“Acting is always an adventure, and a struggle, and a quest to find the truth,”
Warner Bros., via Photofest
By BRUCE WEBER
Julie Harris, the unprepossessing anti-diva who, in the guises of Joan of Arc, Mary Todd Lincoln, Emily Dickinson and many other characters both fictional and real, became the most decorated performer in the history of Broadway, died on Saturday at her home in Chatham, Mass.
She was 87. The cause was not immediately known, said Francesca James, a longtime friend who was with her when she died.
Ms. Harris had a lengthy, overstuffed résumé as an actress, with dozens of movie and television credits, including the 1955 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel of brotherly rivalry, “East of Eden,” in which she played the girl who falls for the tormented younger sibling played by James Dean, and nearly eight years in the 1980s as an eccentric country singer on the prime time soap opera “Knots Landing.” But perhaps more than any other performer of her era and her elevated stature, she owed her stardom and reputation to the stage.
She was, if such a thing is possible, born to act. As a girl she declared to a high school drama teacher, “Acting is my life,” and she was once described by the director and critic Harold Clurman as “totally designed to be a good instrument on the stage.” Slim, red-haired, physically graceful though not especially athletic, she had the aura of delicacy but was not a mesmerizing beauty; nor was she a distinctive, public personality. In interviews, she was unremittingly humble, dwelling on what she deemed her failures far more than her successes and speaking of acting as an imperfectible craft for which the effort at rendering a character, not the finished result or the applause, is not only the challenge but the reward.
Eliot Elisofon/Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images
“Acting is always an adventure, and a struggle, and a quest to find the truth,” she said. On another occasion, more than 30 years after her career began, she allowed that the work of an actor still had the capacity to frighten her.
“It’s wanting to do it right, that’s where the fear comes in, but who can say what’s right?” she said, adding: “We’re very delicate creatures, aren’t we?”
Celebrated as she was, she was more artist than star, rarely associated with a long-running hit; only 6 of her more than 30 Broadway shows ran as long as six months. Renowned for her wide range and her dedication to each performance, even — or maybe especially — in plays that critics and audiences found wanting, she became a compelling figure by stepping into a role, the proverbial vessel filled by whatever character she had undertaken to play.
The playwright John van Druten, who adapted Christopher Isherwood’s novel “Goodbye to Berlin” into the play “I Am a Camera,” the show that made Ms. Harris a star in 1952 (and later became the source material for the musical “Cabaret”), referred to her in a 1955 interview with The New York Times Magazine, as a glass pitcher.
“You pour in red wine, the pitcher looks red; pour in crème de menthe, it is green,” van Druten said. “When she’s by herself, Julie’s almost transparent, almost nonexistent.”
Ms. Harris made herself known in 1950 as a 24-year-old playing a 12-year-old, the loquacious, motherless, fiercely self-tormenting Frankie Addams, in Carson McCullers’s adaptation of her own novel, “The Member of the Wedding.” With her hair cut tomboy short, she spent virtually all of the play onstage, dreaming aloud, remonstrating with the sage family cook Berenice (played by Ethel Waters), hectoring her young cousin John Henry (Brandon De Wilde) and berating herself with the incessant needy bleat of loneliness. It required a huge effort, and Ms. Harris received the kind of notices that can — and in this case did — propel a career.
“In the long, immensely complicated part of the adolescent girl, Julie Harris, a very gifted young actress, gives an extraordinary performance — vibrant, full of anguish and elation by turns, rumpled, unstable, egotistic and unconsciously cruel,” Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times.
She reprised the role of Frankie in the 1952 film, directed by Fred Zinneman, before returning to Broadway that year in a role that couldn’t be more different, in “I Am a Camera, ” as the first Broadway incarnation of Isherwood’s bawdy, bohemian nightclub singer Sally Bowles.
She won exultant reviews, and after 50 performances, the producers affixed a seven-foot cutout of her to the theater marquee and placed ads in the newspaper declaring that “Gertrude Macy and Walter Starcke have the pleasure to announce the stardom of Miss Julie Harris.” For her performance, she won her first Tony, and once again she recreated the role in the movies.
“Miss Harris,” Isherwood later wrote, “was more essentially Sally Bowles than the Sally of my book.”
