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Q & A: Oklahoma darling and newly minted author Sam Harris on writing, the theatrics of baptism, and the conundrum of home

Sam Harris returns to Tulsa this month to launch his first book

It’s not that he’s bored. It’s just that Sam Harris can’t sit still.

Harris, a star of both stage and screen, grew up near Tulsa in the 1960s and 70s. He launched his career from the football stadium at Charles Page High School in Sand Springs, where he sang the “Star Spangled Banner” — on pitch, he swears — at the tender age of two. Some 20 years later, Harris took his bow on “Star Search,” wrapping a performance that captured the attention of millions. No one has heard “Over the Rainbow” the same way since.

Later this month, Harris returns home. He picked Tulsa as the place to launch his first book, “Ham: Slices of a Life,” on Jan. 31 at IDL Ballroom. Never one to miss a chance to take center stage, Harris has also prepared a one-man, one-night-only stage production, set for Feb. 1 at Tulsa Community College’s VanTrease PACE, as a complement to the debut of his collection of stories about show business, fatherhood, and growing up gay in a conservative Tulsa community.

Tulsa Voice: You were in town late last year for a benefit performance when Sand Springs announced its plans to change a segment of its main thoroughfare — Broadway Street — to Sam Harris Avenue.

Sam Harris: It blew me away. The mayor and some of the councilmen came to me and I thought, “They’re going to give me a rose, or maybe do a proclamation,” which would have been lovely.

TV: Broadway is a street in Sand Springs, and, as you mention in your book, it’s also a church there.

SH: Yes. Broadway has many meanings to me.

TV: It’s where you were baptized.

SH: I recall things almost cinematically. I’m in it, but I’m outside of it, sort of shooting it as a cinematographer at the same time. I remember very well the pomp and circumstance of it. The gown. The old ladies in the pews, weeping. The innocence of it. The squeak of the revealing curtain.

We had the most fabulous, greatest preacher—his name was Brother Bill. He would get so passionate. This was partly what drew me to him, what drew me to the church. He would scream and yell. I mean, it was fire and brimstone. This was not a church about a peaceful, happy God. At the time, this was a church that was about a God that was, you know, pretty emotional, and moody.

[Brother Bill] would jump and strut, throw the Bible down on the pulpit. He’d had several heart attacks, so part of the thrill of watching him was thinking, “Oh my God, he’s going to drop dead right now. This is the moment.” This is true for all churches, not just the one I went to—but it is theatre, you know. There was a theatre involved, and that’s part of what I was drawn to.

I was baptized. Then I never went back. I felt like I’d sort of done the big number.

TV: In your book you write about what it was like growing up gay in Sand Springs, which you point out was the Industrial Capital of the Country, home to more manufacturing plants per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. at the time.

SH: There are millions of Sand Springses all over the country, all over the world. In deciding to write this, it wasn’t to call something out. This was also a long time ago. And while some of the conservatism—certainly in legislation and in politics—has not left, there is progression. No, gay people do not have equal rights there. And that’s embarrassing to me now. That saddens me now. But I also know that it’s come a long way. And I’ve grown up in an historical time in which I’ve watched that progress.

OK, let’s look at it. I am an open, happy, gay man who is legally married and has a child. That same town just named a street after me. That street sign is more of a reflection of the progress that has happened since my childhood than anything I could write.

TV: There’s a word you use more than once in the book. It’s “chosen.” It still compels you, this desire to be chosen?

SH: Those of us who have chosen approval-based professions—there’s something behind there, obviously. I spend my whole life as an actor trying to get chosen. You audition, you read, you work, you write, you do, you sell. I live a public life in which every single thing I create, I have to wait to see if it gets chosen.

I don’t want to be chosen because I want you to like me, I want you to accept me. In fact, I’m not a big fan of the word acceptance, or tolerance. It sounds so marginal, like, “We’ll let you in the club, but you can sit in the back.” I’m not seeking that kind of chosen. I want people to like my work because then it means maybe I did it well, that I accomplished something, that I made somebody laugh or think or talk or feel something, or remember something in their own life.

TV: How do you return home? What are your rituals?

SH: I eat things that I would never eat any other place or at any other time in my life. I always have pimento cheese spread, which I’m not even sure is available where I live. I eat good, fried, comfort food.

Growing up, you hear all this stuff when you figure out that you’re gay—about it being a sin and going to Hell and burning forever and God hating you and people calling you names. The conundrum between that and how that very same community also said to me, “Here’s a platform. We think you’re talented. Go, do, we’re really proud of you.” That’s a hard thing to live with.

For years, when I was making records and touring, I didn’t play there. I was terrified. I had this thought in my mind: They’re going to hate me. They’re going to call me names. Even after I was famous and I was sort of the favorite son of Sand Springs, I was so terrified. Then, I did it. And it was the most glorious, cathartic, wonderful thing, because I got to accept them.
Natasha, everything we’re talking about is very heavy. You have to promise me that you’re going to sing the praises of this book as also humorous and fun and about show biz.

TV: Well, it’s called Ham.

SH: That’s exactly right. 

TV: Did writing about your memories change them? 

SH: My friends make fun of me. “You don’t remember anything. Do you remember when we did this?” I have no idea. But when I actually go to a place, it’s amazing to me how much detail I remember. As an actor, one of my resources and tools is, I take in the minutia. I take in the way I see the sock lying on the floor. That’s what creates the picture for me, the memory.

TV: Like when you describe your grandmother’s gallstones. [Which, according to Sam, she hung in a baby-food jar by a
pink ribbon on the bathroom door frame.]

SH: Oh, my god. That’s vivid. How do you not remember that? I can see it in my head right now.

It’s the same thing I do when I’m singing a song or playing a role. If I go for the feeling, I can’t find it. It’s too vast. It’s in the details that I am able to express and relive the experience.

TV: Performing is public. Writing is different.

SH: It’s like how I love rehearsal. I’d stay in rehearsal all the time, if I could. You’re getting to experiment and fail and retry. And then—it says this in the book, from Jerry Blatt, who was my greatest mentor—and this goes for any art form—that you prepare thoroughly, then toss away the preparation and let it go, like blowing a kiss. Not knowing where it will land or what it will become. That’s what we all have to do with our art. You do it thoroughly, precisely, completely. And then you have to, you know, push it down the river. Isn’t that hard?

TV: It’s the hardest.

SH: Pushing send on my final copyedit to my publisher, I nearly threw up. My hands were shaking. I was like, I can’t let this go, I can’t let this go. But you have to let go. It’s the same thing on stage. You prepare, and then you just go out there, trust the work you’ve done. You have no idea what’s going to happen. All of a sudden, a fuse is lit, the train is going, and there’s no stopping. You have to just go. It’s really scary. And really risky. And really thrilling.

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited. Find information on Harris’s upcoming Tulsa appearances at SamHarris.com.