Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Hollywood to Harrisburg: William Sanderson on his acting career, his PA Home and Shipoke’s quirky “Grounddog Day.”

Before you know it, it will be Groundhog Day again, which means that, in Harrisburg, a dog dressed as a bear will pretend to be a weather-predicting groundhog.

Say what?

Indeed, come early February, that’s what happens.

Then, last year, Shipoke’s “Grounddog Day” added something new—a famous local resident.

A neighbor heard that a popular TV and movie actor was living in the city. She reached out to his agent to see if he would appear—free of charge—at the event. Much to her surprise—and delight—he said “yes.” Pressing her luck, she asked if he would be willing to appear on TV’s “GoodDay PA” to promote Grounddog Day. Again, he agreed. The event was a tremendous success, in great part because of the actor’s participation.

That brazen Shipoker was me, and the actor was William Sanderson, star of the original “Blade Runner” movie and Larry—of Larry, Darryl and Darryl fame—on the TV series “Newhart.” As “Blade Runner” celebrates its 35th birthday and a long-awaited sequel hits the theaters, I talked to Sanderson about the cult classic and his life in central Pennsylvania.

A Thrill

The role of Sebastian in “Blade Runner” was a dream-come-true for a young actor—the opportunity to work with renowned director Ridley Scott and rising stars Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer.

“Ridley was a visionary director,” Sanderson said. “It was a thrill to work with him.”

He would whisper things to Sanderson that helped shape his performance.

“Play it from your heart, your soul,” he said, relating Scott’s direction.

In the film, Sanderson’s character was smitten with a young runaway played by then 19-year-old Daryl Hannah. That wasn’t difficult, he admits, as the blonde actress—who went on to star in films such as “Splash” and “Kill Bill”—was a beauty even then.

“She was lovely to look at, and she was gracious and fun to work with, as well,” Sanderson said.

As they filmed the movie, Sanderson heard from some that it was going to be a hit. However, he held back judgment.

“I learned early on that you never know if a film you’re making will be a hit or not,” he said.

Early reviews were mixed, and it did fairly well at the box office. However, thanks in part to a boom in home video and art house showings, the movie became a cult classic over the years.

“I am proud to have been part of this film, and I’m thrilled that people are still watching it and talking about today,” he said.

Don’t look for Sanderson’s character to be resurrected in the new “Blade Runner 2049.” But that’s OK with him.

“I’ve always been skeptical of sequels,” said. “But I wish them well and hope it’s a hit.”

Plot Twists

Harrisburg actually was Sanderson’s home away from home for many years. His wife Sharon is from the city, and her family still lives here.

“Three years ago, I was told that it was time to move here, and I obliged,” he said, laughing.

It wasn’t a hard transition, he said, since he’s always liked the area. And, while he enjoys the change of seasons, he admits that he was “surprised” by the cold—and found driving in and shoveling snow to be a challenge.

With his distinctive, smooth-as-molasses Tennessee drawl, Sanderson often gets recognized by fans. They most often mention “Newhart,” possibly because the show is still in syndication some 30 years after its original run. However, younger fans sometimes recognize Sanderson from his roles on the HBO series “Deadwood” and “True Blood.”

“It’s always a pleasure to meet people who’ve enjoyed my work,” he said.

He learns new things from some of these encounters.

“One woman told me that she and her then-fiancé met me at a bar once, and that I bought them a bottle of champagne to celebrate their engagement,” he said. “I don’t remember that, but I was glad to hear that I’d done something so nice and that it made them feel good.”

Sanderson likes his life in Harrisburg, whether he’s spending time with his wife and grandchildren or socializing at the American Legion. Modest at heart, he appreciates that people don’t treat him differently because of his celebrity.

“I was getting a haircut in a local barber shop,” he said. “I said that I’m trying to outlive my enemies. The barber deadpanned, ‘You’ll have to live a long time.’ I loved his bluntness.”

He chuckled.

“I’ll never go back there for a haircut, but I loved his candor,” he said.

Don’t expect to find Sanderson rocking on the porch, even as he enjoys semi-retirement. He currently is writing his memoirs, a new challenge for someone who claims he isn’t a writer.

“I had to get help putting it together and getting it organized,” he said. “But I’m pretty close to having it ready to show to someone.”

As he tells it, his life and career have been like a great movie, full of adventure, challenges, drama, comedy, thrills and plot twists.

“I don’t know if the book will have any redeeming social value or lasting impact,” he said. “I just hope people will read it and enjoy it.”

Actor William Sanderson is set to appear at the 2018 Grounddog Day event, which is slated for Feb. 3, 10 a.m. Note: the location has changed. It will now be held at the Broad Street Market, N. 3rd and Verbeke streets, Harrisburg.

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