Harry E. Northup: From Acting In Martin Scorsese Films to Writing Poetry


Interview by John Wisniewski

John Wisniewski: When did you begin writing, Harry?

Harry E. Northup: In 1966, I was studying Method acting with Frank Corsaro, in Manhattan. In that class was Leland Hickman. He was a poet who had had his poetry published. We decided to do a scene together. The scene was a short story about a Madison Avenue guy who picked up a hustler on 42nd St. Lee played the former. One day we were rehearsing the scene in his apartment in the Village. I looked at his bookcase & there was nothing but poetry books in it. I had never seen anything like that before. He handed me “The New American Poetry, 1945-1960,” Edited by Donald Allen. published by Grove Press. At that time, I was supposed to do two Off’Broadway plays & a film, & they both fell through. That is the intersection. I had all this emotion inside of me. It had to come out. It came out in poetry. I was 26. I read the anthology, saw that one could write poetry from one’s own experiences. You didn’t have to be an intellectual, or college professor to write. Studying Method acting, learning how to use my own experiences in acting, making it personal, learning how to evoke sense memories from Frank Corsaro was fundamental in my acting & poetry. In a very real sense, Corsaro gave me my fundamental foundation for acting & poetry. He taught me how to behave in a real way before the camera. He gave me a sense of reality. How to be the same externally as I am internally. How to live privately in public. I also began to read the books of the poets who were in TNAP: Ginsberg, Blackburn, Dorn, Snyder, Whalen, Olson, among others. I began to attend the poetry readings at St. Mark’s church & read 3 of my poems in an open reading there. After I read, Paul Blackburn came up to me, praised one poem, said of the other — which was about a time I had stayed over night in jail, in Peetz, Colorado, at my request –, “Make your point, don’t mark time, don’t go on for sound, cut back, wait until the action starts up again.” That’s it in a nutshell for me. I asked Paul, “How does one become a poet?” He replied, “Two ways, reading & writing.” And that’s what I have done, I read everything I could of contemporary poetry & went back & learned the tradition. The other thing I liked about Blackburn: his book, “The Cities,” from Grove Press, is very important to me. His rhythms, his vision; his vision is what he sees; it isn’t an apocalyptic vision like Blake; he writes about an intersection like the Romantic poets wrote about a tree. That’s what I have done: direct perception & a use of physical detail. You have to to be particular in poetry & specific in acting. I wrote that whole year Mondays-Fridays, from 8 A.M. to 11A.M. At the end of the year I chose 30 poems & friends helped: Lee Hickman typed up the poems, Max Jeremy supplied the art work, Victor Argo was working as a union printer — he stole 10,000 sheets of paper, including a heavy paper for the cover –, a woman in Frank’s class owned a printing shop, Victor ran off the pages on the press, we collated it, the result: 300 copies of my first book of poetry “Amarillo Born” was published at no cost. I sent a copy to Allen Ginsberg who liked it, sent me a card with some nice things about it, which I used to keep on my wall until I sent it to the Mandeville Special Collections Library, UCSD, La Jolla, when they bought my Papers in 2002.

John Wisniewski: How did you get interested in acting?

Harry E. Northup: We lived much of my youth in western Nebraska. My dad worked for the Civil Service. We lived at Ordville, the housing project of Sioux Ordnance Depot, where my dad worked, outside Sidney, Nebraska. We also lived in Sidney at other times. When I was 14, I tried out & got the part of Eddie in “Time Out for Ginger,” directed by Connie Madsen, produced by the Panhandle Players,. She was a short woman, with a booming voice, who had studied theatre at Columbia University. I was acting in a play with adults, one of whom was my Math teacher, Mr. Godfrey. I loved the experience, people listening to each other & creating. Two years later, Connie cast me as George in “Our Town.” I was perfect for the role, one of my most natural acting roles ever. I also fell in love with Nancy Davis, who played Emily. She was two years older than I was & a senior in high school. The director once said, “Do whatever you can to get into the theatre, even if you have to sweep the floor.” She also said, “Speak so they can hear you in the back row.” Her passion for theatre inspired me. I loved the camaraderie of theatre people. I also did the male lead in the junior class play. I also wrote & won the “I Speak for Democracy” contest several times & went to state. That was the beginning of my love for theatre.

