Connick at the Steinway & Sons piano factory in Astoria, New York, March 1.
Harry Connick Jr. may be the only New Orleans native to emerge from Mardi Gras exhausted ‑ from overwork. He founded the Krewe of Orpheus in 1993, a club of local celebrants that now numbers 1,400. In the weeks before Fat Tuesday, he drops whatever he's doing to plan and perform in the group's parade and grand ball, the Orpheuscapade. "We do it every year, so I kind of have to go back and be a part of it," he says. "It's a fun thing to do, but it's work. We were there about eight days, and it's just nonstop stuff to do."
Connick has been working on many fronts. He has been composing and arranging songs -26 or so, a couple of albums' worth ‑ for a Broadway show, Thou Shalt Not (based on the 1867 Emile Zola novel Thérese Raquin), which opens in New York in October. He just recorded an original theme song for the A&E mystery series Nero Wolfe, starring Timothy Hutton. He recently wrapped a Mafia comedy Life Without Dick, with Sarah Jessica Parker and Claudia Schiffer. And he's in talks to work on John Grisham's baseball movie, Mickey.
For his role as Joe Cable, the romantic lead of the World War II musical South Pacific, airing March 26 on ABC, he read Richard B. Frank's book Guadalcanal and studied John Kerr's line readings in the 1958 movie version of the show. "When I first saw Harry walk on the set in his marines uniform, I got a lump in my throat," says Glenn Close, who plays nurse Nellie Forbush. "He was so instantly perfect as Joe Cable. I was blown away."
But then, Connick admits that the research was necessary. Like many other TV-bred thirtysomethings, he had never even seen South Pacific before being tapped by Close to play the heroic lieutenant. "I was embarrassed because a lot of people think I'm like this historian of music of this era," he says.
Connick, 33, is best known as the retro‑inspired musician who plays piano and crooned romantic standards on his 12 albums, like the Grammy‑winning 1989 soundtrack for When Harry Met Sally ... and his 1999 collection of jazz songs, Come by Me. Along the way, he has made almost as many movies, starring in Jodie Foster's 1991 directorial film debut, Little Man Tate, and the 1998 Sandra Bullock romantic hit Hope Floats. "I did my first record when I was 19; I did my first movie when I was 20," he says. "So I've done both about the same amount of time."
Born and raised in New Orleans, Connick began playing piano at age 3. When he was 5, he performed "The Star‑Spangled Banner" at the inauguration of his father, Harry Connick Sr., as district attorney, a position he still holds. (His mother, Anita Connick, who was a judge, died of ovarian cancer, when Harry junior was 13.) The budding musician, who has an older sister, Suzanna, haunted the bandstands of the French Quarter as a child. "During the day, there'd be music playing, and I was just really fortunate that I had that to go check out," he says. "My parents played a lot of music around our house, like Louis Armstrong. I used to imitate him, and my parents saw that I wanted to, had a need and a desire to perform."
Connick's father took him to local dives and asked the musicians if he could sit in. "I would go up there and play and sing, and over the weeks and months and years that passed, I would become familiar to them," says Connick "I'd come in, and they'd go 'Oh, Little Harry' or 'Harry junior,' and I would come up and play with them. By the time I was 14, 1 started working. I started to actually play for money" As a teen, he studied piano at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts with Ellis Marsalis, the father of Branford and Wynton. After graduating Xavier High School in 1985, Connick moved to New York and enrolled in, then promptly dropped out of, Hunter College and the Manhattan School of Music. The next year, he signed a recording contract with Columbia, and his first solo album, Harry Connick Jr., was released in 1987.
Today, he lives with his wife of seven years, Jill Goodacre, a former Victoria's Secret model, just outside of New York with their two children, Georgia, 4, and Sara, 3. In his spare time, he likes to paint and sculpt. His mother‑in‑law, Glenna Goodacre, is a noted sculptor; her work includes the Women's Memorial at the Vietnam wall, the new Sacagawea $1 coin and an Irish-potato‑famine memorial in Philadelphia). "When I first started picking it up, I thought I was this budding artist," Connick says, "and Jill would come over and make these suggestions. Now I listen because I know she grew up in the house with that." Jill herself is, he says, "a great photographer" and has directed a few of Connick's videos, one of which was nominated for a 1994 Cable Ace Award.
The Connicks are feeling pretty content these days. Harry has achieved a measure of fame that allows them to bring up their girls comfortably but also mostly privately. Recently, in a Popeyes fried chicken joint in New Orleans, a woman came up to Connick and said "You're that actor guy." He admitted that he probably was. He smiles broadly as he tells the story. "So she goes, 'You're Cuba Downey Jr.!' Can you imagine? 'I loved you in Jerry McBeal, in When Jerry Met Sally, . . ' I got a good laugh around the dinner table that night."