Over the next 25 years, Ms. Harris essayed a remarkable variety of roles on stage. In the 1950s, she appeared in Jean Anouilh’s “Mademoiselle Colombe,” the tale of an independent-minded woman in turn of the century France who leaves her husband to become an actress. She played a lusty young adulteress in the Restoration comedy “The Country Wife,” followed by a small-town Minnesota girl who moves to Miami and falls for a gigolo in “The Warm Peninsula,” a play by Joe Masteroff. On television, in one of many dramas she appeared in that was produced by the Hallmark Hal of Fame, she gave an Emmy-winning performance as a young Irishwoman whose lover dies fighting the British and who subsequently falls for the man who killed him in James Costigan’s “Little Moon of Alban,” and then played the role again on Broadway in 1960 (with Robert Redford as her doomed first love) when Costigan adapted his work for the stage.
Later in the 1960s, she played a loose woman who is also a murder suspect in a stylized French farce, “A Shot in the Dark.” She also starred in her first musical, “Skyscraper,” as a stubborn city girl who refuses to sell her little house to make room for an office tower, singing and dancing with aplomb if not distinction. (“You would not mistake her voice for Merman’s,” one critic wrote; “it is small and dry but can carry a tune satisfactorily.”)
And she opened in the comedy “Forty Carats,” a show that turned out to be her biggest hit, running for nearly two years (though not the whole time with Ms. Harris in it), and winning her a Tony — her third — for her portrayal of a 40-something woman who marries a much younger man. Away from Broadway, she played Juliet at the Stratford Festival in Canada, Ophelia in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s “Hamlet” in Central Park and Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Cape Cod. Her other major roles included Nora in “A Doll’s House” and Eliza Doolittle in “Pygmalion,” both on the Hallmark Hall of Fame, and, in her next to last appearance on Broadway, in 1994, Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie.”
In 1955, she won her second Tony in “The Lark,” an adaptation by Lillian Hellman of Anouilh’s retelling of the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, leading a cast that included Christopher Plummer, Boris Karloff and Joseph Wiseman. In fact she won three of her Tonys for portraying characters from real life. In December 1972, she opened in “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln,” a play by James Prideaux in which she played Mary Todd Lincoln at the end of her life, long after the assassination of her husband, and won the Tony for best actress in spite of the play’s having been critically excoriated and closing after only six weeks. Her portrayal, notable for its high emotion, had the effect of humanizing a woman whom history had been unkind to as a chilly, erratic spendthrift.
“Some people asked me, ‘Why do you have to cry so much in ‘The Last of Mrs. Lincoln?’ ” she said, in 1979. My answer was that she was always crying. She couldn’t speak of her children who died, without crying. And after the assassination, her whole life was gone. She clung to the pain. As actors, that’s what we deal with. My mother used to say to me, ‘But you’re so dramatic.’ Yes, I’d say, that’s what I’m supposed to be. Life is dramatic, all the time, much more than on stage.”
Most famously, Ms. Harris portrayed the poet Emily Dickinson at home as a fiercely observant, proudly literary and deeply self-conscious near-agoraphobe in “The Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman show written by William Luce that appeared on Broadway in 1976 and was filmed for public television.
Throughout her career, on television and in the movies as well as on the stage, she was drawn to historical figures, among them Florence Nightingale, Charlotte Brontë, Isak Dineson, Queen Victoria, and Nora (wife of James) Joyce, and she often spoke in interviews of her fondness for — and the usefulness of — research.
“I love biographies,” she once said. “I get very excited by the truth that comes out of what people have left behind, like letters. I first fell in love with Emily Dickinson when I read her letters. It’s like listening to someone’s heart.”
“The Belle of Amherst” was widely admired as a tour de force by Ms. Harris. A performance that wrested astonishing clarity and variety of mood from a portrait of a brilliant, introverted recluse, it struck at least one critic, Walter Kerr of The New York Times, as the pinnacle of Ms. Harris’s career.
“As I look back, I find ‘The Belle of Amherst’ the most stimulating event of the season, and not only because I’ve long since been persuaded that Emily Dickinson is our finest poet,” Mr. Kerr wrote. “It may seem a form of magic to make her most casual lines live so intensely on the stage. But for magic read craft. And for craft — painfully, stubbornly, at last stunningly acquired — read Julie Harris.”
