The truth about Woody Harrelson's hitman father

With his Texas twang and laid-back attitude, Woody Harrelson is a truly unique talent. The man has starred in everything from classic sitcoms like Cheers to gritty procedurals like True Detective. On top of that, he's earned three Oscar nominations for stunning performances in The People vs. Larry Flynt, The Messenger, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

But while the man has found success in Tinseltown, Harrelson didn't have a privileged upbringing. Along with his two siblings, Harrelson was raised by his mom, who worked as a secretary and did all the parenting alone. So where was Harrelson's father? Well ... probably shooting someone.

As it turns out, Woody's dad, Charles Harrelson, made a living by filling people full of lead. The man was a contract killer who hired himself out to drug lords and greedy businessmen. And in addition to murdering for money, Charles Harrelson has even become a mythical figure in the conspiracy theory world. From assassinations to supermax prison, here's the untold truth of Woody Harrelson's hitman father.

The early life of Charles Harrelson

Born in 1938, Charles Harrelson was a man who couldn't stop moving. He grew up in Texas and joined the navy, and after getting his fill of the deep blue sea he made his way to Los Angeles where he started selling encyclopedias. It was around this time he married Woody's mom, Diane, but Harrelson wasn't what you'd call a great husband.

Shortly after moving to La La Land, Harrelson found himself behind bars thanks to a little bit of armed robbery. And while he was in prison, he spent his time working as a snitch. Sure, that didn't make him Mr. Popular, but it helped him get out of jail early. Of course, once he was back in the world, it wouldn't be long before he was picking off people for a paycheck.

Before he started killing, though, he tried his hand at selling dental equipment, and somewhere along the way, he divorced Diane. She got the kids — which was definitely for the best — and her deadbeat husband remarried in 1965 (his second of four wives). Tired of the California scene, Harrelson and his new bride made their way back to the Lone Star State, where he decided to make a dishonest living as a full-time gambler. In short, Harrelson was a man with crime on his mind. He wanted to make cash as fast as he could, and he didn't care how he got it.

The killing of Alan Berg

One day, Charles Harrelson decided it was a good idea to start killing people for money. He even got himself some business cards that read "Have gun will travel" and "Hitman." After beginning his life as a contract killer, it's rumored that Harrelson murdered at least 20 people. And one of his possible victims was Alan Berg, a carpet salesman from Houston, Texas.

In 1968, the 31-year-old Berg got a phone call from a woman promising him a good time if he would swing by a local bar. So Berg drove over right away, and the salesman was never seen again (alive, anyway). When Berg's family started to worry, the police brushed them off, claiming he'd probably just run away. After all, Berg had some serious gambling debts. But Berg's dad wasn't convinced, so he offered a $10,000 reward for info and hired himself a private eye. Eventually, Berg's remains were found near the city of Freeport, but who disposed of Berg's body?

Well, a witness named Sandra Sue Attaway came forward, and she just so happened to be Charles Harrelson's ex-girlfriend. According to Attaway, she'd seen Harrelson pull the trigger. After luring Berg to that bar, the hitman had driven him out to the middle of nowhere, shot him in the head, and when that didn't work, he finished the job via strangulation. So who allegedly hired Harrelson and why? Well, it seems a former employee-turned-rival businessman wanted to take Berg out, and he hired Harrelson to do the deed for a measly $1,500.

The private eye connection

The Alan Berg story is basically one big soap opera, full of twists, turns, and crazy cliffhangers. And one of the wildest moments involves that aforementioned private eye hired by Alan Berg's dad. As it turns out, this detective was named Claude Harrelson, and yeah, he was totally related to a certain Oscar-nominated actor and his hitman father.

See, Charles Harrelson had quite a few of brothers, one of whom became an FBI agent, one a prison warden, one a polygraph operator, and then there was Claude, who went the private eye route. And in a crazy coincidence, Berg's dad just happened to hire the brother of the man who allegedly killed his son. And according to the victim's brother, attorney David Berg, Claude and Charles were actually running a racket, hoping to earn $3,000 for revealing the location of Alan's body. Yeah, that's quite a plot twist right there, but it was far from the last shocking moment in the Alan Berg saga.

Harrelson hired the best lawyer in the Lone Star State

So if you're a hitman staring down the barrel of a murder charge, you want the very best lawyer that money can buy. And fortunately for Charles Harrelson, he managed to hire one of the most impressive (and infamous) lawyers in the Lone Star State.

The man was named Percy Foreman, a 6'5" lawyer with a flair for theatrics and courtroom hysterics. Before he eventually retired, Foreman had defended over 1,000 accused killers, and only one was ever executed. The dude even represented James Earl Ray, the guy who shot Martin Luther King Jr., and helped him get away with a life sentence instead of the death penalty.

