Harper was born in Iowa City, Iowa, the son of Harry Harper, a psychiatrist, and Marilyn Harper (née Hill), who was one of the first black practicing anesthesiologists in the United States. He has been acting since the age of 7. Harper graduated from Bella Vista High School in 1984. He then graduated magna cum laude from Brown University in 1988. In 1992, Harper graduated with a J.D., cum laude, from Harvard Law School. In addition, he also received his Master of Public Administration degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. During his years at Harvard, he was a full-time member of Boston's Black Folks Theater Company, one of the oldest and most acclaimed black theater troupes in the country. While a student at Harvard, Harper befriended Barack Obama. Harper and Obama met on the basketball court and became good friends.
Although Harper earned three Ivy League degrees, he decided to pursue acting and moved to Los Angeles. He has received several honorary degrees, including honorary doctorates from both Westfield State College and Howard University. Born Francis Eugene Harper, he adopted the name "Hill" as a tribute to both his maternal and paternal ancestors.
Harper's first roles in television began in 1993, in a recurring role on the Fox series Married... with Children, while also making his film debut in the short film Confessions of a Dog. He had his first acting role in a feature film with Spike Lee's Get on the Bus (1996), which cast him as a UCLA film student riding a bus to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. He went on to further demonstrate his versatility in such films as Christopher Scott Cherot's Hav Plenty (1997) and Lee's He Got Game (1998), the former of which featured him as an egotistical pop-soul singer.
His profile subsequently rose on both the mainstream and independent film circuits, thanks to roles in films ranging from Beloved (1998) to the independent romantic comedy Loving Jezebel (1999) to The Skulls (2000). Harper did some of his most acclaimed work in Jordan Walker-Pearlman's The Visit (2000), an independent drama in which he starred as a prisoner dying of AIDS who tries to put his life back together.
Harper played coroner-turned-crime scene investigator Sheldon Hawkes on the CBS crime drama CSI: NY for nine seasons. He also portrayed Leshem in the 2010 Syfy original movie Stonehenge Apocalypse.
In February 2013, it was announced that CSI: NY would be ending and Harper would be joining the cast of Covert Affairs as a series regular.
From April 21, 2015, to May 10, 2015, Harper starred as "Hard Rock" in the Off-Broadway play ToasT. The play (produced by Lemon Andersen and co-starring Keith David) was set in the Attica Prison around the time of its 1971 prison riot and told of the lives of its prisoners using poetic prose.
Hill Harper’s acting career also includes voice-over work (or voice acting) with Breathe Bible.
Harper is the author of several books: Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny, published in 2006; Letters to a Young Sister: DeFINE Your Destiny, published in 2008; and The Conversation: How (Black) Men and Women Can Build Loving, Trusting Relationships, published in 2010. His books, The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place and The Wiley Boys were both published in 2011. His book, Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones was published in 2013.
In January 2008, Harper participated in "Yes We Can", a music video produced by will.i.am supporting presidential candidate Barack Obama. Harper is a member of the Obama for America National Finance Committee. As of October 2009, Hill has made several contributions to political candidates, exclusively to Democrats. Harper endorsed the 10,000 Bookbags back-to-school backpack campaign to help local disadvantaged children with Urban Change Ministries founder Pastor Jay Cameron of the Life Center, and R&B singer Ginuwine. Harper stated that he is a fiscal conservative when he appeared on the political talk show Hannity on September 10, 2009. On February 22, 2016, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law announced that Harper would be their national spokesman.
In the fall of 2008, Harper was initiated as a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity with his line brothers Dr. Naim Akbar of Florida State University and former NFL player Leo LeMarcus Newman.
Harper won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series for three consecutive years (2008–2010) for his portrayal of Dr. Sheldon Hawkes on CSI: NY. Previously he had been nominated for the award for three consecutive years (2005–2007), for the same character. In 2000, he had also been nominated for the award, for his role in the medical drama City of Angels. On January 9, 2014 his book Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work - Non-Fiction.
People magazine named Hill Harper as one of the “Sexiest Men Alive” for 2004, and again for 2014.
While writing his book The Wealth Cure: Putting Money In Its Place, Harper was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. After treatment, he was given a clean bill of health.
After being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, Harper researched the effects skin care products can have on a person’s system. This led to his creating an all-natural personal care line for men and women, called Be The Architect.
In November 2015, Harper received a call to adopt a baby boy from a homeless woman. He agreed, and by May 2017, the adoption of Pierce Hill Harper was finalized.Harper, Hill (2007). Letters to a Young Brother: Manifest Your Destiny. Gotham. ISBN 978-1592402496.
Harper, Hill (2009). Letters to a Young Sister: DeFINE Your Destiny. Gotham. ISBN 978-1592404599.
Harper, Hill (2010). The Conversation: How (Black) Men and Women Can Build Loving, Trusting Relationships. Gotham. ISBN 978-1592405787.
Harper, Hill (2011). The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place. Gotham. ISBN 978-1592406500.
Harper, Hill (2011). The Wiley Boys. Harper Hill. ISBN 978-0974721873.
Harper, Hill (2013). Letters to an Incarcerated Brother: Encouragement, Hope, and Healing for Inmates and Their Loved Ones. Gotham. ISBN 978-1592407248.
Bereola, Enitan (2014). Gentlewoman: Etiquette for a Lady, from a Gentleman. Bereolaesque Group. ISBN 978-0615927770.