Born in Arkansas and schooled in Missouri, actress Tess Harper worked hard to shed her Southern accent. Nevertheless, some of her best movies have been set in the American South. Her film breakthrough came in 1983 opposite Robert Duvall in Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies. As compassionate Rosa Lee, she earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. After a few TV movies, miniseries, and feature films, she earned an Oscar nomination for her role of cousin Chick in the comedy drama Crimes of the Heart. Also directed by Beresford, the film was based on the play by Beth Henley and starred Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek. In the late ’80s, other comedy roles followed in Beresford’s Her Alibi and Elaine May’s Ishtar.
Harper began the next decade with a return to her Southern-style roots. In 1990, she starred in the Southern Gothic black comedy Daddy’s Dyin’…Who’s Got the Will? as a greedy daughter fighting for her family fortune. In the drama My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, she was a sister of a rodeo rider. The actress appeared opposite Sam Waterston in Robert Mulligan’s coming-of-age drama The Man in the Moon, also starring fellow Southerner Reese Witherspoon and set in small-town Louisiana. In 1992, Harper played an alcoholic mom in the drama Home Fires Burning, set in Pocohantas, VA. She switched to television for most of the ’90s, including based-on-a-true-story dramas like Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story. The TV movie Christy led to a regular role on the CBS dramatic series of the same name, starring Kellie Martin as a schoolteacher in rural Tennessee. In 2000, Harper narrated the CBS TV movie Beyond the Prairie: The True Story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, as the older Laura Ingalls Wilder herself.