Chuck Harris bills himself as the "largest supplier of oddities in the world." Harris, who is in his 70s, has a grey mop-top and always wears oversized spectacles. When he speaks of his clients, he says, "I treat these people like I would treat anyone else who, for lack of a better word, is normal."
Harris is an agent of the bizarre; the real-life incarnation of Broadway Danny Rose. The hard-nosed powerhouse is the talent-broker for such acts as performing flatulist Mr. Methane, Rubber Boy, Fat Elvis, and The Regurgitator. Need a guy who balances a refrigerator on his mouth, sticks nails through his arms, or has the ability to escape from a spinning washing machine? Chuck Harris is the man to ask.
"I represent the oldest, living conjoined twins—joined at the head," Harris boasts. "I inherited them because they were friendly with the mother who gave birth to the youngest set of conjoined twins." If he sounds callous, you haven't spent enough time with him. Harris adds, "I love these girls. I feel the pain for them. But I treat them like they're no different than anybody else." He feels a kinship with his clients. "They are no different than you and I," he says.
Harris is himself a former child star, stand-up comic, and veteran of movies and television. He first graced the stage alongside his father at the age of five with the family act Miller's Mighty Minstrels. (Oaky Miller is his given name.) As an actor, he made appearances in That Girl, Family Affair, and My Three Sons. But by the age of 50, with four kids, two ex-wives, and a mortgage on his hands, Harris considered himself washed up.
"My life was over," he says, as he remembers overhearing an agent say, "Oaky Miller? He's finished! He's over with! I don't want to talk to this loser!"
It was painful to feel like yesterday's trash; not knowing what to do. He complained about it over the phone to his mother, who verbally bitch slapped him. "What are you crying about," she scolded. "You have your life ahead of you!"
Harris took her advice and, overnight, he reinvented himself. Oaky Miller changed his name to Chuck Harris and decided he would carve his niche representing those on the outskirts of show business. Now, he is most successful agent/producer of oddities in Tinseltown.
"My showbiz background taught me tolerance of other people," Harris says about working alongside some of the most bizarre acts on the planet. "A lot of these people are just nice tender, and—for lack of a better word—a normal person. Except maybe they have hair all over their body or maybe they turned themselves into a tiger or have a split tongue like the Lizard Boy."
Fortune took a spin for Harris with the first act he signed, The Amazing Christopher—a man who, by Harris's description, "comes out onstage with four full-sized puppets attached to his body by long poles and does an act like the five different Village People."
The two of them have been together for 20 years, and Harris boasts that "there hasn't been a year since we've been together where this man—who only does a six minute act—hasn't made over $500,000 a year."
Harris has booked The Amazing Christopher for such luminaries as Carlos Slim in Mexico, one of the wealthiest men in the world. He also booked his prized variety as Eddie Murphy's opening on the legendary Raw tour, which became his first big break. Harris landed him the gig after putting him on the Arsenio Hall Show, succeeding a barnstorming performance, and the talk show host hooked him up with his comedian buddy. Harris, who was then still a newbie, tried to keep his composure when dealing with Murphy's manager, asking for $1,500 for his client. The amount was intended to be a per-week rate. But when he got the contract back, "I swear to you, it said $1,500 a day. That's how things happened: You learn to keep your mouth shut, you be honest with people, and wow, it went through the roof."
Harris now commands $8,500 per TV appearance for such clients as a woman who can make 500 million volts of electricity surge through her fingertips (the electric bolt then flies across the room and lights a cigar) or a guy who can put his finger into a socket without getting electrocuted. "He was born with a disease where his skin doesn't sweat, so there're no conductors for electricity," Harris explains. "If he touches you with both hands, he can shock you if he wants to. He has this power."
With his oddity acts, Harris makes money, but not the kind of cash he does from such variety performers. His bread and butter are acts such as a man who can fit his entire body inside a balloon, a one-armed juggler, or a guy who gets into a spinning washing machine while wearing eight pairs of handcuffs. Harris follows the business tenet that he'd rather book ten acts for lesser money than two acts for greater money. "My acts are thrilled because I'm keeping them working, so they're more loyal to me, and they'll stay with me, and they know I can make the deal happen for them."
