Celebrity Deaths ›

Phil Harris, The Unlikeliest TV Star

Getty Images / Discovery Channel / Photo by Blair Bunting

“This is the real deal and people really die.”

Phil Harris was the unlikeliest of television stars.

Born in Bothell, Washington in 1956, by the age of 21 he was one of the youngest captains of a crab fishing boat operating on the Bering Sea. In the years that followed, he would break “his back (twice), all his fingers, both shoulders, an ankle and a wrist,” according to the Anchorage Daily News. In 2008, he was thrown from his bunk and suffered a pulmonary embolism that kept him off the water for nearly a year. He once lost a crew member overboard, and by age 50 had already outlived most of the other career crab fishermen he knew.

“This ain’t a hamburger stand out here, y’know?” reflected Harris. “This is the real deal and people really die.”

The mix of high seas danger and big money hauls (Harris’ record catch was $500,000 of crab) made the "Deadliest Catch" one of the Discovery Channels biggest hits ever, netting 6 million viewers a week. Many of those grew to love the gruff, foul-mouthed captain of the Cornelia Marie. The twice-divorced, Harley-riding sailor who liked to build bird feeders in his spare time wasn’t the kind of guy you typically saw on television.

When news broke on February 9th that he had died, days after suffering a stroke on board his vessel in front of his two sons, fans were shocked. Whether or not to show the lethal stroke, as captured by cameras onboard, and its immediate aftermath, presented The Discovery Channel with ethical questions most reality shows never have to deal with.

Tuesday night’s episode was critically lauded for treating Harris’ death with compassion and grace while never shying away from the harsh realities that made the show such a hit. The episode brought "Deadliest Catch" its highest ever ratings, with 8.8 million Americans tuning in. Clearly, they haven’t forgotten Captain Harris.

“Phil was the type of man that many of us loved,” wrote one fan recently in Harris’ Guest Book. “Rugged, real, family-orientated, fighting for what he believed in right until the end. God bless you with all that you showed us while on this earth. Hope to see you on the other side!”

A memorial episode honoring Phil Harris will air on July 20.