For his role in Natural Born Killers, Woody Harrelson was reportedly encouraged by Oliver Stone to channel his father, Charles Harrelson. It was valid advice: A notorious hit man, the elder Harrelson was known as a smart and merciless hit man.
Well before Woody became an Oscar-nominated actor, the Harrelson name has been in the headlines for Charles’ crimes.
Charles, who was born and raised in Texas, was reportedly a good student who didn’t cause trouble. After leaving the family home and moving to California, his first job was even as a straight-and-narrow encyclopedia salesman. However, Charles transitioned to the other side of the law in 1960, when he was arrested and convicted of armed robbery.
By the time Woody was born in 1961, Charles was heavily entrenched in organized crime. According to a new book, Run, Brother, Run, Harrelson was responsible for the 1968 murder of Allen Berg, but he was never convicted. He was convicted, however, in the 1968 murder of another Texas man, Sam Degelia. According to his girlfriend, Sandra Sue Attaway, Charles carried out the hit with his accomplice, Pete Scamardo, to pay back a drug debt. In spite of a 15-year sentence, Charles was paroled in 1978.
Within the year, Charles was accused of another — more high-profile — murder.
In May 1979, U.S. District Judge John H. Wood, Jr. was shot and killed outside a San Antonio townhouse. Following an anonymous tip, Charles was investigated. He managed to evade police for a year, but was caught following a six-hour standoff with police in September 1980. During his arrest, Charles claimed he was also responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, but the “confession” was discounted by the FBI.
Charles was convicted in the murder of John H. Wood and was sentenced to two life terms. Even then, he didn’t go down without a fight. In 1995, Charles and two other inmates at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary attempted to escape. Discovered by guards, the group surrendered and Charles was transferred to a maximum-security prison in Colorado. He stayed there until his death in 2007.
As most of his adult life was spent on drugs, making hits or behind bars, Charles never played a very active role in Woody’s life. Nonetheless, Woody found ways to think fondly of his father.
“This might sound odd to say about a convicted felon, but my father is one of the most articulate, well-read, charming people I’ve ever known,” Woody told People Magazine in 1988. “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.”
^^Woody in Natural Born Killers.
Woody was also so convinced his father didn’t deserve life sentences that he allegedly spent millions of dollars trying to secure Charles a retrial.
“How do I feel about him? Well I love him. I definitely love him. Very fond of him. I mean, there’s probably a lot of people who should be behind bars. I don’t necessarily think he’s one of them,” Woody said in a TV interview before his father’s death.