While he earned critical acclaim and amassed a devoted fan base on “Night Court,” Harry Anderson never fancied himself an actor: “I’m a magician, or a performer, by nature, and that’s always what I’ve been.”
Harry Anderson, an actor who starred as the kindhearted, zany Judge Harry Stone on the long-running NBC comedy “Night Court,” was found dead early Monday at his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He was 65.
The Asheville Police Department, which confirmed the death, did not release a cause but said no foul play was suspected.
Anderson, who spent nine seasons presiding over a fictional Manhattan courtroom that played host to a steady stream of oddballs, was nominated for three consecutive Emmys, from 1985 to 1987.
“Night Court,” which ran from 1984 to 1992, more than held its own against juggernauts like “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show” and “The Golden Girls” during a storied period for television sitcoms.
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“Night Court” was nominated for 31 Emmys and won seven. John Larroquette, Markie Post, Richard Moll, Charles Robinson and Marsha Warfield starred alongside Anderson.
Judge Harry Stone shared more than a first name with the actor who played him: Both the character and the man donned colorful ties, were magicians at heart and were superfans of the jazz great Mel Tormé, known as the Velvet Fog, who made several guest appearances on “Night Court.” Anderson was a eulogist at Tormé’s funeral in 1999.
While he earned critical acclaim and amassed a devoted fan base on “Night Court,” Anderson never fancied himself an actor. “I’m a magician, or a performer, by nature, and that’s always what I’ve been,” Anderson told WGN-TV in Chicago in 2014.
“I was never really an actor,” he said. “I was a magician who fell into a part on ‘Cheers.’”
His role as the swindler Harry (the Hat) Gittes on “Cheers” — he appeared in six episodes, four in the first two seasons — led to his break on “Night Court” after he impressed the legendary television executive Brandon Tartikoff.
Even Harry the Hat echoed Anderson’s real life. In 1985, he told People magazine that he used to run a classic street hustle, the shell game, in San Francisco, where, at 21 years old, he had his jaw broken by an opponent who was livid at the game’s outcome.
Anderson, one of three children, was born on Oct. 14, 1952, in Newport, Rhode Island, and spent much of his childhood on the move, often performing on the streets for money, he told People. By 16, he had lived in many cities including Chicago, New York, St. Louis and New Orleans. He landed in California at 16 years old and from there found success as a comic magician, which opened the door to his acting career.
About his mother, he said to People: “She was a hustler, yeah. She did a lot of things. We moved around a lot, and she had a lot of men friends.”
His childhood, though, was not bad, he said, and his dubious background should not be viewed any differently from his mother’s. “I respect my mother; she was very concerned with taking care of us,” he said. “She did what needed to be done to try to keep us together. People find my criminal days amusing, but they find her background shocking. I don’t draw any line.”
Anderson told People that his father was a salesman who was mostly absent from his life, and that he had not seen him for 15 years before his death.
Anderson is survived by his wife, the former Elizabeth Morgan, and two children from his first marriage, to Leslie Pollack: Eva Fay Anderson and Dashiell Anderson. Information about other survivors was not immediately available.
Before “Night Court,” Anderson appeared on “Saturday Night Live” several times. He hosted the show at the height of his fame, in 1985.
After “Night Court,” he played newspaper columnist Dave Barry on the comedy “Dave’s World,” which ran on CBS from 1993 to 1997. In 2008, he appeared in an episode of “30 Rock” titled “The One With the Cast of ‘Night Court.’ ”
In 2000, Anderson and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to New Orleans, eager to return to his roots. They opened the nightclub Oswald’s Speakeasy, where he performed, as well as a magic and curiosity shop, Sideshow.
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, though, tourism flagged and they were not able to keep their businesses alive.
The Andersons discussed their decision with The New York Times in 2006, the year they moved to Asheville.
“I had more people in my car last night,” Harry Anderson said, a reference to the thin crowd at Oswald’s.
He and his wife had also become captive to the depression that affected many in New Orleans at the time, Harry Anderson said. Despite efforts to support their community — Anderson opened his club for what he called French Quarter Town Hall meetings — and maintain their businesses, they decided to call it quits.
“I’m glad we tried to stay,” he said, “but I don’t want to be the person I will be if I stay here.”