A Chat With Multi-Talented Entertainer Sam Harris, Part I

BY CARY GINELL

When I looked at Sam Harris’s career credits, it’s hard to believe that this man ever sits still, much less sleeps. After he won on the old Star Search program in 1984, singing “Over the Rainbow,” Harris became a household name, and was billed as an “overnight sensation.” But Harris’s varied career began long before that. Today, it seems he has done just about everything there is to do in show business. He has performed at the White House, written his own sitcom (TBS’s Down to Earth), played Carnegie Hall, headlined abroad at festivals in San Remo, Montreux, and London, and, at the behest of Elizabeth Taylor, became one of the first celebrities to lead the fight against AIDS. Peripatetic is too simple a word to describe Harris, now 53, who will be appearing at the Ojai Art Center this Saturday evening in a special one-man performance to help cap the Center’s 75th anniversary season. I spoke with Harris on the phone, touching on some of the high points of his career.

VCOS: How old were you when people began to think you had something special?

SAM: Really young. I had the good fortune to know what my passion was when I was really little. My dad was the high school band director in our little town in Oklahoma where I grew up, and when I was only three years old, he put me in front of a microphone at a football game and I sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On pitch, mind you! So I think I was showing what I loved very early. I always knew. 

VCOS: Did you always have that self-awareness about your abilities?

SAM: I don’t think that at that young age that I knew that it would be a vocation, but I certainly had the awareness that I loved singing and that I loved dancing. I was singing and dancing at two and three, and putting together little plays and things by the time I was four and five. Then, when I was in elementary school, I was forcing all of my teachers – because I was so pushy – to let me write and direct my own little shows. Then, when I was about ten, I started doing community theater in Tulsa, which was the biggest town near us, with adults, and that was a big deal for me. I had my first professional job when I was fifteen, left for the summer, and then came back for a few months, and then left home for good.

VCOS: Regarding community theater, this is what our blog is all about – encouraging youngsters to continue through the ranks. What did that experience do for you?

SAM: It might as well have been Broadway. The first play I ever did was The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and I played Sonny Flood, a misfit sissy-boy who was bullied by the neighbors, so it was not a stretch (laughs). But it was wonderful. I was with adults and I was with a director who was giving notes on craft and learning to be better. I was so passionate about it, but I would get frustrated with kids my own age because they didn’t take it seriously enough, and I’d say to myself, “They’re never going to make it in show business.” (laughs) But I loved community theater. I found my tribe. 

VCOS: I like to think that community theater is the modern equivalent of what vaudeville was for in the early part of the twentieth century – George Burns used to say, “You need a place where you can be bad.”

SAM: Well, that is the truth. And throughout my early career, those things were vital. You have to have a place to fail. And you have to have a place to steal from and incorporate and amalgamate yourself from the various influences that you encounter. After I left home, I was playing rep companies and theme parks, and then little clubs, places where I could fail and try things and experiment broadly, and learn who I was and how I sang. It’s all story-telling. 

VCOS: Did you have a particular idol as an entertainer and then maybe a different one as a singer?

SAM: You know, I was fascinated at a very young age with movies. This was long before there was cable or even video. So I would watch old movies on television, and my mom would take me to a revival house and even though I was born of a different generation, I loved the old M-G-M musicals, and I loved Charlie Chaplin. But I was, strangely enough, influenced greatly by the comedians and the comediennes: Lucille Ball, Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett, the people who would make you laugh and then spin it on a dime and make you cry. Those were my favorites. Musically, I had a very peculiar amalgam of influences because I loved musical theater and musical movies. But I also loved Aretha Franklin and Jackie Wilson, and I loved the torch singers, like Billie Holiday. Because I had a high voice and was attracted to a lot of torchier things, most of the people that I listened to were women, but I loved Anthony Newley. I was just fixated on him. Again, he was sort of a clown that would spin it. 

VCOS: That’s a good name that comes to mind when I look at your act. What WON’T you sing?

SAM: I’ll tell you something. If something has a great lyric that speaks to me and that says something that I think touches me, then I’ll sing it. I don’t rap (laughs) and that’s because I think I’d be really, really bad at it, although I do admire it. I admire the art of it. But I love all kinds of music. 

VCOS: Here’s a good one. What’s the worst thing you ever read about yourself?

SAM: Oh my god! When I was in my early twenties and hit the show biz scene, and had become famous overnight from Star Search, I was touring and making records, and there was a feature in the L.A. Times on me. The following week, people were writing letters to the editor and someone wrote, “I don’t know why you’re giving column space to Sam Harris. He’s sounds like a cross between Ethel Merman, a police siren, and Arnold the Pig.” Now, of course, I can quote that to you. But I can’t quote you good ones. 

VCOS: You have to admit that is very creative, though.

SAM: Well, yeah, but I try to find those people and explain. It was like so-and-so from Sherman Oaks and I just wanted find them and ask, “What did you mean? How can you say that about me?” 

VCOS: Do you use that in your act? 

SAM: It’s actually in my book, Ham, and it’s also in the one-man show that’s coming from the book that I’m going to be doing in New York next year. So I freely quote it (laughs). 

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In Part 2 of our interview, Sam talks about the song that sang on Star Search that started his career rolling, an iconic performance of “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz. Sam Harris will be appearing this Saturday evening at the Ojai Art Center. For ticket information, visit http://www.ojaiartcenter.org/special-events.html

 

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