From 1958 to 1961, I was in the U.S. Navy. During that time, I thought about becoming a high school English teacher. When I got out in August of 1961, I had $1500 saved. I enrolled in Nebraska State Teachers’ College, Kearney, Nebraska. That fall I saw an ad for auditions for “Othello.” I bought the play, read it, auditioned for the part of “Othello.” The director, Wes Jensby, saw my intensity, liked me & cast me as Cassio. From that moment on I began hanging out with the college theatre group. From that moment on, my life made sense. I felt at home. Jensby cast me as Rev. Hale in “The Crucible,” by Arthur Miller; he cast me as Billie Brown in O’Neill’s “The Great God Brown.” That was the real beginning of my love & passion for theatre & acting. Wes Jensby’s passion for & erudition of theatre reengendered my love for acting & theatre. During the second semester, in 1962, I quit college, hitchhiked to New York City, sat up in the Greyhound Bus Station, at either 34th & Eighth, or 50th & Eighth, at night & slept. I didn’t have much money. In the daytime I auditioned for summer stock. After four days without getting an offer, I hitchhiked back to Sioux Ordnance Depot. I had played baseball in every league from Midgets, through Pony League, Junior Legion, high school & town team. I was playing third base for the Bunker Hill town team. One Sunday in early June, right before leaving home to play an afternoon game, I got a phone call from Guy Palmerton, who was the producer of Lake Whalom Playhouse, in Fitchburg, Mass. He offered me a job as an apprentice. A cottage to live in & all the macaroni salad I could eat. I was thrilled. I said yes. My mother paid my train ticket & I went to Fitchburg the next week. I did small parts in “The Music Man,” “Tobacco Road,” built & tore down sets, & gathered props. At the end of the season, Guy gave me my Equity Card. I also met New York actors I would contact when I finally went to New York City the following year to live, study acting & pursue an acting career.

John Wisniewski: How did you meet Martin Scorsese?

Harry E. Northup: I studied Method acting with Frank Corsaro from 1963-1968. In that class was Harvey Keitel. He liked me as an actor. We became friends. We did a play, “Keep Tightly Closed in a Cool Dry Place,” by Megan Terry. In 1966, or 1967, Harvey recommended me to Scorsese for his first feature film, now known as “Who’s That Knocking At My Door.” I met Marty in an office — I think it was either Jonas Mekas’ or Andrew Sarris’ — on 42nd Street. We talked about where we grew up, Method acting, Harvey, Frank Corsaro, “The Hustler,” directed by Robert Rossen. I had gotten my S.A.G, card when I worked in “Lilith,” directed by Rossen, in 1963. Marty liked me. He hired me to play The Rapist. That was the first of six films that I acted in for Scorsese. He also hired me for his first TV show, “Amazing Stories” (“Mirror, Mirror”), in 1985. I am the only actor to have worked in Scorsese’s first six feature films & his first TV show. It has been an honor to have worked for Scorsese. He is America’s gift to cinema.

John Wisniewski: What was the set of “Taxi Driver” like? Did you like the screenplay?

Harry E. Northup: Marin Scorsese called me into his office at Columbia. He said that his “number one choice for Travis Bickle was Robert De Niro, his second Harvy Keitel, you are the third; I went with De Niro. If I ever do a western you will do the lead. I want you to play Doughboy.” I thanked him. He gave me the script. He said “The dialogue is too direct, you know the way we like to work, sideways.” He also said, “I am going to turn ‘Taxi Driver’ into a Gothic horror story & I am going to shoot the movie in such a surreal way no one ever has done before.” He also said that he was “going to use garish B-movie colors from the 50s.” I took the script home & read it. I was thrilled to be in it. The script had a strong structure to it. Schrader is a splendid screenwriter. While I worked on the film, I began to change some of the lines my character had: Instead of “Yeah, we went to Harvard together,” after Wizard says to Doughboy, “Doughboy, you know Travis?”; I said, “Hey, Travis, got change for a nickel?” That was an expression I had heard while I was driving a cab for Santa Monica Red Cab Company while I was in college. I also created a scene that wasn’t in the script, the one where Doughboy exits in the first cabbie hangout scene, returns & asks Travis if he would like to take a piece of Errol Flynn’s bathtub & try to sell it, “If you sell it, give me half of what you got.” De Niro says no & I exit.

The first scene of “Taxi Driver” that I worked on was at a real cabbies’ hangout at 45th & 10th, in Manhattan. The other scene where we gathered was at the Belmore Cafeteria on 28th & Park Avenue South That was also a place where real cabbies hung out. That was a legendary cafeteria. Real cabbies were extras in that scene. The scene when Doughboy picks up Travis to take him to the gun salesman was shot at 19th & Sixth. The last scene with Wizard, Doughboy, Travis & Charlie T. was shot outside the St. Regis on 55th off Fifth. In the films of Scorsese the ambience is authentic. Marty creates an atmosphere that is perfect for the actors to create an intimate reality. It’s quiet & he allows the actors to create. It’s the finest set for creativity that I’ve ever been a part of. It all goes back to Scorsese; it starts with him. He is such a film historian & has such an exceptional sense of sight & sound. He’s right there next to the camera — I don’t know how he works these days with all the technical innovations. Marty’s with you all the time. I’ve often wondered who’s the greatest film director with actors, Scorsese or Kazan. We grew up on Kazan’s films & I know how much Scorsese loves Kazan. Marty knows more about film than Kazan. I know that it was an honor & a deep pleasure to have worked with Scorsese on his early films. There is an integrity in the acting & in the films of Scorsese. He has turned out to be the Statesman of American Film.

John Wisniewski: You have also worked with director Jonathan Demme. What was that experience like, Harry?

