Christopher Plummer, Alec Baldwin, Zoe Caldwell and More Remember Tony Winner Julie Harris

By Harry Haun
04 Dec 2013

Hal Holbrook
Photo by Ana Gibert

"In this time of constant sorrow, I am happy to be your friend and that you tolerate me sometimes to work alongside you. My only hope is having you always near. One of the lessons I learned from you: Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Most of us are driven by the fear of failure. You are pushed by the wings of angels."

Hal Holbrook came to attest to Julie's sleight-of-hand artistry, the stuff of her subtle, life-size performances. He was born the same year she was, and he arrived in New York the same year as Rosemary Harris, but it wasn't until a 1970 film called "The People Next Door" that he acted with Julie. "I played her husband. I'd heard that she was a great actress, but you couldn't tell that looking at her. I kept waiting for her to act. I was pumping away, trying to make an impression, and she was just THERE. I thought maybe she'll come out looking okay, but it doesn't look too good to me.

"Years went by, and, as so happens with all of us, we begin to wonder if we really know how to act — after doing it for 40 or 50 years — especially in film. I never felt comfortable in front of a camera. In the 1990s I was going to do a film with Julie Harris called 'Carried Away.' I had at least one big long scene with her. I told myself, 'Maybe I will learn how to act in film by watching Julie Harris,' so we went into this scene. I didn't plan anything. I just decided to go in there and sit down and listen. She talked to me. I talked back to her. She talked back to me. I talked back to her. I listened, and she listened. That was the scene. After that scene was over, I thought to myself, 'Maybe the way to act in film is: Don't act at all. Just don't act.' I think it helped me. I think it relaxed me, just watching Julie Harris just be there.

"I finally got to see The Belle of Amherst up in Seattle. I was working at the Rep there, when she played the Intiman Theatre close by, and so I went over and saw it. There it was again. Simple truth, moving around the stage, as beautiful as truth can be."

Halbrook felt that Harris believed passionately in the traditions of the theatre — in particular, "the tortured, powerful, gutsy tradition of the actor," going back to Kean and the families Booth and Barrymore. "All these great actors, who have come before us and graced these stages, make us not just a family but a tradition that is so precious. It's such a driving force in this confused world where you actually bring some truth to people — from the heart and the brain — to try to keep it alive.

"And it's the privilege beyond any privilege I could ever imagine to be part of a profession led by this beautiful human being. It means more to me than anything."

There's always one in every crowd, and at this particular memorial — in a house already full of actors — the scene stealer was Zoe Caldwell. She came up to the microphone with her usual Aussie austerity and soberly announced, "I know this is Julie's memorial and we're here to celebrate Julie's life, but I would like to admit something that I have never spoken of before: I really didn't like her very much.

"She didn't do anything wrong. The trouble was, she did everything right. And my husband [director-producer Robert Whitehead] adored her. As a result, frequently when Robert and I were working on a show together, he would say, 'Would you play that scene straight, with a look of expectation, like Julie? She always played straight and looked them in the eye, with a sense of expectation, so if you'll just do that?'

"One time, we were invited to attend an event in Nyack to honor Carson McCullers. I have no idea why I was there because I had nothing to do with Carson McCullers except through Julie and Robert. Julie and I were asked to play a tiny scene from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. She and I sat next to each other, and, when our time came, she played straight and looked me in the eye with a sense of expectation...

"And my heart fell out."