Julie Ann Harris was born on Dec. 2, 1925 in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., an affluent suburb just east of Detroit. Her father, William, was an investment banker who was also an expert on squirrels and a curator of mammals at the museum of zoology of the University of Michigan. Her mother, who had trained as a nurse, was a socialite whose aspirations for her daughter to become a debutante contributed to young Julie’s career path. In an interview in 1965, Manning Gurian, then Ms. Harris’s husband, her second, said his wife’s youthful interest in performing had been a way of rebelling against her mother.
“Julie was a great disappointment to her,” Mr. Gurian said. “She wasn’t pretty, didn’t wear the right clothes, couldn’t find dates; and she had no intention of becoming a debutante — which was the dream of Mrs. Harris’s life. As a defense, Julie escaped into acting. As an actress she could be anyone she wanted to and her mother couldn’t stop her.”
Ms. Harris was married and divorced three times. She is survived by a son, Peter Gurian.
As a girl, she devoured movies — she claimed she’d seen “Gone with the Wind” 13 times — read biographies of great actresses and performed in school plays. She was sent to a finishing school in Providence, R.I., but she persuaded her parents to enroll her instead in Miss Hewitt’s Classes, a girl’s prep school in Manhattan (now known as the Hewitt School) that offered drama classes. In summers she trained at an acting camp in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where her mentor, Charlotte Perry, encouraged her to apply to the Yale School of Drama. During the year she spent at Yale, she got her first Broadway role in a short-lived comedy “It’s a Gift,” playing a professor’s daughter who stands to inherit some money but only under morally compromising circumstances. In the late 1940s, she appeared in small roles in a series of shows, including British productions of “King Henry IV, Part 2” and “Oedipus,” both with Laurence Olivier, and “The Playboy of the Western World,” with Burgess Meredith and Maureen Stapleton; in a 1948 production of “Macbeth,” which starred Michael Redgrave, she was a witch.
In 2001, Ms. Harris suffered a stroke, which impeded her speech and curtailed her ability to perform, though she has since appeared in a handful of films, including “The Way Back Home” (2006), in which she played a stroke victim. In 2005, she was a Kennedy Center honoree.
For decades, Ms. Harris worked almost constantly — she took the job in “Knots Landing” as she was recuperating from a mastectomy after a bout with breast cancer — a dedication she sometimes spoke of as having a high cost, regretting that she did not have more children. Her film credits include “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962), a boxing melodrama with Anthony Quinn, Mickey Rooney and Jackie Gleason, in which she played a sympathetic but manipulative social worker; “The Haunting” (1963), as a spinster beset by evil spirits; “Harper,” a detective story starring Paul Newman, in which she played a nightclub entertainer and addict; “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967), an adaptation of a McCullers novel set on an army base in which she played the sickly wife of an officer, played by Brian Keith, who was cheating on her with another officer’s wife (Elizabeth Taylor); “The Bell Jar” (1979), an adaptation of Sylvia Plath’s novel, in which she played the mother of a suicidal young woman; “Gorillas in the Mist” (1984) in which played Roz Carr, a friend to the murdered zoologist Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver), and “HouseSitter” (1992) a romantic comedy with Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin — she played his mother.
On television, she appeared in guest spots on a variety of popular dramas, comedies and romances, including “Family Ties, “The Love Boat, “Columbo, “The Name of the Game,” “Tarzan” and “Medical Center”) and a remarkable number of westerns (“Rawhide,” “Laredo,” “Daniel Boone,” “The Big Valley,” “Bonanza,” “The Virginian”). She starred in a couple of series of her own, though both were short-lived. In one, “Thicker Than Water” (1973) she was a spinster whose father asked her to help run his pickle factory; in the other, “The Family Holvak,” (1975) she starred with Glenn Ford as the wife of a Depression-era preacher. She did voiceovers in several of the documentaries by Ken Burns, including the voice of a southern diarist, Mary Boykin Chesnut, in “The Civil War.”
But it was clear that the stage was where she was most at home. Unusual among performers of her stature, she was not averse to taking shows on the road, and she toured in, among other plays, “The Belle of Amherst,” “Lettice and Lovage,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “The Gin Game.”
Sometime after she turned 70, Ms. Harris was asked what she’d do today if she learned the world would end tomorrow.
“I’d go to the theater,” she said.