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

By Harry Haun
December 4, 2013

Playbill.com offers a recap of the memorial service for stage star Julie Harris.

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The "we of me" that Julie Harris found in her life and profession — the theatrical community — filed into the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in adoring droves for her memorial service Dec. 3, the day after what would have been her 88th birthday.

A Harris memorial is tantamount to a Viking funeral where the elders of the theatrical tribe come forth with eloquent eulogies and testimonials to that oddly elusive-yet-accessible actress whose bag of tricks was a bottomless pit of emotional magic, still potent after 45 years of acting. Her dais was dominated by agile, alert, articulate octogenarians, moving a bit gingerly at this stage of the game.

Her most frequent co-star, Christopher Plummer, was the first to speak and set an impossibly high bar for the others, leading off with some Keats he thought apt.

"'I met a Lady in the meads, 
Full beautiful, a fairy's child;
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild."

"For a great part of my life, Julie Harris has always lived — most vividly — in my imagination," he confessed. "I sometimes wonder, was she ever real? And then, of course, she was. She was a true, loyal and devoted friend, with a husky voice and a shy little laugh. But there was something else. There was a mystery about her — a kind of haunting — as if she were listening for her voices, guarding some deep secret that she could never reveal.

"Everyone who knew Julie was a little in love with her. Her wistful, vulnerable nature made one want to comfort her, protect her — but she wasn't having any of that! Oh, no, sir! Julie was her own master. She owned her own light, and one thing was dead certain: That light could never be extinguished.

"A will-o'-the-wisp surprisingly fraught with fire there was the tomboy Frankie in The Member of the Wedding where she brought us to our knees. She had also shown her soignée side in I Am a Camera. In the movies — in 'East of Eden' opposite James Dean — she once more touched us to the core. And on stage, her fury and her passion were thrilling to watch. There was no question this freckle-faced waif had already climbed into my heart."

The two were teamed six times: "The poor thing, she didn't deserve that," cracked Plummer. The first time out, he was the Earl of Warrick to her Joan of Arc in Jean Anouilh's The Lark. "After more than 200 nights, she flew to Heaven's gate and back, with matchless conviction in a performance beyond praise. There's a moment in the play when Joan, reliving her memories of the trial, suddenly burst out screaming blood and encouragement to her soldiers, and, in one swift movement, she jumped onto her little stool, with the lights going out on everyone — just one single spot on her. She shook her fists at her imaginary army, calling out into the darkened theatre each night, tears glistening on her cheeks, as we stood there — spellbound in the dark around her.

Alec Baldwin
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"This was all in the mid-'50s, of course — Broadway's last Golden Age. And Julie stood alone — high — on her very own pedestal — not just the First Lady, but the First Actress of the American Theatre — a national treasure who, for more than 50 years, continued to illumine and hold together the fragile fabric of our stage.

"To me, she will always be the Peter Pan of actresses — part-human, part-sprite. She could never hide the mischievious gleam in her eye. And she never, never grew old. She took us by the hand and led us into the theatre, and, with one stroke of her talent, she managed to disarm us of our cynicism and give us our childhood. She will continue to live in my heart and in my imagination so long as there is something called eternity. No matter what fate lies in store for the theatre, her curtain will never come down."

Joan Van Ark, who played Julie's daughter on the "Knots Landing" series, made her entrance, modeling many of the gifts she got from Julie — a quirky pink hat, a bulky "prayer bag" and a flowing white shmata. "All her life, in so many ways, Julie was a gift-giver and a note-writer extraordinaire. Clothing, perfume, notes and purses, even little pillows — all of her gifts will stay forever in my house and in my heart."

Her "Julie-worship" started at age 13 when she caught her in The Lark at the Central City Opera House in Central City, CO. "Three or four years later, with three or four local plays under my belt, I interviewed her in Denver for the Rocky Mountain News: 'Young Actress Interviews Star.' We chatted about schooling and where a young actress might want to go to study and further her dream. Julie was the first to attend the Yale School of Drama out of high school, and, thanks to her, I was the second.

"It was during the 'Knots Landing' years Julie may have given me the most incredibly personal gift of all. When my mother died in Colorado, I'd flown home to attend the service and was standing at the gravesite when Julie suddenly appeared in a perfect little Julie-hat and black dress. She had flown in to give me the gift of her presence."

