For Harry Anderson, opportunity knocked—or more precisely threw a good right hook—late one afternoon in San Francisco. Anderson, then 21, was running a street hustle—the old shell game—when a sore loser became justifiably suspicious of the game’s integrity. The loser expressed his dissatisfaction by breaking Anderson’s jaw. “I spent six or seven weeks with my mouth wired shut and really thought about what I was doing,” says Harry. “I don’t like to swear while I work, much less get beat up. There had to be an easier way to make a living.”
There was. Anderson reworked his shell-game hustle into a comedy exposé, a fast-patter, sleight-of-hand marvel that delighted audiences without, in the end, actually revealing anything about how the scams worked. Then he would pass the hat. “I didn’t make as much money, but the longevity was better,” says Anderson, whose new act took him from street corners to college campuses and small clubs, then to Saturday Night Live (eight times), Late Night with David Letterman and NBC’s Cheers, as the bar’s house hustler. That led to a starring role as a wiseacre judge in his own NBC sitcom, Night Court, which has just been renewed for its third season. “I don’t think doing television can be called going straight,” says Anderson, 34. “I mean, how much can anyone really work to earn that much money? There’s a certain element of swindle involved, but it’s one of those wonderful swindles where you don’t have to run away.”
Still, one senses unease. Anderson is a man in love with flimflam. His natural arena is the carnival midway, and to him a dollar honestly earned is somehow, inevitably, tinged with disappointment. Onstage he dresses like a ’40s cardsharp; at home in the Los Feliz section of L.A. he lovingly restores slot machines, magic props—including a 10-foot guillotine—and old arcade games. “Nowadays most carnival games are very difficult to win, but they’re straight,” says Anderson. “It was better when they looked easy to win, but there was no way. Things like Roll-a-Ball and Cover-the-Spot are becoming a vanishing tradition.” Ask about his childhood influences, and Anderson mentions Bill the Three-Eyed Geek (“Actually he wasn’t so much a Three-Eyed Geek as a Cleft Palate Geek”) and a host of oddball acquaintances who taught him to eat glass, drive a spike up his nose and other tricks that leave audiences both bemused and slightly green. You have to be tactful when you push a skewer through your arm, he observes, or “people don’t want to watch.”
Much in Anderson’s childhood was unusual, to say the least. His father was a salesman who was rarely around. A few years ago, “I got a call to go to New Jersey to pick up his body,” says Harry. “I hadn’t seen him in 15 years.” To reports that his mother was a hooker, Anderson, one of three children, responds, “She was a hustler, yeah; she did a lot of things. We moved around a lot, and she had a lot of men friends.” Yet he vehemently rejects the notion that his home life was a tragedy. “I respect my mother; she was very concerned with taking care of us. 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.”
By 16 he had lived in a dozen cities, including New York, St. Louis and Phoenix, and had finally set up housekeeping on his own in Los Angeles. He attended North Hollywood High while earning money with various street hustles. After graduation he opened a small magic shop in Ashland, Oreg. When that folded, he traveled with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for three years and there met his wife, Leslie, 32, an actress and magician. “She invented the ultimate pea,” says Anderson, referring to the object that shell-gamers shuttle around. “It’s foam covered with latex.” Leslie sells her peas to magicians.
Success for the former hat-passer also means he no longer has to “pay for everything with quarters.” It has allowed him to get a credit rating, buy a house and, he jokes, “owe more money than I can ever repay.” His extravagances include a white Mustang convertible and several computers, one of which Anderson, who is dyslexic, has been using to teach himself to read at a normal pace. “Just me and my Apple II and friendly, friendly software,” says Harry, who notes that for years he wouldn’t admit that he had a problem. “Now I’ve reached the point that I can give my daughter, Eva, a run for her money.” Eva, 4, also keeps Dad busy: Last year she had to be taken to the hospital after she stuck one of his loaded dice up her nose. Recalls Anderson, “The doctors kept taking bets on which side would be up.”
When it comes to numbers, Anderson himself is rooting for a five—the number of years he figures Night Court will have to last before he can bank enough money to retire very, very young. “Five years and I’m gone,” says Anderson, gleefully imagining a life of plaid pants, croquet and, okay, maybe a movie or two, like the remake of Nightmare Alley, the 1947 Tyrone Power geek-feature that he wants to produce. If he ever does amass such a stash, odds are the former hustler will invest it with caution. As he invariably tells his audiences at the end of his act, “Never eat at a place called ‘Mom’s,’ and never play cards with a guy called ‘Pop.’ And remember, always, that a fool and his money were lucky to get together in the first place.”