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.
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.