true crime

Actor Woody Harrelson was 11 or 12 when he learnt his father was a murderer.

Actor Woody Harrelson, 58, shares his birthday with his father. He grew up in Texas and credits the majority of his morality to his mum, Diane.

“I do feel she was a great influence on me and instilled a lot of good values about the way you treat people, behaving honourably (which I don’t always do). But she was a great role model for that and still is,” he told The Guardian in 2018.

As for his father, Charles Voyde Harrelson, who died in 2007 aged 68, Woody learnt from him to keep an open mind. Charles left Diane when Woody was seven years old but “he was gone long before that”.

Even so, the pair – father and son – were friends by the time Charles died and it doesn’t scare Woody how similar they were as people.

“They have a thing in Japan where they say if you’re born on your father’s birthday, you’re not like your father, you are your father,” he told The Guardian in a 2012 interview. “And it’s so weird when I would sit and talk with him, it was just mind-blowing to see all the things he did just like me. Idiosyncratic things. The way he laughed. The face, very similar.”

Why might he be scared of being like his father?

Because Charles Voyde Harrelson was a contract killer.

In 1968, Woody’s father was paid $2000 for the murder of Sam Degalia Jr, a grain dealer and father-of-four in McAllen Texas. In 1973, after an initial mistrial, Charles was sentenced to 15 years prison, though he was released after five years for good behaviour.


BONUS: The year that was true crime. Post continues below.

Then, on May 29 1979, the year after he was paroled, Charles shot dead U.S. District Judge John H. Wood Jr in the parking lot outside the judge’s townhouse in San Antonio Texas. Again, Charles had been paid for the killing, this time by a drug dealer who was scheduled to appear in front of the Justice who was notorious for handing down heavy drug sentences.

It was the first murder of an American judge in the 20th century and attracted huge media attention. So, too, did the arrest.

Charles was arrested in September 1980 after a six-hour standoff with police. He finally surrendered, saying he had killed the judge and also President John F. Kennedy – who’d been assassinated in 1963. He said later this admission was false, that he said it to prevent the police from shooting, The Press Courier reports.

Woody spoke to The Guardian of the first time he discovered his dad was a killer.

“I was 11 or 12 when I heard his name mentioned on a car radio. I was in the car waiting for a lady who was picking me up from school, helping my mum,” he said.

“And anyway I was listening to the radio and it was talking about Charles V Harrelson and his trial for murder and I’m sitting there thinking there can’t be another Charles V Harrelson. I mean, that’s my dad! It was a wild realisation. Then the woman got in the car and saw my face and realised something was up. She was a very kind lady.”


Diane, Woody says, knew about the killings but also tried to protect the boys’ relationship with their father (Woody has two brothers) .

“You know, I’ve got to give her credit because she never really soured us on him, she didn’t talk negative about him, never, ever. And she could have – he wasn’t the greatest husband. Or father.”

Charles Harrelson after his arrest. Houston Police Department photographic records.

In 1981, Charles V was handed down two life sentences for the assassination of the judge. For a time, Woody, then aged 20, tried to help his father in the appellate process. He spent millions of dollars on lawyer fees not necessarily because he thought Charles V was innocent, but just as a son trying to help his dad.

Now, the story of Woody Harrelson's father is the subject of a new true crime podcast, Son of a Hitman. The podcast follows the investigation of journalist Jason Cavanaugh into Charles V's life, and features interviews with two of his sons - Brett and Jordan. It does not appear that Woody is involved with the series.

For the rest of his father's life, Woody visited him in prison. They got on well, Woody told The Guardian: "Yeah, we got along pretty good. When you can’t hang out and go to a pub, you know what I mean, it’s hard."

And Woody went on to achieve immense success as an actor, first in the sitcom Cheers, and then on the big screen.

Recently, he starred in hit series True Detective with Matthew McConaughey. He had his directing debut with Lost in London that premiered in January 2017; and starred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which was nominated for an Oscar in 2018. Also in 2018, he starred in Solo: A Star Wars Story as Han Solo's mentor.