It's through this loyalty to Harris that his clients make more money than many of them could ever have made without him. "The Wolf Boy used to give interviews and be on television for free," Harris squawks. "Rule number one: If you work for free, guess how much Uncle Chuck makes? What's a percentage of nothing? Nothing! You don't work for free—have I made myself clear?!"
Harris dismisses television stations that try to lure his acts to perform sans cash, claiming the payoff is exposure. Harris states his favorite line: "The Donner party died of exposure when they tried to discover California. This is a living!"
One particular client that Harris took under his wing, and handled with special care, was Cat Man. Dennis Avner became famous after he spent thousands of dollars on operations and tattoos to transform into a tiger. Adopting his Native American name "Stalking Cat," Avner had his lip surgically split, his ears pointed, and underwent silicone implants in his cheeks and forehead. His teeth were shaped into fangs and he sported claw-like fingernails.
"I always felt that Cat was bullied as a little boy," says Chuck. "That's one of the reasons he transformed himself to look like a cat: He was hiding behind a mask, while at the same time it empowered himself to bully people back. It empowered him but he was a very, very sad person; it made him happy to look different."
Harris recalls how angry his client would get when people would take his picture without asking him: "I said, 'Cat, you look different than everyone else. If they want to take your picture there's nothing wrong with that.'"
Avner mostly made money from TV appearances and signing autographs at tattoo conventions. When he helped open the Guinness World Records museum in London, he was the most sought after person amongst Harris' roster of eccentric clients, making the front cover of several newspapers. "An average year he'd make $6,000 to $10,000," said Harris. "But he was happy he was working."
Then, in 2012, Avner committed suicide. The 54-year-old was found dead at his trailer home in Tonopah, Nevada.
Harris believes Avner's lasting legacy is that he went from being bullied as a kid to doing what made him somewhat happy.
"He did something no one else ever did. His other legacy is: don't bully people—we're all equal," said Harris. "I liked the Cat Man. He was a tortured soul, but he was a nice, sensitive human being. I really felt sorry for the guy because I know I was his best friend. And I am not the best friend for many people—especially someone I only see two or three times a year."
In his business, Harris has outlived the competition. "I'm proud to say this: I really have no main competitors," Harris says. His youngest son, Adam, now works alongside his father to help run the agency. (Harris poached him from his previous job by promising, "whatever you make, I'm going to give you $5,000 a year more, because you're going to bust your ass for me!")
Since Adam has Chuck's legal last name, Miller, not everyone recognizes them as father and son, and they have markedly different approaches to the business. "Adam is from a different school," says Harris. "I'm from a hard school and he's from a generous, giving-type school of learning. I'm really excited about seeing him go as far as he's gone."
Certainly, Harris needs help with the operation. He treks over 150,000 miles per year on business. Most recently, Harris returned from Brazil, where he's producing a popular TV variety show. "Fortunately, or unfortunately, they want me there every week. I don't want to go every week, so I try to keep it down to once or twice a month."
Harris also makes yearly pilgrimages to Columbus, Ohio, to assist Arnold Schwarzenegger with the Arnold Sports Festival (formerly known as the Arnold Classic), the Terminator's annual bodybuilding competition.
When not on the road, Harris relaxes in his West Hollywood home, which resembles a virtual shrine to show business. Glass cabinets are filled with vintage memorabilia and collectables: toys of classic comedians, dolls and figurines from Hollywood's golden era, a cinematic sanctum that would bring a tear to the eye of even the most prolific collector. He has massive collections of both theatrical artifacts and Charlie Chaplin memorabilia. A few years back, he claims Sotheby appraised his collection at over $1 million.
Harris' clients are, of course, his most valuable collection. It's clear that they're much more than just a business to him.
"Once in a while, someone will come to me needing a $1,000 to pay the rent," he says. "I tell them: 'I'll do the favor if you do me the favor: Never tell anybody that I'm a nice guy. If you do, you'll ruin my reputation—and I'm finished in this business."
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