Harry E. Northup: Jonathan Demme hired me for the first time in “Crazy Mama,” produced by Julie Corman, in the spring of 1974. Then in fall of that same year, he cast me in “Fighting Mad,” produced by Roger Corman. Peter Fonda was the star of the film. I played Sheriff Skerritt & Phil Carey was the bad guy. I had a six-week contract in Fayetteville, Ark. Demme called me, from Arkansas, before the film started shooting. During the conversation he asked me if I wanted anything for my character to let him know. I said, “There is one thing, but it’s minor.” He said, “Nothing is minor.” I asked if my character, who uses a shotgun in one scene, could have a shotgun with a silver barrel. He put me in touch with props who got it for me. Demme allowed me to contribute dialogue: “Huntin’, fishin” & sports, that’s what we should be teachin’ our kids”; “Don’t fuck with me one bit”; “I’ve had it, my nerves are shot.” Demme was always warm & positive. One afternoon after doing ADR work on “Fighting Mad,” Demme & I were walking out of the studio & he said, “Remember when I told you that you were getting co-star billing?”
“Yes.” “You’re not.” My heart sank. “You’re getting star billing.” “Oh, thank you, Jonathan.”

Demme hired me for 8 films & 2 commercials. I worked in Marysville Ca., when we shot “Citizens Band”; Philadelphia,” when we shot “Philadelphia”; Pittsburgh, on “The Silence of the Lambs”; Philadelphia, when we shot “Beloved”; New York City, on the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate.” Demme sent me the script of “The Silence of the Lambs” 2 & 1/2 months before the film began shooting. I was playing Mr. Bimmel, the father of the first victim. Mr. Bimmel raised pigeons, so I went to a friend of mine, who had pigeons & he loaned me “Champ.” I kept him in a cat cage outside on the patio & each day I would bring him inside for an hour or so. You have to hold a pigeon a certain way so that he doesn’t go to the bathroom on you. I put papers down in the bedroom, closed the door & spent time with Champ. We became mates. One night I was sitting in the House of Pies & I was thinking about the scene where Mr. Bimmel is building an addition to his pigeon coop when Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) comes up to him, “Mr Bimmel?” “That’s me.” I wrote down on a paper napkin what I would like the opening to be: Instead of building the cage addition, I would like to be holding a white pigeon up to the light looking for mites when Clarice enters the scene. When I arrived on the set, Demme asked me what I would like to do & I literally pulled that napkin out & read it to him. He said, “Great” & shot it. I also chose the clothes that I wore, with one exception, including the knit cap with the gray, blue & red colors. Demme was always positive; he, just like Scorsese, wanted his actors to contribute. A year after we shot “Beloved,” there was a reunion at the Chateau Marmont. At the gathering I asked Demme, “Who’s your favorite director?” “Of all time?” “Yes.” “I’ll have to think about that.” Today’s director,” I said. “Scorsese,” he replied. The only time that I ever auditioned for Demme was when I went to Philadelphia to read the part of the Sheriff & I think that was because Oprah was the producer & she wanted to see & hear me. I loved working with Demme. He always said, when I arrived on the set, after saying hello to me,” How are Holly & Dylan?” He, also, cared for my poetry & for Cahuenga Press. I was deeply saddened when he died.

Hover Box Element

Hover Box Element

Harry E. Northup has made a living as an actor for 30 years, acting in 37 films, including Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), Taxi Driver (1976) (1976 Palme d’Or winner at Cannes), Fighting Mad (1976) (starring role), Citizens Band (1977), Blue Collar (1978), Over the Edge (1979) (starring role), Tom Horn (1980), Used Cars(1980), Kansas (1988), The Silence of the Lambs (1991) (Oscar winner for Best Picture), Philadelphia (1993), Bad Girls (1994), Beloved (1998), and a remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004).

Harry has acted in 43 television shows, including ER (1994) (guest star), The Court(2002) (recurring role), “In Cold Blood” (CBS mini-series), The Deliberate Stranger(1986), The Day the Bubble Burst (1982), and Knots Landing (1979) (recurring role).

Harry has been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1976.

Harry is that rare American actor who is also an accomplished poet. He has had nine books of poetry published: Amarillo Born (Victor Jiminez Press, 1966); the jon voight poems (Mt. Alverno Press, 1973); Eros ASsh (Momentum Press, 1976); Enough The Great Running Chapel (Momentum Press, 1982); the images we possess kill the capturing (the jesse press, 1988); The Ragged Vertical (Cahuenga Press, 1996); Reunions (Cahuenga Press, 2001); Greatest Hits, 1966-2001 (Pudding House Press, 2002); and Red Snow Fence (Cahuenga Press, 2006).

Harry received his B.A. in English from California State University, Northridge, where he studied verse with Ann Stanford.

Harry Northup’s professional and private papers, manuscripts, journals, scripts, correspondence, ephemera, etc., were purchased by U.C.S.D., La Jolla, on Nov. 18, 2002, and are housed in the Mandeville Special Collections Library, U.C.S.D., 0175-S, 9500 Gilman Drive, La Jolla, Ca. 92093-0175, for instruction, research and preservation.

His son Dylan lives in Wisconsin.

Harry lives in East Hollywood with his wife Holly Prado Northup, a writer and teacher.

– IMDb Mini Biography By: Harry E. Northup


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