And yeah, Foreman worked his defense attorney magic for Harrelson. Not only did he bring in witnesses who could vouch for Harrelson's whereabouts, he also managed to annihilate the state's eyewitness, Sandra Sue Attaway. Since Attaway and Harrelson had a common law marriage, she couldn't testify against her husband, and Foreman had her testimony thrown out. Thanks to his notorious attorney, Harrelson walked free, and unfortunately, he would bury a couple more bodies before the law could bring him down.

Harrelson got busted for killing a grain dealer

As a hitman, Charles Harrelson hung out with a pretty rough crowd, and one of his unsavory associates was Pete Scamardo. This not-so-upstanding citizen had acquired some heroin and wanted Harrelson to sell it for him. But when the cops pulled Harrelson over one day, the hitman was forced to ditch the drugs. Now, he owed Scamardo a favor.

So Scamardo asked his buddy to kill a guy named Sam Degelia Jr. Scamardo and Degelia were business partners who ran a grain business, and if Degelia happened to die prematurely, the company would collect a $100,000 life insurance policy, and about half of that might just mysteriously "disappear." In exchange, Scamardo would pay Harrelson $2,000 for his troubles.

Armed with a .25-caliber pistol (the same kind of gun used to kill Alan Berg), Harrelson dragged Degelia into an irrigation pump-house, forced the man to his knees, and then shot him point-blank. When the hitman was brought to court, Percy Foreman was on his side once again, and the lawyer brought in a nightclub singer who claimed she was with Harrelson on the night of the murder. Her testimony led to a hung jury, but when it came time for round two, the witness decided to disappears after she was threatened with arrest for perjury.

This time around, Harrelson was found guilty, but Foreman still managed to pull off a miracle by getting his client off with just 15 years. And after a bit of good behavior, Harrelson was walking the streets just five years later.

Woody Harrelson's dad murdered a federal judge

Charles Harrelson would probably just be a true crime footnote if he hadn't killed a federal judge, but Harrelson made U.S. history in 1979 when he gunned down John H. Wood Jr. outside his San Antonio home. The story all started when an El Paso drug dealer named Jamiel "Jimmy" Chagra was tossed into the clink. The man made his living smuggling marijuana and cocaine across the border, but when he was finally arrested, he found himself up against John Wood, the last guy Chagra wanted to meet in a courtroom. The judge's nickname was "Maximum John" because he always handed out super harsh punishments to drug dealers, so Chagra decided it was time for Wood to retire ... permanently.

The drug lord hired Charles Harrelson for the impressive sum of $250,000, and the hit went down in May 1979. Wood was getting ready to leave for work, when Harrelson shot him in the back with a rifle. The judge died on the way to the hospital, and the killing absolutely shook the nation. It was the first time a federal judge had been assassinated in the United States, and President Jimmy Carter condemned the killing as "an assault on our very system of justice." Soon, there was a $200,000 reward, and Harrelson wouldn't last long with every law enforcement agent in the country on his trail.

Charles Harrelson's dramatic, drug-addled capture

After murdering a federal judge, things started falling apart for Charles Harrelson. While on the run, the hitman was using copious amounts of cocaine, and he was soon having all sorts of crazy hallucinations. There were DEA agents lurking in the trees and helicopters everywhere he looked, and his drug-addled behavior is what eventually brought him down. While driving down a Texas interstate in his girlfriend's Corvette, the car's muffler started giving him trouble. And as Harrelson wasn't exactly a mechanic, he decided to "fix" the muffler by blasting it with a .44 magnum.

High on cocaine, Harrelson shot out his tire instead. All that gunfire on the side of the road attracted quite a bit of attention, and soon the cops were on the scene. Harrelson found himself in a standoff with the police for six long hours, threatening suicide the entire time. And as the officers trained their guns in his direction, Harrelson admitted to killing the judge (as well as John F. Kennedy). At one point, he even tossed a note out of his car that read, "Since death is certain, I should only be credited with speeding up a natural process. My marker should read, 'He did his best for Z.P.G. zero population growth.'"

Eventually, the cops brought in a businesswoman named Virginia Farah, who was Harrelson's friend and had once hired him as a bodyguard. She was able to talk the hitman out of the car, and Charles Harrelson eventually found himself behind bars once again. Only this time, there would be no mercy for the contract killer.

How Woody Harrelson's dad was brought down by a prison snitch

Even though Charles Harrelson confessed to killing Judge Wood in his stand-off with police, the man had been under the influence of coke. Plus, he'd also said that he'd killed JFK. In other words, prosecutors would need more evidence to bring him down, so they were only too happy when Johnny Ray Spinelli offered to lend a helping hand. Spinelli was a crook known as the "Fotomat Bandit," and he'd gotten his name — as you might assume — by robbing Fotomats (drive-thru photo-developing kiosks). He also raped six women, escaped from jail, stole a cop car, and kidnapped a 4-year-old.

