Harry Connick Jr. Brings a Whole Lot of Heart, Humor, and Hard Work to His New Home on Daytime TV
Updated: Jun 6, 2020
Laissez les bons temps rouler!
It’s Mardi Gras on the set of Harry Connick Jr.’s talk show, HARRY, today and the studio audience —who are proudly donning the feathered masquerade masks and colorful beaded necklaces provided— is ready to party. I can’t think of a better day to visit the New Orleans native’s show than when he’s filming his Fat Tuesday episode –can you? (Big thank you to Jessica, from HARRY, for making this all happen.) The purple-lit set is trimmed in Mardi Gras décor and its customary hues: purple, gold, and green, which represent justice, power, and faith, respectively. And there’s a whimsical two-storied, iron-balconied building façade behind the big band’s remarkable setup channeling the French Quarter.
Then, the big band begins to play and out strolls Harry with the suave, affable confidence of a seasoned entertainer and we’re all smiling and dancing and clapping. It’s a party and we’re here to back it up. (“Back It Up” is the name of his new song, and is the dance Harry does.) Today’s guests are Girls’ Allison Williams, Tiny House Nation’s John Weisbarth and Zack Giffin, and Chef John Besh. Over the course of the 1-hour-long show, Harry smoothly transitions from host to singer to interviewer to piano player. He sings his song “Take Her to the Mardi Gras”; tosses the audience a couple of Crawfish Beignets during the cooking segment; climbs into an aerial hoop for the first time and backs it up in there; and ends the show with a marching band procession, in which he’s plays the bass drum. As a nice little New-Orleans-touch, HARRY sends the studio audience home with a beignet from Café du Monde and John Besh’s cookbook, Besh Big Easy:101 Home Cooked New Orleans Recipes. (The foodie in me is elated!)
As soon as the show ends, Harry and I retreat to his dressing room. Outfitted in all-black athleisure wear for his aerial-hooping (a wardrobe change from the grey suit jacket and cobalt blue button-up he opened the show in), the award- winning entertainer seems a little less intimidating dressed casually.
At least that’s what I tell myself as I awkwardly try to mirror the way he is sitting so we’re facing one another on the couch. (I’m in a dress and can’t bend my leg toward the back of the couch as easily.) I noticed that when I told family and friends that I’d be interviewing Harry, they each recognized him for something different: my father thinks of him as the renowned crooner; one of my girlfriends loves him for his Christmas music; another friend associates him with her favorite film, P.S. I Love You; and I know him best as Leo, Grace’s husband on Will & Grace. Regardless of what arena you know his work best, whether it be theater, film, TV or music, when you hear the name Harry Connick Jr., you immediately think of two words: extraordinarily talented.
Now, as a man with his own show, airing five days a week, he has a platform that showcases and utilizes his grand scope of talent. He jams with fellow stars, playfully competes with guests, tries new things (his Harry Tries segment), highlights inspiring women (his Leading Ladies segment), samples exotic fare, backs it up... Here, viewers get to know the man behind the Blockbuster films and Billboard hits —they get to see Harry’s compassionate-silly-self- deprecating side. And who knew he had the greatest sense of humor? He is a jokester, who is constantly making faces and doing silly voices. And because of all this, we’re falling even more in love with him.
Only seven months in, and the show has already been renewed for a second season and brought Harry his first Daytime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Talk Show Host. HARRY picked up four Emmy nominations, too. So, how did the multi-hyphenate end up at the helm of a daytime talk show?
“I wasn’t really interested in doing a talk show per se, but I wanted to do a show that combines all of the things I like –talking to people is one of those things. But I just felt like this might be a fun time to have my band play music [this is the same band he’s been touring with for years], perform, and have people on the show that are inspiring people. As an entertainer, I think that’s one of the things that I’m so lucky to try to do, is to try to help people. Try to brighten their day a little bit. So, it was a lot of reasons that sort of led me to it,” says Harry, who drives in from his home in Connecticut to film the nationally syndicated, Manhattan-based talk show.
