Tess Harper

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Tess Harper
Born Tessie Jean Washam
(1950-08-15) August 15, 1950 (age 66)
Mammoth Spring, Arkansas
Occupation Actress
Years active 1983–present
Spouse(s) Ken Harper (1971-1976)

Tess Harper (born August 15, 1950) is an American actress. She was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress for her first film role, opposite Robert Duvall in 1983's Tender Mercies, and for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the 1986 film Crimes of the Heart. Her other film appearances include Flashpoint (1984), Ishtar (1987), Far North (1988) and No Country for Old Men (2007).

Early life[edit]

Harper was born Tessie Jean Washam on August 15, 1950 in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, the daughter of Ed and Rosemary (Langston) Washam. She grew up around lots of quilts and quilt makers. On her own time, she liked to sit on the porch-swing and read. She graduated from high school in 1968. She attended Arkansas State University–Beebe (ASU–Beebe), where she performed in several plays, as well as Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) in Springfield, where she graduated with a degree in education.


Tess Harper began acting in theater production and appearances in theme parks, including Dogpatch, USA and Silver Dollar City, dinner theatres and children's theatre. She had given up hopes of an acting career and was working for a financial institution in Texas. The institution wanted to produce a TV spot and asked Tessie to be in the spot which she accepted. In a twist of fate, a casting person with Tender Mercies had to spend the night in Dallas and saw Tess's spot on TV. She called Duvall and arranged an audition. Director Bruce Beresford was impressed with Harper and cast her in the lead female role of Rosa Lee, the young widow and mother who marries country singer Mac Sledge. Beresford said the previous actress who auditioned for the role brought to it a sophistication and worldliness inappropriate for the part, whereas Harper brought a kind of rural quality without coming across as simple or foolish. Beresford said of Harper, "She walked into the room and even before she spoke, I thought, 'That's the girl to play the lead.'"[1] Harper did not realize this, and recalled shortly after the film's release, "After I did the final screen test, I went to see Breaker Morant and started sobbing uncontrollably halfway through it. A friend had to take me home, and I kept crying, 'You don't understand! They're not gonna let me do this part!'"[2]

Tender Mercies was Harper's feature film debut. Harper said she was so excited about the role that she bit her script just to make sure it was real, and she was so nervous that during her first take she feared the filmmakers would "come to their senses and say, 'We're sorry, we made a terrible mistake.'"[1] Actor Robert Duvall, who played the lead role of Mac Sledge, did his best to help Harper in her first film role. During one scene in which Mac Sledge and Rosa Lee were fighting, Duvall yelled at a make-up artist in front of Harper specifically to make her angry for the scene; Duvall apologized to the make-up artist after the scene was shot. After filming, Duvall said Harper did a very good job, and he felt her rural past in Arkansas helped her in the part.[1] She earned a Golden Globe Award nomination for the role. Duvall won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.

Harper appeared in the TV mini-series Chiefs (1983) and Celebrity (1984), as well as many television movies including Starflight: The Plane That Couldn't Land (1983) and Reckless Disregard (1985). In 1983, she appeared in the full-length feature Silkwood.

In 1986, Harper was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her work as Chick Boyle in Crimes of the Heart, which was directed by her Tender Mercies director Bruce Beresford. She later played parts in Ishtar (1987), Far North (1988), The Man in the Moon (1991), The Jackal (1997) and Loggerheads (2005). She also took part in Michael Jackson's Black Or White (1991) musical minifilm.

Harper had a regular role in a CBS television series, Christy, from 1994-95. Her roles have frequently been that of a Southern lady, although she had worked to lose her Arkansas accent. She also had a recurring role on another CBS television series, Early Edition, from 1996 to 2000. She portrayed the mother of lead character Gary Hobsen. Harper shared a Screen Actors Guild Award (in the Best Ensemble Cast category) with her fellow cast members in the Oscar-winning film No Country for Old Men, in which she played the wife of Tommy Lee Jones.

She had the recurring role of Mrs. Pinkman on Breaking Bad, appearing in the first three seasons.


Year Title Role Notes
1983 Kentucky Woman Lorna Whateley TV movie
1983 Starflight: The Plane That Couldn't Land Janet Briggs TV movie
1983 Tender Mercies Rosa Lee Nominee, Best Supporting Actress (Golden Globes)
1983 Chiefs Carrie Lee TV mini-series
1983 Amityville 3-D Nancy Baxter
1983 Silkwood Linda Dawson
1984 Celebrity Susan French TV mini-series
1984 Flashpoint Ellen 1984

