'Son of a Hitman': Woody Harrelson's father was a paid assassin who claimed he killed John F Kennedy

The story of Charles Harrelson will be the subject of a new crime podcast on Spotify


                            'Son of a Hitman': Woody Harrelson's father was a paid assassin who claimed he killed John F Kennedy
Charles and Woody Harrelson (Getty Images)

Around the same time that Woody Harrelson was becoming a household name in the country because of his role as Woody Boyd on NBC sitcom 'Cheers,' his dad learned that he would be spending the rest of his life in prison.

It wasn't an unjustified sentence, as much as Woody wanted to claim that it was. His father, Charles Harrelson was a notorious murderer-for-hire who was perenially in trouble with the law and would eventually spend his last days behind bars.

Charles had left Woody, his mom, and his two brothers in 1968, and soon after, had been tried for the murder of Alan Berg, a carpet salesman, as well as the murder-for-hire-killing of Sam Degelia Jr, a resident of Hearne, Texas.

While he was acquitted in the former, he was found guilty in the murder of Degelia Jr and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released in 1978 after serving just five years because of good behavior, but could not keep himself out of trouble for long. Shortly after his release, he hit national headlines after he was implicated in the murder of US District Judge John H Wood Jr in what was the first killing of a federal judge in the 20th century.

Wood had been shot dead in the parking lot outside his San Antonio, Texas townhouse by Charles on behalf of by drug dealer Jamiel Chagra, who had been scheduled to appear before the judge on the day of the murder.

The hit was allegedly carried out because of Wood's reputation as a ruthless judge -- he had been nicknamed "Maximum John" because of his reputation for handing down long sentences for drug offenses.

Charles was convicted and given two life sentences, which was around the time Woody reconnected with him. The actor, while admitting he "wasn’t the greatest husband or father," had spoken well of him. "This might sound odd to say about a convicted felon, but my father is one of the most articulate, well-read, charming people I’ve ever known," he said in a 1988 interview

He had also revealed that he had followed Charles' trial closely and had branded the conviction a "travesty," especially since Chagra had been acquitted on a retrial. He claimed his father was a victim of prejudicial pretrial publicity and pointed out the trial judge was one of Wood's pallbearers.

It was a relationship he once again addressed following the release of 2012's 'Rampart,' a film where he played the part of corrupt Los Angeles Police Department Officer Dave Brown to a terrifying level of accuracy. His portrayal of the racist, merciless, psychopathic police officer whose tendency for violence surpassed none seemed to suggest he had some expertise in the area, and he confessed he saw a lot of his father in himself.

"I was born on his birthday," he shared. "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, 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."

The character of Dave Brown wasn't new to Woody either. He's made a career of it via roles like Mickey Knox in 'Natural Born Killers' -- which was disturbing enough that it inspired a series of copycat killings --  Tallahassee in 'Zombieland,' and Charlie in 'Seven Psychopaths.'

While he said he "got along pretty good" with his dad by the time of his death in prison from cancer in 2007, he admitted his campaigning for his dad's new trial all those years ago was something he didn't know how to feel about considering he spent millions on lawyers. "I don’t know he did deserve a new trial… just being a son trying to help his dad. Then I spent a couple of million beating my head against the wall," he said.

Surprisingly, the murder of a federal judge isn't even what Charles became best known for. In September 1980, he surrendered to the police after a six-hour standoff in which he was reportedly high on cocaine and claimed he had killed not only Wood but also President John F Kennedy. While Charles claimed in a television interview after his arrest that he was not in a right state of mind, Chagra testified about the incident during the Wood trial and claimed Charles had told him of the assassination and even drawn maps to show where he was hiding during the shooting.  

Charles' story will be chronicled in a true-crime podcast called 'Son of a Hitman' that will investigate his life and crimes and will premiere on Spotify in May.

It will feature 10 episodes and see host and journalist Jason Cavanaugh have in-depth conversations with two of Charles' sons, Brett and Jordan, as well as with those who knew him before and after his arrest in a bid to separate fiction from reality.

Woody has not participated in the podcast, which will also have on-the-ground reporting and behind the scenes of the investigation.

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