Barbara Harris, the Broadway and film actor who starred in the original Broadway productions of the musicals On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and The Apple Tree—a performance that brought her the 1967 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical—died August 21 in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the age of 83.
The cause was lung cancer, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Whether comedic or dramatic, bold or demure, the characters Harris played were imbued with a sense of palpable discovery and spontaneous wonder. Her unshakable commitment to experiencing the world around her in real-time was coupled with a powerhouse voice that could seemingly do anything. Critic Walter Kerr famously called her "the square root of noisy sex," a description that prompted her reply: "My goodness, mathematicians are going to be furious!"
The Chicago-born actor perfected technique during her early years as a member of Compass Players, a pioneering acting company that was the first based on improvisational performance. The company gave birth to today’s Second City, of which Harris is listed as a co-founder.
It was Second City that led Harris to make her Broadway debut in 1961 with the troupe’s musical revue From Second City. Broadway was not among her ambitions as a young actor, and Harris and another troupe member voted against a New York transfer. They lost, however, and Harris made a sensation with the show’s opening number, “Everybody’s in the Know.”
She next appeared Off-Broadway in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad, for which she won the 1962 Obie Award for supporting actress, a role which she recreated for the film adaptation. Her next Broadway stint was in a brief 1963 revival of Mother Courage and Her Children, after which she planned to return home to Chicago. It was then that she was approached by both Richard Rodgers and Alan Jay Lerner to star in new musicals they were writing; only Lerner's would come to fruition.
“I wasn't big on musical theatre,” she told the Phoenix New Times in 2002. “I had seen part of South Pacific in Chicago and I walked out. But it was Richard Rodgers calling!”
The show was On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, in which Harris was to star in the dual roles of Daisy Gamble and Melinda Wells.
Despite her lack of enthusiasm for musical theatre, it was her back to back performances in 1965’s On a Clear Day and Bock and Harnick’s The Apple Tree in 1966 that forever defined her as a Broadway musical theatre star.
A series of three one-act musicals based on the story of Adam and Eve, Frank R. Stockton’s "The Lady or The Tiger," and Jules Feiffer’s Passionella, The Apple Tree required Harris and her co-star Alan Alda to take on myriad roles.
Her show-stopping number “Gorgeous,” a calculated grab bag of vocal inflections and breathless comic phrasing that she created for the character of wanna-be movie star Ella, had audiences on the edge of their seats and earned her the 1967 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for The Apple Tree.
In addition to her roles on Broadway, Harris was well-known for her roles on screen, appearing in the films Plaza Suite, A Thousand Clowns, Freaky Friday, Robert Altman's Nashville, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Who Is Harry Kellerman, and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, for which she received a 1972 Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
Conflicted about stardom, she claimed that "I always chose movies that I thought would fail, so that I wouldn't have to deal with the fame thing." Nevertheless, she worked with some of the most well-regarded auteurs of modern cinema, from Alfred Hitchcock and Altman to Francis Ford Coppola and Arthur Hiller.
Never precious about her career, she said in a 2002 interview, "There wasn't a great deal of design to the path of my career. I was a small-town, middle-class girl who wore a cashmere sweater very nicely and ended up on Broadway because that's the way the wind was blowing."
Harris was born July 25, 1935, in Evanston, Illinois.
Flip through photos of Barbara Harris on the stage below: