Julie Harris, Leading Actress of the American Theatre, Dies at 87

Obituaries   Julie Harris, Leading Actress of the American Theatre, Dies at 87
Julie Harris, a towering figure of the American theatre in the decades following World War II, who created several iconic stage roles — collecting five Tony Awards along the way — died Aug. 24 in West Chatham, MA. The cause was congestive heart failure. She was 87.

Julie Harris
Julie Harris Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Though she had a handful of significant film parts — including a lead in "East of Eden," in which she played opposite James Dean, and "A Member of the Wedding," where she repeated her stage triumph, and was nominated for an Oscar — Harris was nearly wholly a creature of the stage, the last of a breed that once included Helen Hayes, Jessica Tandy and Katharine Cornell. She worked tirelessly, and, even late in life, toured with her shows — something few actresses of her stature rarely did. Director-writer Harold Clurman, who directed her, captured both her unglamorous persona as well as her dedication to her art when he described her as "a nun whose church is the stage."

She won the Tony as lead actress in a play five times, a record that has stood for many years. Her wins were for John Van Druten's I Am a Camera, in which she was the first actress to create Christopher Isherwood's Sally Bowles on stage; The Lark, Jean Anouilh's rendition of the Joan of Arc story; the romantic comedy Forty Carats; The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, in which she played the title role; and The Belle of Amherst, where she portrayed poet Emily Dickinson. She was nominated five additional times. She also won a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award in 2002.

The Belle of Amherst, staged in 1976, was one of many solo plays that Harris favored in the latter half of her career. These were typically centered on a significant historical figure and included Lucifer's Child, about the Danish author Isak Dinesen. Very often, critics observed, her performances outshone the material.

Harris' acting was regularly praised for its honesty, amination and immediacy. Physically unprepossessing, with a delicate frame and plain features ("Pictures make me look like a twelve-year-old boy who flunked his body-building course," she said), she nonetheless radiated intensity and magnetism, aided greatly by a near musical, flutey voice. She was at her best characters who were simultaneously strong, yet helpless, keenly pursuing their desires but rarely attaining them.

A stroke in 2001 slowed down Harris' productivity. She suffered a second stroke in 2010. Julie Ann Harris was born on Dec. 2, 1925, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the daughter of Elsie L. (née Smith), a nurse, and William Pickett Harris, a wealthy investment banker. She grew up in a world of privilege, and her theatre-loving parents took her to each touring show that passed through Detroit. Her mother hoped she would enter society, but she declined, settling on acting as her future. Upon moving to New York City, she attended The Hewitt School.

She made her Broadway debut in the 1945 comedy It's a Gift. Over the next five years, she was constantly employed, playing in a collection of classics by Shakespeare, Sophocles and Synge. For one of these plays, the short-lived Sundown Beach in 1949 (directed by Elia Kazan, who would later cast her in "East of Eden"), she won her first of many accolades: A Theatre World Award.

It wasn't until The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers' poignant tale of three forlorn Southern isolates, that Harris really began to draw attention. In it, she played Frankie Addams, a tomboyish, painfully lonely, virtually parent-less 12-year-old who dreams of going away with her brother, who is marrying. Her co-stars were Ethel Waters and a young Brandon de Wilde. Between them, they cast a spell that bewitched critics, leading the production to run for more than 500 performances. All three actors repeated their parts in the 1952 film version of the play — Harris' screen debut.

Harris followed up that success with one of her biggest triumphs. In I Am a Camera, she played Sally Bowles, the hapless but hopeful singer in Weimer Germany. Though Bowles would become better known to the American public through the musical Cabaret and its subsequent film, John van Druten's version was theatregoers' first glimpse of the character as a stage being, and the part solidified Harris' stardom.

"In some elusive way," wrote Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times, "Miss Harris manages to act the part almost as if Sally were a disembodied spirit unrelated to the world, the theatre of Miss Harris." Atkinson added that her performance confirmed his belief that "Miss Harris can play anything."

Once again, she repeated the role on film, in 1955, opposite Laurence Harvey. The movie was poorly received, though, and personally disliked by Isherwood.

The actress' seemingly unbeatable critical hot streak continued in 1955 with The Lark, Lillian Hellmann's adaptation of Anouilh's contemporary tale of Joan of Arc. Harris' performance was the most praised aspect of the production and won her her second Tony.

"Although she is a slight young woman who instinctively avoids big gestures," wrote Atkinson in the Times, "she is endowed with the magic that brings a theater alive."

Following a revival of The Country Wife in 1957 and a brief run of a Joe Masteroff play called The Warm Peninsula, she scored another hit with the French farce A Shot in the Dark, which ran for a year. The June Havoc play Marathon '33 didn't last long in the 1963-64 season, but it netted Harris another Tony nomination.

Skyscraper, with a book by Peter Stone, and a score by James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn, was a rare musical outing for Harris. It was a unusual stumble for the powerhouse producers Feuer and Martin, running less than a year, but, as usual, Harris was praised for her turn as a daydraming antiques dealer whose old building stands in the way of the construction of a new skyscaper. "Julie Harris moves Georgina as well as herself into a musical with commanding confidence," wrote the Times.

Though Harris was generally regarded as a dramatic actress, she had considerable success with comedy, not only A Shot in the Dark, but Forty Carats, a 1968 Jay Allen play (adapted from a French original) about an American divorcee who has a May-December romance with a 22-year-old man. Abe Burrow directed the piece, which won Harris another Tony and ran for two years.

The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, in 1972, marked a turn toward the stately and historical for Harris. The show did not run long, but it culled the actress praise and prizes, and from thereon in, she tended toward plays — sometimes written by William Luce — that shone a dual spotlight on her talent as an actress and the character of a historical figure. She commissioned playwrights to create solo evenings for her — about women such as Charlotte Bronte to Sonia Tolstoy — and then took them on the road.

Her final appearance on Broadway was a well-received 1997 revival of the gentle two-hander The Gin Game, in which she starred opposite Charles Durning. The two has previously played together in The au Pair Man at Lincoln Center in 1972.

Julie Harris
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Harris, however, seemed incapable of staying away from the theatre. She performed in the largely unremarkable family drama The Fiery Furnace at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in 1993, and also took on roles in regional production in Chicago and the Northeast, sometimes in tiny theatres in her adopted home of Cape Cod. She also voiced parts on various documentaries, including Ken Burns' "The Civil War."

During the 1980s, she largely stayed away from the theatre, occupied as she was with playing Lilimae Clements, the mother of Valene Ewing (played by Joan Van Ark) on the CBS nighttime soap opera "Knots Landing."

Other notable film roles included "Requiem for a Heavyweight," "The Haunting," "Harper," and "Gorillas in the Mist."

As praised as she often was, Harris was almost unremittingly modest about her achievements. "The Belle of Amherst was an extraordinary play for me, but I didn't feel I should win," the Tony Award, she told Playbill.com in 1999. "Or when I won for Forty Carats. I considered that a kind of a bright, funny, charming play but not remarkable. That I would win a Tony took me by surprise."

Harris was married three times, to lawyer Jay I. Julian, stage manager Manning Gurian and writer William Erwin Carroll. She had one son, Peter Alston Gurian.

Learn more about Harris' career on the PlaybillVault. 

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