Tess Harper (1950–)

aka: Tessie Jean Washam

A Golden Globe and Academy Award nominee, Tess Harper has become a consummate actress known for portraying Southern women of grace and dignity. She is best known for roles in Tender Mercies and Silkwood.

Tess Harper was born Tessie Jean Washam on August 15, 1950, in Mammoth Spring (Fulton County). 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.

She married Ken Harper in 1971; the couple divorced in 1976.

In the late 1960s, Harper began acting in theater productions and made appearances in theme parks, dinner theater, children’s theater, and commercials. Her first feature film was Tender Mercies (1983), in which she played Rosa Lee, the young wife of the character played by Robert Duvall. She earned a Golden Globe nomination for her part, and the success of the film brought her much attention. In an interview with Julie Bloodworth for OzarksWatch, Harper said thather character Rosa Lee “is the best-written example of Christian grace I have seen—a non-judgmental, accepting human being who has values that she believes in and lives by, but who doesn’t ring a bell above her head saying, ‘Look at me being wonderful.’”

Harper also appeared in the TV mini-series Chiefs (1983) and Celebrity (1984), as well as in many made-for-TV movies including Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land (1983) and Reckless Disregard (1985), which was her first starring role.

In 1983, she appeared in the critically acclaimed movie Silkwood. Four years later, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Chick Boyle in Crimes of the Heart (1986). She also acted in such films as Ishtar (1987), Far North (1988), The Man in the Moon (1991), The Jackal (1997), and Loggerheads (2005).

Harper had a regular role in the CBS TV series Christy from 1994 to 1995. More recently, she has had one-time appearances on Touched by an Angel, One Tree Hill, True Detective, Criminal Minds, and other series, as well as repeating appearances in Breaking Bad and Crash. In 2008, she was inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame.

In 2008, Harper received a Screen Actors Guild Award in the Outstanding Performance by a Cast category, along with her fellow cast members, for the Academy Award–winning film No Country for Old Men (2007), in which she played the wife of Tommy Lee Jones’s character.

Her roles have frequently been those of southern women, although she has worked to lose her Arkansas accent. She has said that her experiences growing up in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas influence her work as an actress.

For additional information:
Bloodworth, Julie. “An Ozarks Woman in the Movies: An Interview With Tess Harper.” OzarksWatch 4 (Fall 1990). https://thelibrary.org/lochist/periodicals/ozarkswatch/ow402e.htm (accessed August 19, 2023).

“Tess Harper.” Internet Movie Database. http://imdb.com/name/nm0002128/ (accessed August 19, 2023).

C. L. Bledsoe
Ghoti magazine


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