Democracy Dies in Darkness

Obituaries

Barbara Harris, scene-stealing actress of screen and stage, dies at 83

August 22, 2018 at 6:07 PM

Barbara Harris at the 1967 Tony Awards, where she was honored for her performance in “The Apple Tree.” (Dave Pickoff/AP)

Before Barbara Harris won a Tony Award, ran away with the final scene of Robert Altman’s “Nashville” or starred in the original body-switch comedy “Freaky Friday,” she was an inquisitive Chicago teenager struck by a construction project on the same block as her home, where an old Chinese restaurant was being converted into a theater.

That, at least, was how director Mike Nichols remembered it.

“When we were painting and building it, one day a young girl wandered in — because she lived on the block — and asked what we were doing. ‘We’re going to have a theater,’ we said. ‘Do you want to be in it?’ She replied, ‘Okay.’ ”

Ms. Harris, Nichols told Life magazine in 1966, “handled the mimeographing machine” for months before working as an actor in the troupe, a group of improvisational performers that evolved into the nationally recognized comedy group Second City.

“I once asked her if she thought she would have become an actress if the theater hadn’t been on the block,” Nichols said. “She said she didn’t know.”

Ms. Harris and Mike Nichols, who directed her in “The Apple Tree” and performed with her in the Compass Players, a predecessor to the Second City comedy troupe. (Marty Lederhandler/AP)

Ms. Harris, who died Aug. 21 at age 83, at a hospice center in Scottsdale, Ariz., went on to perform the first scene in a Second City production. A master at playing comic, neurotic characters, she was also a talented vocalist who drew comparisons to Judy Holliday, the versatile comedian-actress-singer.

Her characters were often artistic strivers, aspiring actresses and singers whose ambitions exceeded their talents. For “The Apple Tree,” a Nichols-directed musical that earned Ms. Harris a best actress Tony in 1967, she played a soot-stained chimney sweep who dreams of becoming a movie star despite having a comically bad singing voice.

In “Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?” (1971), starring Dustin Hoffman, Ms. Harris received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress — largely, critics said, on the strength of a single scene in which her actress character breaks down during an audition.

“I feel like I just auditioned for the part of a human being and I didn’t get the job,” she says, while insisting her hand is stuck to a stage lamp and won’t come off.

In perhaps her most memorable performance, she dominated what movie critic Roger Ebert described as the “unforgettable and heartbreaking” final moments of “Nashville” (1975), singing the song “It Don’t Worry Me” before a concert audience that has just witnessed an attempted assassination.

Ms. Harris also starred alongside Jason Robards in her 1965 film debut, as a social worker in the Herb Gardner adaptation “A Thousand Clowns,” and in 1976 played Jodie Foster’s mother in “Freaky Friday” and a fake psychic in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, “Family Plot.”

She later appeared with Meryl Streep and Alan Alda in “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” (1979), was a mother in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986) and had small roles in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988) and “Grosse Pointe Blank” (1997), her final movie before retiring to teach acting in Arizona.