HARRY has been going strong since its premiere last September, which was kicked off with Harry’s Hope Floats costar Sandra Bullock. I tell Harry I’m a fan of Sandra’s and he assures me that she’s exactly what I’d hope. “She’s great. Very smart. Super down-to-earth. I mean, if you consider who she is and what that lifestyle is, meaning, y’know, in the public eye, one of the biggest movie stars in the world. I mean, she’s an everyday girl. She’s like you. She’s a normal, nice — it’s just a nice thing to see ’cause I think you would like that people you admire to be like that, and that’s what she’s like.” Even though he considers them “really good friends,” he seemed a little surprised, yet entirely gracious, that she made the effort to appear on his show. (Sandra is the only guest Harry has personally called up to invite onto the show. He prefers to leave the guest lineup to the show’s bookers since it’s a slippery slope.) “It’s a big commitment for somebody like her to say, ‘Yes, I will come to New York’ ’cause for her to move around is complicated — there’s a lot of people involved, so, I’ll never forget that.”
What stands out to me most in this musing is Harry’s unassuming modesty. I concur that Sandra is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but he is Harry Connick Jr. –an intimidatingly-accomplished man with three Grammys, two Grammys, two Tony nominations, over 28-million albums sold, and multiple Billboard chart-topping hits – of course she’ll appear on his show. With Harry, there is no trace of entitlement, he is the salt of the earth or what many of us deem “good people” –which, in my book, is the highest compliment one can receive. And I noticed that my sentiment is echoed by many who are close to him. “Good people, I think, raise good children,” Sandra remarked during her reunion with Harry’s daughter Georgia, while on his show. When Whoopi Goldberg was on HARRY, she gave this as the reason why she agreed to sing on his Christmas special years ago: “You’re one of the great people in the world, and I love you.” And if that isn’t testament enough, Google his family’s surprise appearance on HARRY, where daughters Kate and Georgia proudly call their dad their best friend. “He does everything for everyone else, he doesn’t care about anything done for himself,” said Georgia.
Harry’s wife, Jill, and daughters, Georgia, Charlotte, and Kate, have appeared on HARRY a few times now– though there’s no pressure on them to do so, he tells me. “Any chance I have to be with them, I love to be with them, but I didn’t want it to be a formal, ‘I need you to do this, this, and this.’” They’ll come on for various segments, like when Cameron Dallas was a guest, he invited his two daughters on, who are big fans, to ask him some questions. “My wife Jill loves to cook and she’s a private person, but I said, ‘Jill, what would be the chances of you coming on and doing that recipe? She said, ‘Yeah, that would alright.’ So, it wasn’t something that we contracted them to do, but when the situations come up, it’s a lot of fun for all of us,” he says with a big smile.
While researching Harry for this interview, I discovered that his wife is Jill Goodacre. As a huge Friends fan, her name immediately stood out, since she’s the former Victoria’s Secret model Chandler Bing was trapped with during the blackout. Excitedly, I tell Harry how I know her: Chandler repeats Jill’s full name a few times as he tries to discreetly brag to the other friends over the phone that he is trapped with her. “That’s right! ‘I’m trapped in an ATM vestibule...’” Harry impersonates Chandler’s muffled voice. “With Jill Goodacre!” I finish.
Harry and Jill have been together for decades. I tell him I had read that he attributed their longevity to being best friends. “I think that’s No. 1. We love being with each other. We make each other laugh. We’re interested in each other’s lives.” Other keystones of their successful marriage include mutual respect and mutual interests.
I love hearing about couples who have been together as long as you two have, especially since you don’t see that too often, I tell him. “It’s a really cool feeling.” He smiles. “Like, I used to wonder what it would be like to be with her when she was older. She’s not old, but, y’know, 27 years is a long time. In fact, it’s 27 years tomorrow. And now, I know what it’s like. We really love that. Not everybody is as lucky, quite frankly. People die and people fall out of love, and many things happen to contribute to those unfortunate circumstances. But so far, so good with Jill.” His mouth turns up into a big, genuine grin.
