Places & Faces
First Person with Lecile Harris
1/5/2018 4:47:39 PM

Lecile Harris has been a cowboy all his life. He was raised on a Tennessee farm, where he and Ethel, his wife of 61 years, still reside. In high school, he and a friend went to a rodeo, ostensibly to meet girls. But the bull riding lured him in. While he found it thrilling, he was too tall (6’5”) and lanky to excel at the sport. But in 1955, when a bullfighter (a daredevil who protects the bull riders by coaxing the bull away from a fallen cowboy) was absent one day, Lecile was asked to fill in. With zero training as a bullfighter, he stepped into the arena and began a career that has spanned over six decades. What he did not initially understand was that, to be successful, bullfighters also needed to be funny. It was through this realization that Lecile found his true calling.

Always the class clown in school, Lecile took to comedy relatively easily. Nonetheless, he continues to hone his craft, and his hard work has paid off. Lecile is one of rodeo’s most respected funnymen and has earned numerous awards over the years, including Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association Clown of the Year in 1992, 1994, 1995, and 1996. In 2007, he was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. His success as a rodeo clown led to other unique opportunities. Lecile has appeared in several Hollywood movies and was a regular on the hit television series Hee Haw for five years. One of his most prized trophies is a large plaque in the shape of Louisiana that designates him as an "Honorary Coonass.” 

In 1988, at age 52, Lecile was severely injured by a bull at a Reno rodeo. This event ended his work as a bullfighter, but he has continued to entertain the crowds as a rodeo clown. To this day, he still wears the buckle he wore the night of that injury, which was given to him when he was voted as a bullfighter for the PRCA Southeastern circuit finals, a remarkable feat for someone in his fifties. At the peak of his career, Lecile performed in more than 150 performances a year. Now 81 years old, he has "cut back” to around 75 shows a year. One such event is the annual Southwest District Livestock Show and Rodeo, held at Burton Coliseum next month, February 1-3. Lecile says the Lake Charles Rodeo has been a favorite of his "for so many years.”

Thrive recently spoke with Lecile Harris, from his farm in Collierville, Tennessee, and he talked about his storied career in the rodeo business, what keeps him going after all these years, and the importance of timing.

What comedians influenced you most when you first began your comedy routine? 
I enjoyed the work of Red Skelton, Laurel and Hardy, even W. C. Fields. I tried to emulate the [cartoon character] Pink Panther’s moves. I learned from these comedians, but I never copied them. I was always myself. Emmett Kelly was a circus clown with Ringling Brothers. He was the best clown I’ve ever seen. And he never spoke a word. Everything he did was pantomime. Watching him, I learned the importance of body language in comedy. He could say more without saying a word than anyone I’ve ever seen. His character was an old man clown. Even when I was young, I wanted my character to be an old clown -- a tramp. My makeup resembles Emmett Kelly’s.

How did you develop your act? 
Because I was east of the Mississippi River, where rodeo is not as common, I wasn’t privy to other rodeo clowns. So I had nothing to pattern after in either my bullfighting abilities or my comedy. It was a disadvantage at the time, but it turned out to be a great help because all of my moves were things I did to survive and get the job done, and I developed a unique style. As I started working more rodeos, in Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, both my comedy and bullfighting styles were so different from anyone else’s, it made me stand out and gave my career a boost. As my daddy used to say, I just dumb-assed into it.

You fixed tractor engines on the farm, played football in college, worked as a rock and roll session drummer in Memphis, and outsmarted bulls and kept rodeo spectators laughing from arenas around the world. Tell me about the importance of timing. 
Good comedy has everything to do with timing. In comedy, timing is not everything; it’s the only thing. It’s more important in comedy than in fighting bulls. You can make a mistake in bull fighting and recover. But if you make a mistake in comedy timing, it’s a lonesome place out in the middle of that arena. 

Your bullfighting achievements are noteworthy, but it’s the comedy you are most proud of. Why?
 I learned to fight bulls well enough to go to the circuit finals in about 3-4 years. And I’ve been working on comedy for 62 years. That’s the difference between how much harder comedy is than fighting bulls. Comedy is extremely hard. Back then, you could be a fair bullfighter and have good comedy and work every week. You could be an outstanding bullfighter, but if you weren’t good at comedy, you had trouble finding a job. Bullfighters today aren’t interested in the comedy. They’re more interested in fighting bulls, in being athletes. These days, the barrel clown and the comedy clown provide the humor. That’s one of the reasons I’m still in the business. Fewer people are interested in doing rodeo comedy.

What do you love about what you do? 
The friends I’ve made. I have friends around the world. I don’t use the word "fan.” They’re my friends. I love to make people laugh and I love to have friends. One of the best ways to have friends is to have people laugh with you, or at you, it doesn’t make me any difference. 

What keeps you in the arena after all these years? 
The crowd. I can be so tired – traveling wears you down. But when I walk through that gate into the arena, all that goes away. I still love working and I still love what I do. In addition to the performances, I present comedy seminars around the country. I coach young bullfighters. I miss fighting bulls a lot, but when I’m in the arena with bullfighters whom I have tutored, I fight bulls through them. If I see them do a move I’ve taught them, I get a lot of satisfaction from that. 

What’s next for Lecile Harris? 
When the day comes that I’m in the arena and I’m not getting the job done, I will walk out and never go back. I may go to Branson and do standup. I may continue my speaking tours. I may be available for the occasional movie. I don’t think I’ll ever get out of the entertainment business. I don’t think my wife could stand me around for that long.

See Lecile Harris perform at the Southwest District Rodeo Feb. 1-3. If you’d like to meet Harris in person, he will hold an autograph session and sign copies of his award-winning autobiography Lecile – This Ain’t My First Rodeo at Patton’s Western Wear, 3620 Ryan St., Feb. 1, 3:00-4:00 p.m.
Posted by: Angie Kay Dilmore | Submit comment | Tell a friend

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