'CSI: NY' star Hill Harper takes the cure -- 'Wealth Cure,' that is
Obama's Harvard hoops buddy tells how battle for health and wealth are alike
By Jay MacDonald | Published: September 16, 2011
Hill Harper was born to be a doctor, not play one on TV.
As the son of a psychiatrist and an anesthesiologist, the 45-year-old actor feels right at home in his role as hunky brainiac Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on the hit CBS series "CSI: NY."
|Hill Harper, author,
'The Wealth Cure'
Hill Harper plays a doctor on the TV series "CSI: NY," but he was on the receiving end of medical care in 2010 when diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Thankfully, surgery was successful, but his diagnosis gave him the takeoff point for "The Wealth Cure," a book in which he examines our often unhealthy relationship with money -- especially credit card debt. The book was released in August 2011.
But it was law, not medicine, that drew Harper to Harvard, where he earned two law degrees and bonded over pickup basketball with a classmate who would become the 44th president of the United States.
Off screen, Harper's a passionate investor who likes to share motivational straight talk about money and life through a series of bestselling books that includes "Letters to a Young Brother," "Letters to a Young Sister" and "The Conversation."
Medicine interceded in Harper's life last year when he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Following successful surgery, he bounced back with "The Wealth Cure," in which he equates the battle for health to the battle for wealth.
CreditCards.com spoke with Harper by phone on the "CSI: NY" set about destiny, debt and posting up a president.
CreditCards.com: Given your background and academic achievements, was your career choice a tremendous disappointment to your parents?
Hill Harper: (Laughs) Actually, I think they were very afraid for me, but the beautiful thing about them is they never articulated that to me. When you get two graduate degrees from Harvard, particularly when one is a law degree, the last thing your parents expect you to do is to become a professional actor. But they taught me something that has become one of the big themes that runs through all of my books and that is, we all have the capacity to do anything in life. When you're taught that, you're not limited. They taught me to dream big and to know that I could do anything.
CreditCards.com: Speaking of Harvard, you bonded over grad school hoops with a notable small forward named Barack Obama. When the two of you stopped off for a post-game beer, who would pay?
Harper: (Laughs) That's tough to say. You know, he was older than I was; he'd been out in the world working for five or six years doing community organizing in Chicago. But here's the rub -- when he was doing that, he was only making $13,000 a year. That's not a lot of extra cash, so we both were running up student loans in grad school. But since he was older than me, I would have to put the tab on him.
CreditCards.com: I'm guessing the two of you dominated the Harvard hardwood.
Harper: He's really a wonderful guy. With the stresses of his job and all the issues around it, what I really wish the public could see more of is his sense of humor. He is so funny; he's got a great wit, a great sense of humor, great big smile and he makes jokes a lot. I wish more people would see that. There is so much misinformation and posturing and name-calling and labeling, it's just so inaccurate. I mean, if they really knew our president ...
I was very fortunate that my father taught me the simplest of all financial literacy tips: Don't spend what you don't have.
CreditCards.com: Most actors scrape by for years before breaking through. Did you have the typical salad years?
Harper: In "The Wealth Cure," I talk about making the choice to turn down a six-figure salary coming out of law school to wait tables from 11 at night to 7 in the morning so my days would be free to audition. I would get home about 8 a.m., take a quick shower to wash off the smell of burgers and fries, sleep from 8:30 until 12:30 or 1 p.m. Then I'd spend afternoons and early evenings auditioning and going to acting class, catch a quick nap until about 9:30 p.m. and then go to work at 11. That was my daily routine. I wasn't making a lot of money, but I was making enough to pay my bills.
One thing my uncle taught me is, if you're making any decision solely based on money, it's the wrong decision. Money can be a factor in the decision, but if it's the primary factor, it's the wrong decision. So I followed that advice, and I'm happy that I did.
CreditCards.com: Did you lean on credit cards at the time?
Harper: I know that I had a credit card, but I would use it more as a convenience factor rather than spending money I didn't have. I was very fortunate that my father taught me the simplest of all financial literacy tips: Don't spend what you don't have. So I thankfully avoided falling into any sort of credit card debt.
CreditCards.com: You note a couple exceptions in "The Wealth Cure."
Harper: There are only two areas, in my opinion, of allowable debt. One is education and training, and the other is real property. Now, you can still use so-called credit instruments for convenience and other benefits such as your credit rating, but I encourage people not to carry credit card debt at all.
CreditCards.com: And yet they do. Why?
Harper: Part of the problem is the complexity. The reason predators can prey on individuals is because a lot of these things are so complex that people ultimately don't understand what they're signing up for. I would love to make sure that we don't have predatory practices and instruments out there. I would also like to increase the level of financial literacy so people understand what credit card use means so they can make their own informed choices. And "informed" is the key word there. I would like to see things made much more simple and plain, and not allow complicated predatory lending models that get people trapped.
CreditCards.com: You've targeted two of your books to young people. Have you unlocked the secret to their thought process when it comes to money?
I would also like to increase the level of financial literacy so people understand what credit card use means so they can make their own informed choices.
Harper: Yes. Ultimately, young people are extremely aspirational, and because of that, they can be preyed on very easily. An unscrupulous individual can say, "I know you want this life, I know you want to live like this and achieve this," and they can be selling them just like a snake-oil salesman. They give them all the right reasons as to why they should carry this credit card.
But a credit card is a trap, ultimately. Certain types of debt are a trap. We're seeing it happen on a much bigger level than just the individual; we're seeing it happen on the governmental level around the world. Falling into a crisis around debt can lead to destruction. That happens globally and individually.
CreditCards.com: "The Wealth Cure" centers on your battle with thyroid cancer, which you use as an allegory for our battle with money. Was money on your mind during that stressful time?
Harper: Medical bills are the No. 1 cause of personal bankruptcy in this country. The one thing that was such a benefit to me was I have been blessed to have such high-quality insurance coverage that it was one less stress that I had because I knew my insurance would cover these catastrophic medical bills for having to have cancer surgery. Now, there are millions and millions of Americans who that does not apply to. I think of insurance as an investment, a safety net that is very important. I really recommend that folks carry adequate insurance coverage.
CreditCards.com: Does your academic and family background make it easier for you to portray someone like Dr. Sheldon Hawkes?
Harper: I think education is the foundation for anything we do in life. I've always said that the size and thickness of your goals are directly proportional to the size and thickness of the foundation that you build in your life. You may have these huge goals, but if you haven't built the foundation to support them, they will collapse.
We see that in lottery winners. If they're given the money in one fell swoop, they are back within five or 10 years to where they were because they never developed the financial literacy skills to handle money.
You may have these huge goals but if you haven't built the foundation to support them, they will collapse.
So yes, my educational background helps me play the most intelligent character on the show. Hill Harper is not as smart as Dr. Sheldon Hawkes, but certainly my educational background allows me to play the character truthfully and with a level of veracity and entertainment value that I hope really resonates with people.
CreditCards.com: Would you ever consider changing careers, perhaps to use your law degree?
Harper: Absolutely. I'm interested in many careers. I'm an investor/owner of a hotel in New Orleans, I own multiple rental properties across the country, I'm invested in restaurants and hospitality businesses, I'm an active investor in stocks and I also have my Manifest Your Destiny Foundation as a philanthropist, in addition to being an author and an actor. I'm really just into doing things that I love and enjoy. If my heart moves me in any direction and it feels like something that I would enjoy, then absolutely I would do it.See related: How President Obama racked up $125,000 in student loans, Q&A with Matt Paxton, host of TV's 'Hoarders'
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