By Nick Thomas
For three decades, actor Michael Harney has been impressing television audiences with memorable performances in popular shows such as “NYPD Blue,” “Deadwood,” and “Weeds.” Now, the Queens native has another hit series co-starring in the Netflix hit “Orange is the New Black.”
Set in upstate New York at the fictitious Litchfield Correctional Facility, Harney plays Sam Healy, a prison counselor in the comedy-drama depicting lock-down life in a women’s prison.
Born in the Bronx and raised in Queens, Harney attended Holy Cross High School, where he played baseball and basketball, and appeared in his first school play, Sidney Kingsley’s “Detective Story.”
“We used to bumper jump cars for miles when it snowed – grabbing onto bumpers and sliding through the streets being pulled by the car, truck or bus,” said Harney. “I was a pretty wild kid in those days and got into a lot of trouble. My life could have easily gone in another direction entirely.”
That’s one reason Harney believes the series resonates with audiences.
“The writers created back stories for the characters in flashback sequences, so on a certain level, viewers can empathize and have some compassion for them,” explained Harney. “Perhaps some can even identify with those backgrounds and recognize how their own lives could have been very different had they made poor choices.”
The show’s appeal for some may also be a fascination with the bawdy dialogue and raunchy sex scenes.
“The show is explicit, but life is gritty, too,” said Harney
However, he considers the intense writing and first-class acting from the ensemble cast largely responsible for the show’s success.
“You know the writing is good when it brings out unexpected emotions from the actors,” he explained.
Harney recalled a powerful scene with Kate Mulgrew, who plays prisoner Galina ‘Red’ Reznikov, when she walked behind his desk.
“When she looked at me I was just flooded with emotion all of a sudden,” he said. “I hadn’t anticipated that, but the writers recognized it and were able to build on it in future episodes to explore the relationship between Kate and me. You’re always looking for unguarded moments like that when two actors have such good chemistry that it translates into a more powerful scene.”
However, Harney admitted to having had reservations about the show when shooting began in 2012.
“I didn’t think it was going to work because it just didn’t feel real enough for me. But when I looked at scenes through the monitor on the first day of shooting and saw how the show was framed, and the images were so rich in textures and layout, I realized how fabulous it was.”
The series is filmed at various locations around New York, including historic Stage E at the Kaufman Astoria Studios.
“Many of the prison interiors are shot here, and a restaurant we have on the premises, The Astor Room, has also been used for scenes,” said Hal Rosenbluth, president and CEO of the studio. “It’s been wonderful having the show here, shooting on the same stage where the Marx Brothers and Rudolph Valentino used to make movies. From the silent film era to today’s premium digital platform programs, Stage E has seen it all.”
With filming for the fourth season underway, Harney said he sees the series as raising awareness for the correctional system.
“We’re dealing with a marginalized community – the largely forgotten inmate population,” he noted. “The show is bringing them to the forefront of public consciousness.”
To prepare for the role, Harney watched prison footage from documentaries, but also recalled earlier years of volunteer prison work.
“I had done some research into prison reform years ago, but also did a lot of reading on the current status of prison rehabilitation,” he said. “Building on that, I used my imagination to help bring the inner world of these characters to life.”
Like many actors who found success in film and television, Harney developed his acting chops through theater and acting school.
Harney even ran his own New York acting school for eight years – The Michael Harney Acting Studio – before moving to Los Angeles. As a former teacher, he recommends young actors also watch modern film legends such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Gene Hackman. “I studied those guys relentlessly.”
Entertaining also ran in Harney’s family.
“My dad was a great impressionist,” he said. “He could do Laurence Olivier, Ronald Colman, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, and many others, just as good as any professional in the business today. He performed in the navy and had a beautiful tenor voice, but he and his four brothers had to work to help support the family, so my father never got into the entertainment business professionally.”
Harney’s father passed away last November.
“He was very happy with my success,” Harney said proudly. “God willing, I’ll continue to have it and he can keep watching me.”