A Summer to Remember

1985 Reckless Disregard Meredith Craig TV movie
1985 George Burns Comedy Week Episode: "The Smiths"
1985 Promises to Keep Gwen Palmer TV movie
1986 Twilight Zone, TheThe Twilight Zone Sarah Episode: "Quarantine"
1986 Crimes of the Heart Chick Boyle Nominee, Best Supporting Actress (Academy Awards)
1987 Murder, She Wrote Irene Rutledge Episode: "Simon Says, Color Me Dead"
1987 L.A. Law Patricia Pittman Episode: "Sparky Brackman: R.I.P. ????-1987"
1987 Daddy Ann Burnette TV movie
1987 Ishtar Willa
1988 Little Girl Lost Clara Brady TV movie
1988 Far North Rita
1988 Criminal Law Det. Stillwell
1989 Unconquered Mrs. Mary Flowers TV movie
1989 Her Alibi Sally Blackwood
1989 Incident at Dark River Betty McFall TV movie
1990 Thirtysomething Deborah Episode: "Post-Op"
1990 Daddy's Dyin': Who's Got the Will? Sara Lee Turnover
1991 Pretty Hattie's Baby
1991 My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys Cheryl
1991 Man in the Moon, TheThe Man in the Moon Abigail Trant
1991 Black or White Mother Video short
1992 In the Line of Duty: Siege at Marion Vickie Singer TV movie
1992 Turning, TheThe Turning Martha Harnish
1992 My New Gun Kimmy Hayes
1992 Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story Verna Heath TV movie
1993 Hidden Room, TheThe Hidden Room Dede Episode: "After the Crash"
1994–1995 Christy Fairlight Spencer 19 episodes
1995 Death in Small Doses Asst. D.A. Jerri Sims TV movie
1996 Road to Galveston, TheThe Road to Galveston Julia Archer TV movie
1996 Stranger to Love, AA Stranger to Love Linda Grant TV movie
1996 Dirty Laundry Beth Greene
1997 Killing Secret, TheThe Killing Secret Tina DeCapprio TV movie
1997 Grace Under Fire Joan Episode: "Matthew's Old Lady"
1997 Child's Wish, AA Child's Wish Joanna Chandler TV movie
1997 Gun Virginia Episode: "Ricochet"
1997 Walker, Texas Ranger Katie Malloy Episode: "Sons of Thunder"
1997 Jackal, TheThe Jackal The First Lady
1997 Cracker: Mind Over Murder Lea Ann Garner Episode: "An American Dream"
1998–2000 Early Edition Lois Hobson 7 episodes
2000 Morning Margaret
2000 Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder Narrator / Older Laura Ingalls Wilder TV movie
2000 In Crowd, TheThe In Crowd Dr. Amanda Giles
2000 Touched by an Angel Betsy Baxter Episode: "The Empty Chair"
2001 Rising Place, TheThe Rising Place Rebecca Hodge
2001 CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Julia Barrett Episode: "Bully for You"
2002 Beyond the Prairie 2: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder Older Laura Ingalls Wilder (voice) TV movie
2002 No Prom for Cindy Cindy's Mom Short film
2003 Division, TheThe Division Polly Danko Episode: "Oh Mother, Who Art Thou?"
2003 Studio City Linda Little Short film
2004 One Tree Hill May Scott Episode: "Crash Course in Polite Conversations"
2004 Lonely Place Short film
2004 Jack & Bobby Karen Carmichael Episode: "Pilot"
Episode: "An Innocent Man"
2004 Angel in the Family Mrs. Nelly Tomkins TV movie
2005 Loggerheads Elizabeth Austin
2005 Judging Amy Barbara Nissman Episode: "Sorry I Missed You"
2006 Karla Molly Czehowicz
2006 Jam Ruby
2006 Jesus, Mary and Joey Liz O'Callahan
2006 Broken Bridges Dixie Rose Delton
2006 Broken Clare
2007 Judy's Got a Gun Susan Lemen TV movie
2007 Without a Trace Mrs. Spade Episode: "At Rest"
2007 No Country for Old Men Loretta Bell
2007 Kiss the Bride Barbara
2007 Saving Sarah Cain Miriam Esh
2007 Brothers & Sisters Beth Ridge Episode: "History Repeating"
2008 Ghost Whisperer Ellen Wilkins Episode: "Stranglehold"
2008–2010 Breaking Bad Mrs. Pinkman Episode: "Cancer Man"
Episode: "Grilled"
Episode: "Down"
Episode: "Caballo sin Nombre"
2009 Fatal Secrets Naomi
2009 Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Mrs. Hallander Episode: "Stranger"
2009 Cold Case Sharon Lertola Episode: "November 22"
2009 Crash Wendy Olinville 10 episodes
2010 Buried Maryanne (voice)
2010 Grey's Anatomy Mrs. Nelson Episode: "Perfect Little Accident"
2010 In Plain Sight A.U.S.A. Rolly Episode: "Coma Chameleon"
2011 A Christmas Wish Trudy Willis
2012 Revenge Carole Miller 2 episodes
2013 Sunlight Jr. Kathleen
2013 Straight A's Mother
2014 True Detective Mrs. Kelly Episode: "Seeing Things"
2014 Frank Frank's Mother
2014 Hello, My Name Is Frank Aunt Flossie
2015 Criminal Minds Dinah Troy Episode: "Rock Creek Park"
2015 Surprise Linda Short film
2015 The Perfect Guy Mrs. McCarthy


  1. ^ a b c Bruce Beresford (actor), Robert Duvall (actor), Tess Harper (actor), Gary Hertz (director) (April 16, 2002). Miracles & Mercies (Documentary). West Hollywood, California: Blue Underground. Retrieved January 28, 2008. 
  2. ^ "Success, Stress and Tess Harper". Rolling Stone (397): 40. June 9, 1983. 

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