Trapper John's Gregory Harrison Is Sitting Pretty in a New Role as Hotshot Producer
You might think Gregory Harrison has trouble keeping his clothes on. Each week in the opening montage for his hit CBS series Trapper John M.D., he’s seen bare-chested in the shower. In the 1981 TV movie For Ladies Only, he was a nightclub dancer who stripped and strutted in briefs for screaming female fans. This, Gregory says, has not made him happy. “I didn’t study acting for nine years to be a hunk,” insists Harrison, who earns an estimated $40,000 a week in his fifth season as Trapper John’s pal, Dr. Gonzo Gates. “The only time I’ve really enjoyed having the money from the series is when I’ve been able to give it to people I love or reinvest it in the profession I love.”
Consequently, Harrison, 33, has made a career move that lets him keep the shirt on his back. He’s taken on a surprising new role as a hot Hollywood producer. Along with Franklin Levy, a former agent, Gregory formed Catalina Productions, which has established itself as one of the most aggressive newcomers on the block. Seeded with a six-figure sum contributed by Harrison and Levy, Catalina has produced successful projects ranging from last season’s TV movie Legs, about the Radio City Rockettes, to this season’s Los Angeles stage production of the prison spoof Women Behind Bars, starring Sally Kellerman and Linda Blair. But Catalina’s most unlikely hit has been a revival of the World War II drama The Hasty Heart, currently airing on Showtime, with Cheryl Ladd as the nurse who falls in love with a terminally ill patient, a proud Scotsman played by, you got it, Gregory Harrison. The Hasty Heart, first presented at a small L.A. theater, has been cited by critics as one of the best original productions on cable, and Harrison has been praised for what one reviewer called “a beautifully controlled and exceedingly touching performance.”
Harrison is particularly pleased with The Hasty Heart because he played against type. “I don’t think anybody in their right mind would have cast me in it,” he says. “I need to have a public following to accomplish what I want to do, to stretch myself artistically.” Nevertheless, the first Catalina production Greg stretched in was For Ladies Only, which not only perpetuated the hunk image but also spawned a big-selling poster of Greg in a bikini. According to Harrison, the TV movie fit neatly into his master plan. “For Ladies Only was a blatant example of a project that would help me commercially,” he says. “It was no accident that I opened in The Hasty Heart—the least commercial thing I’ve done—on the same day that For Ladies Only aired.”
Harrison first demonstrated his business sense as a youngster in his hometown of Avalon on California’s Catalina Island. By the time he was 3, he was diving for coins thrown off the glass-bottomed tourist boat operated by his father. After high school and two months of college, Harrison enlisted in the Army (that was in 1969) but later applied for conscientious-objector status. “Something inside of me just said it didn’t appeal to me to go shoot people,” he explains. Harrison was eventually classified a C.O. (after a lengthy battle, he won on moral rather than religious grounds) but not before he had served almost two years in Germany as a medic. After his discharge, he returned to Avalon, where he persuaded the owner of a local nightclub to hire him as El Gallo in The Fantasticks. One night Jason Robards saw him in the musical and came backstage to suggest that he pursue acting. On the basis of that sage advice, Harrison headed for Los Angeles and theater classes. Cast first in low-budget bombs, he eventually won the male lead in the CBS series Logan’s Run in 1977. A central role in the NBC mini-series Centennial led to Trapper John.
Harrison met his partner, Franklin Levy, when auditioning for Levy’s 1978 production of the musical Festival. Greg soon impressed Levy with his business acumen. “I took Greg to a backers’ audition for Festival,” Levy recalls. “He worked the room so well that by the end of the evening every woman had her husband write out a check.” Now, the day-to-day responsibilities of Catalina are overseen by Levy. Says Harrison, “The way Frank and I have worked it out, I put in a little bit more money, but he puts in quite a bit more time.”
Posters from Catalina Productions decorate Harrison’s three-bedroom home in Sherman Oaks. The actor’s live-in companion for three years has been ex-Joe Namath flame, actress Randi (CHiPs) Oakes. “When Gregory’s dreams come true, as they are doing now, we find more time to be together,” says the former model, who explains that one of the reasons she left CHiPs was that when both she and Harrison were working on series, they hardly saw each other at home.
Next season probably will be Gregory’s last on Trapper John. “As time goes by, I find it difficult to hang in instead of going in new directions,” says Harrison, who shot a feature film called Razorback in Australia during his summer break from the series. CBS has sweetened the pot with a multiproject deal for Catalina. Among the company’s other forthcoming projects: an ABC TV movie about Samson and Delilah. Harrison had hoped to star as the great hairy strongman but won’t because of Trapper John commitments. Instead, he’ll be wearing his producer’s hat—and shirt.