on his car outside his Texas home, he was shot in the back of the head by Harrelson.
During Harrelson’s six-hour cocaine-fuelled standoff with the police after the murder of Wood, he not only admitted to killing the judge, but also President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963. In an interview with the killer, he claimed: “At the same time I said I had killed the judge, I said I had killed Kennedy, which might give you an idea to the state of my mind at the time,” proposing that this was “an effort to elongate my life”.
Yet according to Jim Marrs, a prominent JFK conspiracy theorist, Harrelson actually resembled one of the ‘three tramps’ – the three men that were spotted near the building that Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK from. Furthermore, a forensic artist Lois Gibson claimed to have matched images of the tallest of the three men with images of Harrelson, suggesting that he was involved in the assassination.
Regardless of the heinous crimes that were committed by Harrelson, this didn’t stop his son from attempting to reconnect with his father. The actor admitted that he regularly visited his father in prison, treating him more as a friend than a parental figure. He once claimed that “my father is one of the most articulate, well-read, charming people I’ve ever known. Still, I’m just now gauging whether he merits my loyalty or friendship. I look at him as someone who could be a friend more than someone who was a father.”
Moreover, in the early 1980s, Harrelson tried to get his father out of jail. He says, “I don’t know he did deserve a new trial… just being a son trying to help his dad. Then I spent a couple of million beating my head against the wall.” The younger Harrelson’s efforts failed, and his dad died in prison in 2007. By this point, Harrelson claims: “Yeah, we got along pretty good. When you can’t hang out and go to a pub, you know what I mean, it’s hard.”