George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States and the father of the 43rd, was a steadfast force on the international stage for decades, from his stint as an envoy to Beijing to his eight years as vice president and his one term as commander in chief from 1989 to 1993. He died Nov. 30 at 94. Read the obituary
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Hall of Fame hockey player Stan Mikita, who helped the Chicago Blackhawks win the 1961 Stanley Cup, died Aug. 7. He was 78. Mr. Mikita, who weighed only 165 pounds, played 22 years for the Blackhawks and was the team’s captain. Read the obituary
Alan Rabinowitz, a zoologist who overcame a debilitating stutter to become a powerful voice for leopards, jaguars and other wild cats threatened by humans, died Aug. 5 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 64. Read the obituary
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Washington Post reporter and columnist Warren Brown, who brought race and class-conscious insights to his coverage of the automotive industry and who wrote about his health struggles and the kidney he received from a colleague, died July 26 at a hospital in Manassas, Va. He was 70. Read the obituary
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Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee, a Korean-born martial artist who settled in Washington and helped popularize taekwondo in the United States, preaching a philosophy of “truth, beauty and love” while teaching members of Congress how to kick and punch, died April 30 at an assisted-living community in Arlington, Va. He was 86. Read the obituary
Bob Dorough, a pianist and singer who performed with jazz greats Charlie Parker and Miles Davis but was perhaps best known for his whimsical compositions for the animated video series “Schoolhouse Rock!,” died April 23 at his home in Mount Bethel, Pa. He was 94. Read the obituary
Verne Troyer, an actor who was known best for his role as Mini-Me, a pint-size version of Mike Myers’s Dr. Evil in two “Austin Powers” movies, died April 21. He was 49. Mr. Troyer, who was 2 foot 8, appeared in dozens of movies and TV series, including “Jack of All Trades” and “Boston Public.” His most famous role, by far, was as Mini-Me, first in “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” (1999) and in “Austin Powers in Goldmember” (2002). Read the obituary
Bruno Sammartino, foreground, fled to the mountains of Italy with his family during World War II and came to the United States at 14, weighing just 80 pounds. Within 10 years, he built himself into a 275-pound mound of muscle, with remarkable strength and a relentless, blue-collar style that made him one of the most popular professional wrestlers of the 1960s and 1970s. Mr. Sammartino, who was once among the highest-paid athletes in the United States, died April 18 at a hospital in Pittsburgh. He was 82. Read the obituary
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Donald McKayle, a Tony-nominated choreographer who created classic works of modern dance and was the first black man to direct and choreograph Broadway musicals, died April 6 at a hospital in Orange, Calif. He was 87. Read the obituary
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Former Dutch politician Johan van Hulst saved hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis and was a Righteous Among the Nations. He died March 22 at the age of 107. Read the obituary.
Charles Lazarus, who transformed his father’s Washington bicycle business into Toys R Us, a retail giant that rivaled Santa Claus’s workshop before it declared bankruptcy in September 2017, died March 22. He was 94. Read the obituary
Illustrator Robert Grossman, who created a surreal movie poster for “Airplane!” and caricatured presidents from Richard M. Nixon to Donald Trump, died March 15 at his home in Manhattan. He was 78. Read the obituary
Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a folksy New York liberal who championed women’s rights and American manufacturing for more than three decades as a Democratic congresswoman, died March 16 at a hospital in Washington. She was 88 and the oldest sitting member of Congress. Read the obituary
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John Sulston, a Nobel Prize-winning British scientist who helped decode the human genome, died on March 6. He was 75. Read the obituary
Propelled by an ever-lengthening stride and extraordinary willpower, the lanky British medical student Roger Bannister became the first person to run a mile in less than four minutes. He pitched over the finish line at the University of Oxford’s Iffley Road track on a dank, blustery day — May 6, 1954 — and electrified England during its post-World War II doldrums. Dr. Bannister, who died March 3 at age 88, became a national hero at a time when mavericks around the world were overcoming the long-perceived physical boundaries of man and nature. Read the obituary
Nanette Fabray, a Tony Award-winning Broadway actress and singer who later won three Emmy Awards in the 1950s as Sid Caesar’s comic foil on television, died Feb. 22 at her home in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. She was 97. Read the obituary
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Naomi Parker-Fraley was said to be the inspiration behind Rosie the Riveter. She died on Jan. 20. Read the obituary
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Actor Rock Hudson and actress Dorothy Malone are seen in 1957 on the set of “The Tarnished Angels.” Malone, who won hearts of 1960s television viewers as the long-suffering mother in the nighttime soap opera “Peyton Place,” died Jan. 19 at 92. Read the obituary.
Julius Lester, who recounted African American history as well as his own personal story in noted works of literature, died Jan. 18 at 78. Read the obituary
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Edwin Hawkins, 74, a Grammy-winning gospel star best known for the hit “Oh, Happy Day,” died Jan. 15. Read the obituary.
Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer of the Irish band the Cranberries, died Jan. 15 at age 46 in London. Read the obituary.
Keith Jackson, the folksy voice of college football who for decades wove backwoods wit throughout his Saturday broadcasts on ABC, died Jan. 12. He was 89. His signature phrase was “Whoa, Nellie!” Read the obituary.
Denise LaSalle, a Hall of Fame soul and blues singer and songwriter whose earthy lyrics and sexually explicit stage patter made her an enduring presence in predominantly black clubs and theaters, died Jan. 8 at 83. Read the obituary.
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Anna Mae Hays, chief of the Army Nurse Corps, being promoted to brigadier general by Gen. William Westmoreland in 1970. Hays, the first female general in American military history, died Jan. 7 at age 97. Read the obituary.
John Young, NASA’s longest-serving astronaut, who flew in space six times, walked on the moon, commanded the first space shuttle and became the conscience of the astronaut corps, advocating for safety measures in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster, died Jan. 5 at age 87. Read the obituary.
Photo Gallery: Remembering those who have died in 2018.

Through that job, she said, she was able to focus on exploring a character’s emotions or motivations — a task that interested her more than actually appearing before audiences or on camera.

“I used to try to get through one film a year,” she told the Phoenix New Times in 2002. “But I always chose movies that I thought would fail so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the fame thing. . . . I’m much more interested in what’s behind acting, which is the inquiry into the human condition. Everyone gets acting mixed up with the desire to be famous, but some of us really just stumbled into the fame part, while we were really just interested in the process of acting.”

Barbara Densmoor Harris was born in Evanston, Ill., on July 25, 1935. Her mother was a piano teacher, and her father worked as a tree surgeon and restaurateur, among other jobs.

Around the time she graduated from high school in Chicago, Ms. Harris joined the Playwrights Theatre Club, which evolved into the Compass Players and then Second City. In a statement, Second City chief executive Andrew Alexander said that Ms. Harris “established the role at Second City of ferociously smart women who refused to be mere adjuncts to the boys. She brought an emotional complexity that has rarely been matched.”

In the late 1950s, she was married to Paul Sills, the group’s co-founder. She performed the opening song in Second City’s premiere performance, in December 1959, and traveled with several members to New York for “From the Second City,” a 1961 Broadway revue that earned her a Tony nomination for best featured actress in a musical.

She was nominated again for “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” which premiered in 1965 with music by Burton Lane and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. (The show was adapted into a 1970 film, with Barbra Streisand portraying Ms. Harris’s role as a hypnotized chain smoker.)

A cousin, Mary Lynn Fisher, said Ms. Harris had lung cancer that metastasized into bone cancer and leaves no immediate survivors.

“I think the only thing that drew me to acting in the first place was the group of people I was working with: Ed Asner, Paul Sills, Mike Nichols, Elaine May,” she told the New Times, recalling the beginnings of her career. “And all I really wanted to do back then was rehearsal. I was in it for the process, and I really resented having to go out and do a performance for an audience because the process stopped; it had to freeze and be the same every night. It wasn’t as interesting.”

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Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post's obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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