The “pretty romantic” entertainer kept his surprise anniversary plans under wraps, though he assures me he’d have told me if it wasn’t the day before. He did reveal that he likes to impress Jill and writes her a song every couple of years to do so. Recently, he serenaded her on HARRY with “One Fine Thing,” a song he wrote her from his 2013 album, Every Man Should Know. “Jill kinda plays things close to the vest. Even though I know her so well, she’s still mysterious to me. I love doing things for her.” As Harry talks about his wife, his face lights up. He’s very open and indulges every inquiry. I am so engulfed in their love story that I forget my next question, and am a little upset with myself for allowing that. “Oh no, that’s alright,” Harry patiently reassures me.
In real life, Harry is an adoring husband, but in TV land, Harry, I mean Dr. Leo, is a cheater –and this did not sit well with Will & Grace fans. The recognition that came with doing the Emmy award-winning TV show is what has surprised Harry the most in his career. “When I did Will & Grace [2002-2006], I knew the show was a hit. Like, if you’re in a movie or if you’re on a concert stage, there’s a distance, right? People recognize you, but they don’t necessarily come up to you... Like, if you see Tom Cruise walking down the street, most people will probably look at him from afar. But if you see Debra Messing [who played Grace] walking down the street, she’s in your living room.” Essentially, TV made Harry more approachable and people began to go up to him, but what he didn’t expect was their reaction to him. They were angered. How could you could break Grace’s heart and cheat on her? “I was like. ‘Oh, yeah. You know that’s fiction, right? But people, they buy into it.”
SPOTLIGHTING LEADING LADIES
As Harry was brainstorming ideas for his talk show, he came up with a segment called, Leading Ladies. Having been surrounded by amazing, powerful women all his life (“My mom, who was a judge; my sister who has been in the army for over thirty years, she’s a psychiatrist; my incredible wife, who is my best friend; my three daughters; my manager who is a Harvard Law graduate from Jamaica”), he wanted to create a platform that showcased inspiring women —from celebrities to your next-door neighbor— and how they’re making a difference in their community. “I’m very impressed with people who have done incredible things and I just wanted to have a venue to sort of show that stuff off.”
When Debra was a guest on HARRY, she helped him set the record straight with a comical PSA. “He’s not really Dr. Leo Markus. He’s Harry freakin’ Connick freakin’ Jr. Please America, it’s time to let this go,” she quipped. Harry understands it though and recollects how when he met Lee Majors, from The Six Million Dollar Man —his favorite TV show as a kid, he didn’t know what to say since, “he had superpowers and I kinda believed. Y’know? People love to fanaticize and wonder what it’s like to be in these other realities, so I get it. So, people thought I was really cheating on Grace. That’s my friend, Debra.” He laughs.
The other big surprise in his career came with the release of the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack –his album featuring soulful, jazz-spiked renditions of “It Had to Be You,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” The album went double-platinum and garnered him his first Grammy for Best Jazz Male Vocal Performance. “Prior to that I had done a couple of albums and they did OK. They sold 10,000 records, which was, for me, unbelievable. But then that came out and sold millions of records. And I just couldn’t get over that. That was when people started recognizing me, not only in the United States but all over the world. They would come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you’re that guy’ or ‘You’re Harry’ and I was like, Wow, that’s incredible. So, that was pretty surprising.” Four years earlier, Harry had just moved to New York at the age of 18 and was playing in clubs, trying to make a name for himself as a singer and piano player. Then, Rob Reiner asked him to do the soundtrack and his career took off. “Back then they didn’t have YouTube. They didn’t have 85 different ways to get your product out there. So, it was a very powerful way to become famous —so that was a trip.” He smiles.
If Harry is sure about anything, it’s that he was meant to be a musician. At a very young age, Harry took an immediate liking to the piano. “I have memories of being 4 or 5 years old kinda plunking out notes on the piano. And I remember being fascinated with that. It was really cool that you could press these little things down and you could hear notes come out, a sound. And that’s just all that I wanted to do... I didn’t understand algebra, calculus, and psychics. My brain can’t compute. But music —not only the sound of it, but the way it works, the way it’s written, the way it looks— was something that I’ve always just had a natural inclination toward. I see everything through that lens. I mean, the way I play music and all of the decisions that I make as an actor, everything comes —it’s all the same brain.”
