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Harrelson’s ‘Gut’ Gamble Pays Off

This time Woody Harrelson's instincts snagged an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

Had he followed his gut 25 years ago, and chosen Broadway over "Cheers," would anyone know his name?

"My original decision was for theater, because I always thought I was going to stay true to the theater. It would have been such a different life," says Harrelson, 48, about the 1985 job offer to join NBC's hit comedy.

"I had to decide in one day. The right decision was 'Cheers.' I can't imagine it any other way," say Harrelson by phone from Hawaii, where his lives with his wife, Laura, and their three daughters.

Harrelson -- who grew up near Cincinnati in Lebanon, Ohio -- was an unknown "Biloxi Blues" touring company understudy when he auditioned for the sitcom set in a Boston bar where "everybody knows your name."

Writers had created Woody Boyd, a naive Indiana farm boy, to replace beloved bartender "Coach" Ernie Pantuso after the death of Nicholas Colasanto.

"I didn't know the show. I didn't watch television in college," says Harrelson, a 1983 theater major from Hanover (Ind.) College. "Everything changed a lot after that."

He hosted "Saturday Night Live." He won an Emmy.

He starred in movies with Wesley Snipes ("White Men Can't Jump"), Robert Redford ("Indecent Proposal"), Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro ("Wag the Dog") Jack Nicholson ("Anger Management"), Meryl Streep ("A Prairie Home Companion"), Tommy Lee Jones ("No Country For Old Men") and Will Ferrell ("Semi-Pro").

He worked with heavyweight Hollywood directors Oliver Stone, Robert Altman, Barry Levinson and Ethan and Joel Coen, whose "No Country For Old Men" won three Oscars in 2007.

Harrelson's only other Oscar nomination came 13 years ago, for best actor as pornographer Larry Flynt in "The People vs. Larry Flynt."

The best supporting actor nomination for "The Messenger" was particularly sweet because Harrelson originally turned down a different role in the film. Director Oren Moverman wanted him to play the colonel, but Harrelson saw himself as bald, blunt, by-the-book Capt. Tony Stone, who notifies families that their son or daughter died in the Iraq war.

"I told the director, 'You're thinking of me for the wrong part.' I don't know how it happened, but a few days later, they offered it to me," he says.

"I look at just the nomination as a win. It's a pretty cool thing, a real honor, just to be thought of as having a good performance by your peers," he says.

He's also pleased that Moverman and Alessandro Camon were nominated for best screenplay. Their script was so powerful that it changed Harrelson's opinion about soldiers fighting in Iraq.

"The administration always says, 'Support the troops.' But what they really want is 'Support the war.' Well, I finally came over to their conclusion: I do support the troops. Of course, I'll never support the war.

"I know the war is wrong. It's an oil war. But the troops don't dictate foreign policy. And I think they're some of the most impressive bright lights of people I've ever met."

Harrelson has two films in the can and plans to direct a play in Toronto.

He stars as "The Defendor," a comedy about a mild-mannered man who believes he's a crime-fighting superhero, and the wise bartender in "Bunraku," a sci-fi martial arts film with Josh Hartnett and Demi Moore.

But he's most geeked about directing his original play, "Furthest From The Sun," this spring. Since "Cheers" ended in 1993, he's been working on the script about his Houston summer in 1983, after college and before going to New York.

Harrelson wants to "work it out on the road a bit" and eventually bring the comedy to New York, where his career nearly ended before it began.

Unable to find acting work in 1984, he was preparing to move back home to Ohio when he auditioned for "Biloxi Blues," not knowing playwright Neil Simon was in the theater.

"I was loose as a goose in front of Neil Simon and the producers because I had nothing to lose. I was going home to write a play, and then I'd come back to New York with this play in hand," says Harrelson, whose mother still lives in Lebanon.

"Miraculously, I got that job. And little did I know it would take this long to finish that play."

As his "Biloxi Blues" contract was ending, Harrelson made his movie debut as a high school football player in Goldie Hahn's "Wildcats" in Hollywood. While in town, he auditioned for "Cheers."

"I went from poor and anonymous to rich and famous. It was as big of a change as imaginable," he says. "I really feel so lucky after all these years to still be working."

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