There was a big give-back to Julie from her castmates and colleagues on "Knots Landing." They funded a scholarship in her name at the Drama School at Yale in perpetuity to future Julie and Julian Harrises. Alec Baldwin, who played her son on the series, contributed the first $25,000 to The Julie Harris Scholarship.

Filming in Hawaii, Baldwin left a heartfelt note, which Van Ark read to the crowd.

If it's possible for Rosemary Harris to be verklempt, she was when she arrived on stage. "So many thoughts have been running through my head, listening to you all — I am just overwhelmed," she admitted emotionally. "I wish I could be as eloquent as everyone has been today. It has just made my heart almost burst with love for Julie."

Then she proceeded to do quite well for herself, mindful of the advice of her husband, writer John Ehle — "Remember: There has never been a bad short speech.'"

She still found time to flick off a telling little anecdote about the generosity of Harris. She and her sister, who is now 96, visited the actress at her home in West Chatham, MA, and, when Julie learned the sister lived in a small seaside town in England, she asked if there were any seagulls there. Told there was, she instantly presented the sister with a beautiful china porcelain seagull. "Would you take this to England with you because he would like to come and live with your British seagulls?" she asked. It's still on the sister's windowsill — a gift to a total stranger.

Cherry Jones
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Julie was a big star when Rosemary arrived on Broadway in 1952, but they didn't become friends until 1965 when Julie was in Skyscraper at the Lunt-Fontanne, Rosemary was in the APA production of You Can't Take It With You at the Lyceum, and Barbara Harris was in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever at the Hellinger.

All that was wrapped up in a nice, neat little bow by Hollywood Reporter's Radie Harris, who claimed kin. "Dear, darling Radie!" sighed Rosemary. "I remember telling Julie she'd always been my lodestar, and she asked me what that was. I said the definition is someone or something that leads or guides — or that serves as an inspiration or model through life. Julie was always my lodestar.'

Up next, Cherry Jones hitched a ride on those sentiments: "Julie is my primary guiding star too, and I know she is for so many of us in this room today. Lodestars of the soul never die, they never go away, they never fade. I feel Julie's very much alive within us all this afternoon, encouraging us — in her quiet and, at times, ferocious way — to respect one another, to care for one another, to cooperate with one another and to proceed in our lives representing her faith that love is all. Amen, Julie!"

Jones then read a trio of letters written after the 2001 stroke that substantially ended Julie's career. The authors themselves have since passed away, and Jones wanted "to imagine that, at this very moment, Julie is with these three gentlemen in some great celestial wing at the right of the stage, about to go on."

The first letter was from Noel Taylor, who would subsequently do 35 productions with Julie. He recalled meeting her while doing his first Broadway show, Eva Le Gallienne's 1947 Alice in Wonderland, and having to fit her into the costume of the second White Rabbit. "I didn't even know there was a second white rabbit," the costume design groused, "but she was small, and it was a difficult decision to decide the height of her ears. When she left for the stage, I said to my assistant, 'What a lovely gentle soul, but she'll never amount to anything. She has no drive.'"

In less than three years, Julie Harris was spelled out in lights above the title of I Am a Camera, and Taylor was eating those words. "I've realized, if I only had one tenth of the drive of that little white rabbit, I might be better off than I am." He followed that with a sweet P.S. "And it makes me happy to know I didn't get the ears a bit too big."

"Dear Julie," began the next, from production stage manager Mitch Erickson. "Can I compare thee to a summer's day. I suppose so, sure, but I'd rather compare you to the best people I've worked with: Maggie Smith, Deborah Kerr, Uta Hagen, Ruth Gordon, Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst, Ian McKellen, Eileen Atkins, Nigel Hawthorne, Woody Allen, Albert Finney, Judith Anderson — it's a long list. You are more gifted, more adorable, more fun and a better shopper than any of them. However, if Uta, Colleen or Maggie come near, burn this! You know how they get."

The loveliest was last, from Charles Durning, who co-starred with her in her final Broadway appearance, which won her her last (and still-unprecedented tenth) Tony nomination: "First, let me say I love you, Julie. There is everybody else, and then there is you. You make music, and that is made when your heart comes together with your intellect. Nobody does it better than you do. You are light held together by air. Your kind of acting exists in the same way moonlight exists. It's out there all right — but distant and unreachable from most of us. I am fortunate in having done three plays with you. You have taught me much. After having worked with you and watching your remarkable talent, I find there is only one thing left for me: Suicide.

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."