My mom used to say, ‘Quit looking so mean,’ ” says Steve Harris. Sure enough, at 6′, 215 lbs., the bald former college linebacker’s intimidating stare has helped him land parts as hoods and street toughs. But two years ago, Harris set his steely sights on something meatier: the role of defense attorney Eugene Young, one of seven ambitious Boston lawyers who make up ABC’s Emmy-winning hit drama The Practice. “That ‘look’ thing is part of the reason my agent didn’t want me to go in [to read for the part],” says Harris. “He didn’t think I could be a lawyer.”
But the actor acquitted himself brilliantly at his audition. In the midst of it, Harris, 33, (who had cut his teeth on regional productions of Macbeth and Julius Caesar) voiced his doubts that the Bard of Avon was the greatest playwright ever. “When you meet a guy, and the first thing he does is diss Shakespeare,” says co-executive producer Robert Breech, “you know you’re on to somebody who has, shall we say, a strong point of view. Combine that with a big, strong physical presence, and you’ve really got something interesting. We all took to him immediately.”
Harris felt no need to hang around real attorneys in preparation for the role. If he had, he jokes, “I’d be the most boring lawyer on television. It’s my job to entertain.” His castmates can attest to that. “He seems to be this brooding, intense man, but he’s just a little puppy,” says Camryn Manheim, who plays feisty colleague Ellenor Frutt. “He can be making a very serious point—or he’s untying your shoelaces and hiding your things.”
Not even Harris’s costar and pal Dylan McDermott is spared. “I always tease him about ‘the money shot,’ ” says Harris, sitting in his three-bedroom L.A. home, where he lives alone (he’s single and dating). “No matter what happens, they have to get a shot of those baby blues—otherwise we’ll be off the air.” Says McDermott: “We tease each other constantly, but Steve takes acting very seriously. He has an integrity that comes through in Eugene.”
For that, Harris can credit his upbringing in Westchester, Ill., a Chicago suburb. “I don’t think I was ever a bad kid,” says Harris. “My parents”—John, a bus driver, and Mattie, a homemaker—”stressed education. I was one of the lucky kids.” Both he and his brother Sherwin, now 29 and also an actor, earned good grades in high school. Steve’s game plan was to play pro football, but in his senior year at Northern Illinois University, torn ankle ligaments sidelined him.
With time on his hands, he turned to acting. After appearing in his first college production, “Master Harold”…and the Boys, his father took him aside, Harris recalls, and said, “Boy, you’re pretty good at this.” He got better. After earning a 1992 master’s degree in theater at the University of Delaware, Harris began getting guest shots as bad guys on various TV series, including Homicide, Law & Order and New York Undercover. On one show, an actor he declines to name began cracking jokes “of a racist nature,” says Harris. Though the man apologized, “I told him, ‘What you said was callous. But I’ll let you live with it. You just don’t want to step in my way.’ ” The only people who do now are lawyers who compliment him for The Practice. One said he even adapted a closing argument of Eugene’s for himself. “I find that most flattering,” says Harris, who has a small role as a cop in a movie version of TV’s The Mod Squad in April.
With his career blasting off, Harris is now looking to buy a house for his family in Chicago. There’s just one hitch. “Unfortunately my mom picked a house that’s too expensive,” says Harris. “She thinks I’m on Seinfeld.”
Michael A. Lipton
Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles