What Made Harry Anderson Different From Other Comics

Apr 17, 2018

I'm not talking about comedian Harry Anderson's magic tricks. Or his love for singer Mel Torme. Or his laid-back jeans-and-sneakers under his judicial robes presiding over NBC's "Night Court" (1984-92).

"Night Court" third season DVD.
Credit Warner Bros. Entertainment

Anderson , 65, who died Monday at his home in Ashville NC, was different because at the peak of his popularity in the 1990s, he fled Hollywood for the Pacific Northwest. I admired him for that, even though it meant I didn't see one of my all-time favorite entertainers much at the TV writers' press tour events in Los Angeles.

The Rhode Island native wanted his children to have a "normal life," something Anderson didn't have raised by a single mother frequently on the move to New York, Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans, according to the New York Times. At 16, he found his way to San Francisco where he began performing as a comic magician.

During a visit to David Letterman's old NBC "Late Night" show in 1994, Anderson refused to reveal the name of the "nice, quiet little town" of 3,500 residents where he lived with his wife, Leslie Pollack, and their two children.  "The kids get to live a normal life, and then I have to fly and commute once a week down (to Los Angeles) to do the show. But it works out," he said.

At the time, Anderson was starring in "Dave's World" (1993-97), a CBS sitcom based on syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry.  He was best known for unconventional, flippant Judge Harry T. Stone on "Night Court" in NBC's powerful 1980s Thursday night lineup behind "The Cosby Show," "Family Ties" and "Cheers." His strong supporting cast included four-time Emmy winner John Larroquette, Richard Moll, Charles Robinson, Markie Post, Selma Diamond and Marsha Warfield.

"Night Court" was just good, goofy fun. It was NBC "Must See TV" in our house – more so than "Cosby" or "Cheers" – and it's been my guilty pleasure for 30 years. It's my go-to show when I need some laughs. During the 2012 Summer Olympics, I always had a couple of "Night Courts" on the DVR to watch when NBC aired a sport I had no interest in watching. ("Night Court" airs 3-5 p.m. weekdays on the Laff network on WCPO-TV's Channel 9.3, Spectrum Channel 992, Cincinnati Bell Fioptics Channel 241 and Dish Network Channel 237.)

"Night Court" was a "wonderful, wonderful experience and it certainly had a very positive effect on me and my career, and made a lot of very wonderful things happen for me," Anderson told TV critics in July 1993, before the premiere of "Dave's World."  It was "a pure escape," with wacky court cases involving prostitutes, pimps, ventriloquists, vagrants and Dan Fielding's (Larroquette) insatiable sex drive.

"It's tough to do a show that your kids can't watch, when your kids are important to you," Anderson said. For "Dave's World," as a 40-year-old father of two, he set the bar a little higher.

"This character struck me not just as somebody that I wanted to play, but the kind of person that I would like to be. And that's a rare… opportunity for a performer," he said.

Anderson divorced in 1999, remarried and moved to New Orleans in 2000, the Los Angeles Times says.

He opened a French Quarter club called Oswald's Speakeasy, where he frequently performed his one-man "Wise Guy" show, and operated a magic and curiosity shop, Sideshow. Business never recovered from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He described the number of club patrons once to the New York Times by saying, "I had more people in my car last night."

Anderson and his wife Elizabeth moved to Ashville in 2006. His most recent appearances were "Gotham Comedy Live" (2014), "Comedy Bang! Bang!" (2013) "A Matter of Faith" (2014), "30 Rock" (2008) and "New Orleans Story" (2008), according to the International Movie Database.

Anderson always insisted he was a comedian and a magician with good instincts, which he first displayed on "Cheers" and "Saturday Night Live" before "Night Court."

"I'm not an actor, but I play one on TV," he joked.

Rest in peace, Harry. Thanks for all great laughs.