A Southerner, Harling moved to New York to pursue a theatrical career after first obtaining a law degree. He landed work in regional theater and as a voice-over artist for radio and TV commercials before turning to writing. When his sister Susan died of complications from diabetes, he was inspired to write his first play, "Steel Magnolias." The effort impressed Kyle Renick at the off-off-Broadway WPA Theater enough to produce it where it received strong notices and transferred to a healthy off-Broadway run. Producer Ray Stark purchased the screen rights and Harling set about adapting the piece. The finished film directed by Herbert Ross (1989) was notable for its cast: Oscar-winners Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine and Olympia Dukakis, and, in the role inspired by the author's sister, Julia Roberts who gave a warm and winning performance. Harling himself played a small role in the film as the minister who presides at Roberts' wedding. Harling wrote the hilarious spoof "Soapdish" (1991) which reteamed him with Sally Field, as a soap opera diva whose off-screen life was as outrageous as her onscreen one. He also adapted "The First Wives Club" (1996) and made his directorial debut later that same year with "The Evening Star," based on Larry McMurtry's novel.