Rosemary Harris was going into nursing as a career. Acting was what got her into trouble.
When she was 4, she spent days sweeping up and down the hallway with an eiderdown lashed around her waist, impersonating Vivien Leigh in Elizabethan disarray.
At 10, in lipstick, high heels and big hat, she succeeded in passing herself off as a "river person" to her grandmother and great-aunt. She was discovered only after she too-grandly said, "And my husband says . . ." and her aunt pointed out she wasn't wearing a wedding ring.
When she was 17, she blacked out a tooth and answered the downstairs neighbor's ad for a housemaid. After a lengthy interview, she was hired.
And about the same time, in borrowed sari and facial stain, she laid on a Senagalese sing-song to tell fortunes at an Army party. All went so well that the CO's wife confided to the "mystic" about the affair she was having with an younger officer.
Finally, her sister said, "You might as well go into acting for money," and Harris did. Along the way she picked up an Obie, a Tony, a Drama Desk award and a dozen others. She played from Broadway to the Old Vic; "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "CBS Playhouse" and "Hallmark Hall of Fame." She was PBS's George Sand, in seven parts, fro age 16 to 74; and Minerva, the matriarch, in the "Chisholms" miniseries.
She has had all the work she wanted - stage, TV, Film - for over 30 years. But for all that, nobody ever recognized her on the street until last year, after "Holocaust," in which Harris played Berta Weiss, wife of a Jewish physician, who refuses to flee Germany in the face of rising Nazism.
"'Holocaust' - my stomach still turns to knots at the name," she says looking away and lifting her shoulders. "I don't know why we didn't all go balmy.
"It was all shot on location in Austria, at a real gas chamber. It stank of death and hell - it was revolting. I just had to hold on, put on blinders and say, 'I'm only here because they're paying me for this job.'"
Actually, Harris enjoyed being recognizable just for a few weeks, but generally she prefers her character actress anonymity . She has courted it, in fact, by picking and choosing her roles and retreating in between to the Winston-Salem home she shares with her husband, writer John Ehle, and their 9-year-old daugther.
Saturday she opened in Kennedy Center production of "Home and Beauty," a W. Somerset Maugham play that, in the '30's, was known as "My Three Husbands."
"It's a very funny play that works on two levels," she says, twisting her hands delightedly. "Most of the audience probably won't get it, which is just as well."
Harris has, even at 49, what in a less animated woman would be a baby face. She looks a bit like Greer Garson, especially the eyes. She is comfortably barefoot below a wrapped satin-robe, her damp hair twisted impatiently at the back of her head. Her gestures have the roundness of a professional dancer's: no clumsy wrists or fingers askew.
She is ingratiatingly self-deprecating and humorous, unabashed that her hotel suite is littered with gourment cookbooks and "The Scarsdale Diet," and two or three different volumes on how to get organized.
"Writing is much harder than acting - all that self-discipline," she says, thinking of her husband. "With actors, they tell you, you have to be at rehearsal at such and such a time, or else get to the stage door whenever, or else; learn your lines at least before opening night, or else."
She cheerfully dismisses her lack of organization as an astrological hazard. "I'm a Virgo," she says, laughing at herself. "We love doing menial things like scrubbing floors and washing dishes - very prosaic, mundane stuff."
This fondness for keeping her feet on the ground is reflected in the fact that her three favorite roles have all been "real people": George Sand, Eleanor of Aquitaine (in the Broadway production of "Lion in Winter," for which she won her Tony) and Zelda Fitzgerald (in Budd Schulberg's play "The Disenchanted").
"With historical characters, you can just keep digging and digging . . . there are 40,000 letters of George Sand existing, although I haven't read them all, and I'd sitting in our log cabin in North Carolina with the wind roaring down the chimney, and I'd swear if I looked over my shoulder she'd be there, reading over my shoulder."
Harris the realist has no "absolutes" about her acting. She won't say never to movies, which as a young stage actress she looked down on, or even to commercials.
"I've eaten my words too many times in my life," she says. "Who knows when there might come a time in my life when I'd leap for a commercial? You just can't make those kinds of rules." CAPTION: Picture, Rosemary Harris, by Harry Naltchayan