Ernest Harden, most notable for his most recent work on Beethoven and Misfortune Cookies, shares his extensive background in the industry over the last four decades with TWID. His ability to diversify his talents has led to roles on groundbreaking sitcoms, blockbuster films, and the ever-intimidating live stage performances. When asked about the move to southern California all those years ago, he expressed his need to further his acting career, stating, “[I] Decided to pack up and come back to LA because I figured I needed more film time for myself. I ended up staying for a while and got a couple of commercials and ended up getting on The Jeffersons.”
TWID: How many years does it run for?
The Jeffersons ran for 11 years. I was on the show towards the end of it. It sort of made me famous after. It was easier to get into auditions and get agents after being popular from working on The Jeffersons. I had a manager in New York who had a few other stars they were working with. Some on the show, Happy Days, a girl named Irene Cara who did the music for the movie Fame and Flash Dance. I believe Irene Cara was recognized with an Oscar award. Once we were filming and I went back home for Christmas and we were on hiatus and went back to Detroit. We got off in Chicago and there were people running towards me and I ran too. I was wondering why they were running, but they were after me for my autograph because of The Jeffersons. That was one of my first actual tastes of fame and I realized that that show changed my life.
TWID: What did you do after the Jeffersons?
I’ve done a lot of stuff; I’ve been in the business for close to 36 years. I was one of the stars for the movie, White Men Can’t Jump. They didn’t think much of that movie and they didn’t think it was going to be as big as it was, but it ranked as one of the #1 movies in the theater. When it went to VHS it was #1. People always talked about brothers getting together, but we made it popular. The movie is a classic. I played basketball back then, but shooting a film and playing basketball was the ultimate.
Freeman Williams played for New Jersey and Woody Harrison was a good friend.
TWID: Comedy seems to be one of the strongest parts you play. Are those the only roles you’ve gotten in the past?
No, the stuff I’ve gotten has been dramatic. I’m the only black guy that starred opposite Bette Davis in the film, White Mama. She really fought for me to have that role. She fought for me so that I would take on the role and we stayed friends even after we finished filming. Jackie Cooper directed it and it was a great experience to be that close to and work with a legend. It was a blessing to be a part of it. There is another show called Hill Street Blues which is not on anymore, but I was a young guy. I played a role where my character’s brother got killed. The police were feeling guilty about it and the guy who shot it in the apartment came by my house and was trying to make amends with me when he saw my character doing drugs. It was just a great scene with some good work. I’m mostly dramatic and have done some comedy, which has given me bigger opportunities.
TWID: What was it like to work on a film with Bette Davis?
I’ve always been serious. When I was shooting that movie, my part was bigger than hers and they had found me in my trailer but I was sick. It must have been the exhaustion from being an athlete and an actor at the same time. I was the lead on the film and they had to stop filming and film just little things and they waited until I was well.
TWID: In your portrayal of the variety of character-types, which would you say were you most confident playing?
I’ve been blessed to be funny and serious. A lot of people can’t go back and forth doing that. I also can do theater and film that a lot of people aren’t able to accomplish. Film is more of an intimate medium and you’ll have to be small and real but the camera will do a lot of work for you, as opposed to having someone hear from the last row at the theaters, but still very real. I’m a member of this group called the Actors Studio and we work on a lot of theater along with Mark. It’s like a gym for actors and it’s hard to get in. You would have to audition more than once to get in. It took me three times to audition to try to get in, but it took Dustin Hoffman six tries, so I feel pretty good.
Started back in the day when Marilyn Monroe was hot. Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and others were a member of the Lease. Marlon Brando was influential with the Actors Studio. Martin Landau is helping me with this play I’m doing called Beethoven and Misfortune Cookies that was developed while I was in the Actors Studio. I was given the script and was told that are some investors who were willing to invest so I learned a little but the investors didn’t show up. Kabin Thomas, a teacher of the University of Arkansas, has seen me play a scene. He left the room with tears in his eyes saying that I was better at playing him better than he is. Although I was disappointed the investors didn’t come, I thought that I needed to put that aside and move on. It was like a stretch playing the role of a professor because I’ve never done a one man show; rather, I’ve always done monologues in movies. This was like a monologue on steroids because it was 90 minutes of just me. It was integrated music with a mix of Beethoven, Eddie Harris, Marvin Gaye and it ties the whole story together. It’s basically a dramatic story of this brother of Kabin Thomas, a music professor of the University of Arkansas, fired for pushing the racial boundaries in higher education. He spoke his mind and had his own radical teaching style. He used profanity and the school was looking for a way to get rid of him. The students loved him, but they found a way to get rid of him because he showed a graphic photo in connection to one of his lessons on Billy Holiday and they let him go. The play is about academic freedom, the First Amendment, racism, Billy Holiday, betrayal, validation, hope, redemption and that’s basically what the story is. It’s a beautiful story. I wrote a lot of it but it is based on a true story. It teaches a lot of history; about Billy Holiday, Beethoven, black history, and musical history.
TWID: What projects, if any, do you have on the drawing table for the near future?
Beethoven, born December 16, 1770, long considered the greatest classical music composer, was a black man. His mother was part of northern Muslim Africans who conquered parts of Europe making Spain the capital for some 800 years. I plan to go to Broadway with this.
Ernest Harden’s professional acting resume is one any thespian would be proud to call their own. His contribution to the entertainment industry can only be rivaled by the prospective projects he will inevitably conquer in the near future. We here at TWID wish the veteran the best of luck with all the future has in store for him.
Article Written By: Esiteli Hafoka