In other words, Spinelli was a bad dude. But for a brief period of time, he shared a cell block with Charles Harrelson. So when he said he would work as a snitch, the FBI handed him a tape recorder. As the two struck up conversations and played chess through the bars of their cells, Spinelli taped Harrelson for nearly 60 days, and he would later testify against Harrelson during the trial. Partly thanks to the Fotomat Bandit, Harrelson was sentenced to two life terms. Strangely enough, drug dealer Jimmy Chagra was found not guilty of the assassination attempt, although he eventually confessed to his part in killing Wood (plus, an attempt to murder a federal prosecutor).

Charles Harrelson winds up in supermax

Charles Harrelson wasn't the kind of man who was just going to accept life behind bars. So when he was sent to the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, he started cooking up plans to make his great escape. In 1995, along with two other prisoners, Harrelson made his own rope, tossed it over a wall, and tried making a break for it. But when a guard saw the trio sneaking off, he fired a warning shot, and Harrelson quickly threw up his hands. Of course, if he was unhappy with his situation before, it was about to get a whole lot worse.

After his failed breakout, Harrelson was shipped to ADX Florence, a supermax prison in Colorado that's housed notorious criminals like the Unabomber and 9/11 planner Zacarias Moussaoui. The hitman was kept in a 10-by-15 foot cell with just one window. He was isolated for 23 hours a day, and during his one golden hour he was allowed to exercise outside in a pen. But Harrelson eventually settled into a groove, telling a friend, "Being able to take a shower anytime, stay awake all night if I wish ... read or write or watch whatever TV channel (some 70 channels are available) or listen to the 10 or so radio stations ... offers something akin to independence."

Still, there was no escaping supermax, and in 2007, Charles Harrelson died behind bars at the age of 69, shuffling off this mortal coil after a heart attack.

How Woody Harrelson discovered his dad was a killer

It was 1981, Woody Harrelson was just 7 years old, and the little kid was just sitting in a car, listening to the radio. That's when a news report started talking about one "Charles Harrelson," a hitman on trial for murder. It was right then and there that Woody first heard his father was a contract killer. Until that point, the young Harrelson didn't really know much about his dad. His father had recently left the family, and even before that, he'd spent most of his time in prison. As People reported in 1988, Harrelson once said of his dad, "I don't feel he was much of a father. He took no valid part in my upbringing."

Still, for decades, Woody considered his father's conviction a "travesty," claiming the judge who locked his dad had up had been a pallbearer at John Wood's funeral. During the '80s and '90s, the actor spent millions trying to get his father a new trial, although in 2012, an older Woody admitted his father wasn't exactly a saint. "I don't know he did deserve a new trial," Harrelson confessed, before explaining that he was "just being a son trying to help his dad."

In addition to the legal proceedings and all that misspent cash, Woody visited his father in prison once a year until his dad's death, and while their relationship was definitely weird, Woody said he and his dad were friends "who got along pretty good."

Charles Harrelson, the CIA, and John F. Kennedy

In 1997, Woody Harrelson told interviewer Barbara Walters that he firmly believed his father had been trained by the CIA. While that might seem like a ridiculous claim, Woody is far from being the only one with wild conspiracy theories about his old man. After all, Charles Harrelson himself claimed he'd killed JFK, although he was stoned out of his mind at the time. But that hasn't stopped people from believing his tall tales.

One of the most interesting pieces of JFK lore involves the photo of the "Three Tramps," a trio of hobos who were arrested in the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination. For years, some claimed Harrelson was one of the tramps — the tallest one — and that he'd been up on the infamous grassy knoll with alleged CIA agent Charles Rogers. And when Kennedy rolled on by, Harrelson and Rogers sent those fateful bullets flying.

However, in 1989, the Dallas police department cleared everything up by revealing the identities of the tramps, none of whom were Harrelson and none of whom were involved in the assassination. And just a year before, the hitman had walked back his coke-induced claims, saying that he'd been having lunch in Houston when Kennedy dropped dead in Dallas.

The murderous roles of Woody Harrelson

In 2012, while promoting the movie Rampart, Woody Harrelson sat down for an interview with the Guardian. During the chat, the topic of his dear dad came up, and Harrelson revealed the two actually shared a birthday. "They have a thing in Japan," he elaborated, "where they say if you're born on your father's birthday, you're not like your father, you are your father, 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."

And looking at Harrelson's filmography, it's tempting to think that he's somehow channeling his murderous father into his characters. In 1994, he stirred up controversy with his performance as the psychopathic spree killer Mickey Knox in Natural Born Killers. Creepier still, in 2007, Harrelson would play Texas hitman Carson Wells in No Country for Old Men (a role that greatly disturbed Alan Berg's brother, David). The actor has also played killers in movies like the aforementioned Rampart, as well as criminals in films like Out of the Furnace and Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Even Tallahassee from Zombieland is a bit kill-crazy, even if he's just picking off the undead. And while we don't know that Woody Harrelson is intentionally tapping into his personal history for these parts, it's easy to see how an actor could use decades of deep-seated trauma and stories of assassinations to bring bad guys to life on the big screen.