You don’t get to this height of fame and success without a whole lot of heart, talent, and hard work. When I ask Harry what he thinks fans would be surprised to find out about him, he replies, “Maybe the amount of work that I put in to try to achieve what they see or hear. Like, you ever go to a symphony concert and you see all the violinists playing? Well, somebody has to write all those notes out. That’s what I do. I’ll write the words and the music...the notes for the orchestra to play and it takes a lot of time.” All the music performed on HARRY is written, arranged, and orchestrated by the venerable musician. Since I’m not well-versed in the difference between an arranger and orchestrator, Harry explains it to me using a hip-hop version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” –making the sound of each instrument as he goes. “The orchestrator is the person who actually writes out the notes on the paper. The arranger is the person who comes up with how it’s going to sound. The orchestrator is the person who puts that into motion.
Kinda like an architect designs the house, the builder builds the house. So, I’m the architect and the builder and I live in the house,” he says with a smile.
How would those close to you describe you? “Probably as a hard worker. I work really, really a perfectionist but I’m not looking for perfection. But the path to trying to achieve that, is really important to me... It’s a great responsibility for me to go out in front of people and entertain them. I mean, that’s asking a lot of people to come in and watch my show here...so I want to make sure that they get the absolute best of whatever it is I’m trying to give them.” Is that how you see yourself? “I also think of myself as somebody who has a lot to learn and somebody who approaches everybody with respect: You. Somebody I meet in the elevator. My wife. Listen, man, life is too short to feel like you could go it alone. You can’t. There’s always something to learn from somebody and we all have something to offer. We’re all gifted. We’re all contributors and I enjoy that. I enjoy talking to you. You’re a professional. You’re a great conversationalist. You’re prepared. I enjoy that. I enjoy not trying to rush through things, but just sort of experiencing things as they come. I think of myself as somebody who is lucky to have my family and lucky to be alive and enjoying my life.”
WE WANT MORE!
Who has inspired your music?
“Lots of people. Growing up in New Orleans, there were local musicians that you probably never heard of. Some you have, like Louis Armstrong and Professor Longhair and Neville Brothers, a lot of people from New Orleans that I love. And then there’s everybody else, like Freddie Mercury or Frank Sinatra or Judy Garland or Steve Perry in Journey. It’s countless, man.”
Is there anyone you’ve met where you were like, Wow, I admire your work so much!
“Oh sure! You know the band Queen? They did ‘We Are the Champions.’ The guitar player with Queen, his name is Brian May, he’s a legendary guitar player. When I met him, I was star stuck. Or Jimmy Page, who plays guitar with Led Zeppelin or when I met Frank Sinatra. These are people that changed the course of music. That’s incredible. Their contribution, actually, had they not been around, music would be in a different place. So, when you meet people like Frank Sinatra, it’s pretty intense.”
I read about how you met Sinatra. Tell me about that story.
“In a nutshell, he knew who I was, but it wasn’t like we were friends. So, he got into an elevator with his wife and I got on with Jill,’cause I saw them going on the elevator and I wanted to go talk to him. The elevator was going up and I said, ‘Hey Mr. Sinatra, I’m a big fan.’ Whatever I said, I can’t remember what I said. The elevator doors open on his floor, he’s about to get off and he didn’t say anything to me, but he looked at Jill, kinda held her face in his hands, said she was beautiful and kissed her right on the mouth and walked out. I’m like, OK.” We both laugh.
He didn’t say anything to you?
“Not a word. His wife did. She said, ‘Frank, this is Harry. He’s a singer.’ He didn’t care. He saw Jill. I don’t blame him. I would’ve done the same thing.”
What is something material you can’t live without?
“I love gadgets. I love my phone. I love my computer. I like playing games on my phone. And it’s also part of my work. On my computer, I’m able to write, watch things, listen to things. I’m a gadget freak. I like any kind of electronics –whatever’s the latest and greatest thing.”
Words and interview by Vanessa Pascale. Images by NBC Universal/Heidi Gutman
Be sure to tune into HARRY, check your local listings for specific times and channels, and keep up with Harry on Instagram and Twitter @HarryConnickJr, www.facebook. com/harryconnickjr, and www.harryconnickjr.com.