American Rust: Is Chief Del Harris Based on a Real Police Officer?

American Rust,’ the crime-drama show, sets its narrative in a small Pennsylvanian town situated in the country’s Rust Belt region, steeped in perpetual decay due to the opioid and unemployment crises overrunning the community. Del Harris, the local Police Chief, helms the narrative as the lawman caught up in an impossible moral quandary. After an eventful night, shrouded in mystery, leads to the death of a police officer, the town sets its suspicions on young Billy Poe. However, due to the boy’s relation to his mother, Grace Poe— the woman Harris irrevocably loves, the policeman finds himself undertaking momentous measures to free Billy from a cruel fate.

As deceit, secrecy, and conspiracy remain at the center of the Buell town, a diverse range of characters go through the motions, attempting to save themselves and their loved ones. Therefore, against the bleak but authentic backdrop of the small town, these characters emerge as fleshed-out individuals with their lives entangled in the criminal world. As such, viewers must be curious to know where Jeff Daniels’ Del Harris finds his origins and if there’s a real-life connection behind it.

Del Harris, Philipp Meyer’s Literary Cop From a Blue Collar Town

While Del Harris, the Police Chief in ‘American Rust,’ has no basis in real life, his character holds literary roots in the show’s source material, the eponymous 2009 crime fiction novel by Philipp Meyer. In Meyer’s work, numerous characters pen the narrative as the protagonist, including Del Harris, whose unique situation offers a morally dynamic perspective for the readers. The show’s interpretation of the story and Harris’ character presents much the same storyline for him, infusing the cop with attributes that remain relatable within a very specific context.

‘American Rust,’ both the novel and the show, scrutinizes a fictionalized small town defined by its identity within a Rust Belt State, where manufacturing factories like steel mills once ruled the economy and the culture. Nevertheless, the local industry faded out of prominence with time, resulting in mass unemployment rates. The same ended up informing the collapse state of blue-collar towns such as Meyer’s Buell Town.

Consequently, as the town’s Chief, Del Harris’ character remains intrinsically reminiscent of themes that are reflective of his environment. Considering Meyer’s own origins in Blue Collar Baltimore, the American author intimately understood those themes and infused them in Harris’ character. From there, as Dan Futterman and his team of writers adapted the literary character for the screen, Harris held on to the same attributes.

Actor Jeff Daniels, an executive producer whose love for Meyer’s novel led to the show’s inception in many ways, discussed the same in a conversation with Showtime and said, “Del Harris is a character that I know. It’s [His story is] a part of the country that I knew. I grew up in a small town in Michigan. I worked at my father’s lumber company. I worked with these people that work in the steel mills, you know, blue-collar.”

Thus, like Meyer, Daniels also had a significant understanding of the character that played a role in his performance’s ingenuity and authenticity. However, Harris’ blue-collar roots aren’t the only traits that enhance his relatability as a character. On a larger scale, the cop’s complicated relationship with the law, his morals, and his affections shape his character.

“There are a lot of people who are trying to do the right thing in a world [that is] full of wrong,” Daniels shared while discussing his on-screen character. “Del Harris is certainly trying to do that. He’s a good person, he has dignity— and he has to make a bunch of bad choices to survive. And he has to do it without getting caught.”

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