Julie Harris, esteemed film and stage actress who won five Tony Awards, dies at 87

August 25, 2013

Julie Harris, one of the most revered and honored stage actresses, who brought a demure but intense presence to stage portrayals of Joan of Arc, the poet Emily Dickinson and Mary Todd Lincoln and acted in such films as “East of Eden,” “The Member of the Wedding” and “The Haunting,” died Aug. 24 at her home in Chatham, Mass. She was 87.

The cause was reported by the Associated Press as congestive heart failure. She had suffered a stroke in 2001 and a second one in 2010, her close friend, actress Francesca James, said.

In a career of durability, longevity and versatility, time and her own gifts transformed her from troubled tomboy to appealing ingenue to scheming older woman. For her stage work, Ms. Harris won five Tony Awards — for an actress, an honor matched only by Angela Lansbury and Audra McDonald — and finally a lifetime achievement Tony, which thrust her into theatrical history as the Tony Awards’ most honored performer.

She first came to prominence as the lonely, motherless tomboy Frankie Addams in Carson McCullers’s “The Member of the Wedding” on Broadway in 1950. Her film performance of Frankie two years later earned her an Academy Award nomination.

Red-haired and slim with dainty features, Ms. Harris was hardly a conventional beauty, and her seemingly plain quality was matched by her humility when interviewed. She claimed that she had taken up acting because of a lonely and self-conscious youth.


Julie Harris posing with the Emmy Award she received in 1962 for her performance in “The Hallmark Hall of Fame.” Harris, who won an unprecedented five Tony Awards, has died. (AP)

In words that could have come from an adult Frankie Addams, she once remarked on her childhood: “I looked so plain — bands on my teeth, bird legs, mouse face, hair that couldn’t curl.”

She also created the devil-may-care cabaret singer Sally Bowles on Broadway in “I Am a Camera,” John Van Druten’s adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood stories of pre-Nazi Berlin. The role, later performed by Liza Minnelli in the movie musical “Cabaret,” won Ms. Harris her first Tony Award in 1952.

“You know, I loved Liza Minnelli in the movie ‘Cabaret,’ ” she told the Seattle Times in 1998. “But it was nothing like what we did in the play. . . . I was a lousy — well, a passable — singer. I saw Sally as very much an escaped schoolgirl on a lark.”

In film, she often conveyed the power and passion beneath a prissy and sometimes prudish facade, such as her frumpy social worker who takes a shine to broken-down boxer Anthony Quinn in “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962).

Her work on “East of Eden” (1955) with James Dean was credited by director Elia Kazan with bringing out the best in her often-difficult co-star. Like Dean and Marlon Brando, she had studied method acting with teacher Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. The Method style is known for its emphasis on psychology and emotions. However, Ms. Harris recalled that she often violated one of Strasberg’s rules by first memorizing her lines before studying her character’s interior motivations.

She was never afraid to tackle parts that involved a scarred psychology. In “The Haunting” (1963), she played a spinster psychic driven mad by evil spirits. Her other edgy film portrayals included a crazed junkie in the Paul Newman private-eye vehicle “Harper” (1966), and an army officer’s wife who mutilated herself after the death of their baby in director John Huston’s “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967), also from a Carson McCullers novel.

In later years, she was philosophical about her film career, telling The Washington Post in 1988, “I wish I had gotten bigger parts in the movies, but I could never compete with the great beauties.”

On stage, she won Tony Awards in 1955 as the martyred Joan of Arc in Jean Anouilh’s “The Lark” and, in 1969 for the comedy “Forty Carats” (1969) as a 40-year-old American divorcee in a May-September relationship with a 22-year-old college boy. (The role was later played by Liv Ullmann in a 1973 film.)

She won her fourth Tony in 1973 for James Prideaux’s “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln.” Although critics singled her out for bringing warmth and humanity to the depressive Mary Todd Lincoln, the play closed after six weeks, a recurring theme in her stage career. Only six of her more than 30 Broadway shows ran more than six months.

“Some people ask me, ‘Why do you have to cry so much in “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln”?’ ” she told the New York Times in i979. “My answer is that she was always crying. She couldn’t speak of her children who died, without crying. . . . 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,’ ” she added. “Yes, I’d say, that’s what I’m supposed to be. Life is dramatic, all the time, much more than on stage.”

Her portrayal of the self-conscious and reclusive poet Emily Dickinson in the one-woman show, “The Belle of Amherst” by William Luce, won her a final best actress Tony in 1977, and a later audio recording of that role won her a Grammy Award for best spoken-word recording. Her other awards include the lifetime achievement Tony in 2002, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2005 and three Emmy Awards.

Julie Ann Harris was born Dec. 2, 1925, in the affluent Detroit suburb of Grosse Point. Her father, William Pickett Harris, was an investment banker who later pursued a career as a mammalogist at the University of Michigan. The family lost its fortune during the 1929 stock market crash.

Her acting career was a bone of contention in the family. Her mother, a former nurse, had worshiped the Lunts, Katharine Cornell and Ethel Barrymore and had once confided in her daughter her fantasies of a life on the stage. However, she also wanted her daughter to be a debutante. Ms. Harris — self-conscious and awkward on dates — later said that acting was a way of rebelling against her mother’s wishes.

As a teenager, Ms. Harris loved the movies — she once recalled seeing “Gone With the Wind” nine times — and like many star-struck teens, kept scrapbooks of movie stars. At 14, she debuted in a school production of Anatole France’s “The Juggler of Notre Dame.” She later enrolled in the Yale School of Drama.

Ms. Harris was married and divorced three times. Survivors include a son.

Her work included many television appearances, most notably the 1980s soap opera, “Knots Landing,” in which she played a scheming Southern belle. In the Ken Burns documentary “The Civil War” (1990), she gave voice to diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut.

Known for her sensitivity, she was quoted as saying that “God comes to us in theater in the way we communicate with each other. . . . It’s a way of expressing our humanity.”

Ms. Harris continued to act during her recovery from breast cancer, receiving chemotherapy during her run on “Knots Landing,” and later after surgery for a backstage fall in the 1990s.

“I think about old age and death a lot, but they happen to other people,” she said in a 1999 interview in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “I’m going to go on and on and on.”

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