The 10 Best Ed Harris Movie Performances

best ed harris movies

Ed Harris is credited on IMDb with this statement: “By transforming into his characters and pulling the audience in, Ed Harris has earned the reputation as one of the most talented actors of our time.” And with 99 acting credits to his name, his versatility is available to a wide range of audiences in a slew of monumental films. Although his name often rings a bell and his face is always familiar, Ed Harris is rarely cited as a mainstream favourite, but almost all cinephiles could claim him to be one of the best actors in the business.

Throughout the early 70s, Harris was an up and coming stage actor, with his film debut in the 1978 thriller “Coma”. Although it was a small role, Harris would continue to expand his filmography when in 1980 he starred alongside Charles Bronson in “Borderline”.

Harris is also a notorious method actor, refusing to break character, and his most famous instance of this was playing Carl Fogarty in David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence”. When asked how he “interpreted” the violence of the film, Harris slammed his fist into the table and smashed a glass of water against the wall behind him, stating “that’s what the movie is about”.

His dedication to his craft has earned him infinite praise from awards festivals around the world, with three Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor, one for Best Lead Actor, two Golden Globes and four additional nominations, two BAFTA nominations, and two Emmy nominations. Many fans are turning to the Academy to express horror at his lack of Oscar glory in the wake of Leonardo DiCaprio’s recent win. And frankly, if any snubbed actor working today deserves it, it’s Ed Harris.


10. Astronaut John Glenn in The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

Admittedly, the film can feel slightly campy and cheesy now, but it’s the “Top Gun” to Harris’s Tom Cruise. This iconic, campy action film brought him household stardom. It focuses on 15 years of the American space flight program and acts as Harris’ first film focusing upon the US exploration of space.

The baby-faced Harris takes on his first method-involved role as the eager, loving and tempered John Glenn, a primary focus of the film who isn’t afraid to challenge authority, and the role highlights the actor’s ability for intensity at such an early stage in his career. Although many aspects of the film have dated in comparison to the science drama epics of the 21st century, Harris is still as fresh as he was young, and it’s rewatchable to this day.


9. Agent William Parcher in A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind

Although the standout performer of this film is undoubtedly Russell Crowe’s transformation into the schizophrenic mathematical genius John Nash, it is the film’s supporting cast that provides the incredibly strong backbone and the driving force of the film’s narrative.

With calculated and cool precision, Agent William Parcher guides Nash into the depths of his conspiracy-driven insanity, as the government agent was instructed to recruit Nash in the efforts against communist spies.

Praised for his cold delivery and grounding human performance, Harris hints at his character’s ruthlessness and hidden agenda, although never allowing audiences to get the hint on the film’s great twist. Harris is responsible for the intensity drawn out within the film as he unknowingly pulls Nash deeper and deeper into his paranoia fueled mind and we, as audiences, cannot help but admire the acting power of the film.


8. Gene Gratz in Apollo 13

Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor

Apollo 13

Everyone has heard the line “failure is not an option” at some point in their life, and 90 percent of people who’ve said it are unaware that it was first uttered by Harris in his unusually compassionate performance as Gene Gratz, director of the Apollo 13 mission and the link between the shuttle’s desperate crew and Earth.

Harris received his real critical jumpstart in this Hollywood drama as the Apollo 13 mission director and it’s fair to see why. He commands screen attention with every moment as his charisma dominates every room he’s in, undeniably stealing the film’s limelight. Although other cast members received fair praise for their turns in this ensemble film, Harris rightly received the large majority of it.


7. Frankie Flannery in State of Grace


Before “Infernal Affairs” and the subsequent American remake “The Departed”, “State of Grace” stood as the first convoluted yet brilliant mess of rats, gangsters and cops. Ed Harris plays Frankie Flannery, the caper at the top of one of the best cast lineups in history with Gary Oldman, Sean Penn, John Turturro, Robin Wright and John C. Reilly filling the rest of the roles.

Harris is robust, intimidating and captivating as the loud-mouthed, furious and monstrous mob boss at the head of it all. Looking to blow the entire film, Harris is unforgiving in his menace. Following Oldman’s iconic execution of mobsters in a bar scene, Flannery storms into his home swearing and bellowing at the top of his lungs with such shock value it caused audiences to jump in their seats.

Although Nicholson certainly lays a good case for the better of the two in their respective roles in “The Departed”, Harris’s fiery take upon his own mob boss is unforgettable, regardless of preference.


6. Carl Fogarty in A History of Violence

A History of Violence

The second mobster role on this list is Harris’s vile Philadelphian gangster who was maimed by Tom Stall(played spectacularly by Viggo Mortensen). When Carl Fogarty returns for revenge, Stall’s past collides with his new life and the inescapable but somewhat dated fact of life comes to fruition: you can’t escape the past.

His mutilated features only amplify an already petrifying character performance on Harris’s behalf as the perpetually calm, smirking and chilling mobster who’s come for revenge. Although it was a small part whose Oscar acknowledgement was stolen by William Hurt’s even smaller but no less immaculate performance, Fogarty acts as the crucial bridge between the past and the present for Stall as the inescapable evil that forces him to confront his past and subsequently lose his family in the process.