"No," Julie Harris says quickly. "No-no-no."
She's laughing and shaking her head, a kind of oh-my-God expression on her face. Make no mistake -- the answer is no.
The question, which doesn't seem all that outrageous, is this: Doesn't the most celebrated stage actress of the past half-century, the first lady of the American theater, have a nice trophy case for all her prizes? After all, there's lots of room in her prosperous, tree-sheltered house here on Cape Cod. And in her long, diligent and distinguished career, she's won her share of hardware -- for starters, five best actress Tony Awards, more than any other performer. (She'll be adding to her haul this weekend as a Kennedy Center Honors recipient.)
But Harris, whose 80th birthday was Friday, is one of the least starry of stars. She's been a celebrated name since 1950, when she opened on Broadway in "The Member of the Wedding," as a 24-year-old actress playing Frankie Addams, a lonely and motherless 12-year-old tomboy in a desperate quest for "the 'we' of me." But she seems embarrassed by talk of marquees and ovations and a legendary career.
(In the end, she does offer a look at her Tonys, which include a sixth that she received in 2002 for lifetime achievement. They reside on a very crowded curio stand in a back room.)
Harris made her New York debut at 19 in a short-lived 1945 play called "It's a Gift." Over the next 56 years, she appeared in 30 Broadway shows, made close to a dozen national tours and played a number of regional productions. Then in 2001, during an engagement in Chicago, she suffered a stroke, and a resultant battle with aphasia has left her forever struggling to express herself. It's been a bitter blow for a woman whose lifework was the conveying of words and ideas.
"I wish I could -- I wish I could speak now all the time," she says simply. "But I can't. I can't."
Aphasia is the partial or total loss of the ability to use or understand words. It can impede one's comprehension or, as in Harris's case, the power of expression. Studies have found that rehabilitation efforts are generally more successful with younger stroke patients.
This is the third time, and the third place, that we have sat to talk. The first was in 1999 in Fort Lauderdale, as her tour of "The Gin Game," co-starring Charles Durning, was about to move to the Kennedy Center. The second was early this year, when she traveled alone to Washington to attend the opening of the Ford's Theatre production of "The Member of the Wedding."
In each of the conversations, she has expressed little fascination with her own past, preferring to concentrate on current endeavors and future projects. Six years ago, she was plotting tours, productions in Seattle and Chicago, and a return to Broadway -- enough to keep her working for the next several seasons. Although Harris has made acclaimed appearances in films and on television, she always has been a creature of the stage.
And that is still true, although she can no longer work there. She keeps track of reviews in newspapers and trade publications and makes frequent trips to New York theaters. She's seen some things she really liked here on Cape Cod, as well as in Boston. "I am a wonderful audience," she says, and several times she consults a tiny red book labeled "Theatre Journal," in which all her enchanted evenings are recorded.
In addition to theatergoing, her reading list is another favorite subject. In the course of 90 minutes in her cozy sunroom, she gets to her feet at least 10 times to display a photo of an actor friend, retrieve a clipped-out book review or consult a volume she's been reading. The stroke has left her "a little bit hesitant" on her feet, but an actress needs her props, and she's bursting to discuss her enthusiasms.
She's just finished the new Joan Didion memoir ("Wonderful!"), and the new biography of Chairman Mao is placed prominently on her coffee table. She's very eager to get to that one, but first she must finish "Wild Swans," a 1991 family memoir by Jung Chang, co-author of the Mao book. And she's intrigued by a review of the posthumous publication of a work by her old friend Spalding Gray.
Like a fervent undergraduate, she underlines passages of particular interest, and although it's difficult for her, she reads some of them aloud to convey her enjoyment. In the end, it seems, it's all about sharing.
But then, it always was. Six years ago, she spoke of her passion for her work.
"What is thrilling about the theater is that it's a form where people come and, for those two or three hours, belong to something -- to ideas, to a feeling of being a member of the human race," she said. "Sharing something. It's very important in life to share our stories, our backgrounds, our hopes, the things that make us afraid."
Her sentences are simpler now. In February, though, she boiled that down at "An Evening With Julie Harris," a Smithsonian event set up in conjunction with her Ford's appearance. "I found God in the theater," she told the audience. "It's God."
Long-ago photos of her capture a lovely young woman. But beyond her physical attractiveness, what jumps out is her intensity, a visible sense of yearning. It's hard to believe anything ever mattered as much as being on that stage, belonging to those ideas.
That suggests a degree of sacrifice, or at least difficult choices. Harris's three marriages ended in divorce. She has a son, Peter Gurian, who lives in a house on her property. Not having had more children was her biggest regret, she said in 1999.
"I was fearful," she said. "When you're fearful, you stop yourself. I thought, 'If I have a lot of children, I won't work, I won't do this, I won't' -- just have them and enjoy them and go on from there. Being a parent is the most important thing I think a human being can do."
But especially during those early years, Harris was following her own gravitational pull. And when her big opportunity finally arose, she was ready.
"The Member of the Wedding" was her ninth Broadway credit. (It's hard to imagine even an extraordinary newcomer of today getting the chance to play so many roles there in only five years.) She had attracted some attention before, and respect within theatrical circles, but nothing like this.
Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times wrote, "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." It might have taken half a decade, but she was an overnight star.
This was a time when an actress could make a career and prove her range on Broadway. By her 30th birthday, Harris had added two classic -- and widely divergent -- roles to her gallery. In "I Am a Camera" (1951), the precursor to "Cabaret," she played the amoral floozy Sally Bowles. And in "The Lark" (1955), she was Joan of Arc, a role that landed her on the cover of Time.
The Broadway highlights that still awaited included the popular comedy "A Shot in the Dark" (1961); June Havoc's "Marathon '33" (1963), in which she played a Depression dancer; the hugely successful older woman/younger man comedy "Forty Carats" (1968); "The Last of Mrs. Lincoln" (1972); a solo turn as Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst" (1976); and "Lucifer's Child" (1991), in which she portrayed Isak Dinesen. (The gap between the last two is partly explained by her six-year 1980s stint as Lilimae Clements on the prime-time soap "Knots Landing.")
And in a forgotten 1960 drama called "Little Moon of Alban" -- she got excellent notices but nobody much liked the play -- she was romanced, briefly, by fellow 2005 Kennedy Center honoree Robert Redford.
"Unfortunately, I died in the first act," Redford says. "And I wanted to be the guy she ended up with. So Julie and I go back to 1960 -- so that's a big deal."
Harris likewise speaks warmly of Redford. But then, evidence of her friendships is everywhere to be seen in her house. Photographs -- Ethel Waters, Geraldine Page, Shirley Booth, Carson McCullers, Michele Lee and many more -- cover the walls and leave barely an empty inch of space on the tables and shelves. Mention, say, Cherry Jones and she rises to her feet yet again to point out a small, framed picture.
Her gentle nature is revered in the theater. At the time of the "Gin Game" tour, production supervisor Mitch Erickson was approaching his 50th anniversary in the business. "I suppose the major thing that sets Julie apart is she's so sweet," he said then. "She's just a darling. Uta Hagen is a great friend of mine. She's temperamental, feisty, tempestuous. Maggie Smith is terrific but also has her foibles. No one in this wide world could say that about Julie."
For many within and outside the theater community, Harris's selection for the Kennedy Center Honors is a belated one. She expresses delight at being chosen with this year's crop, singling out each of her fellow honorees for praise. She says she's never been to the Kennedy Center event, but "I've seen it all the time."
And in the privacy of this very room, has she ever watched the show and thought, "Hey -- what about me?"
She dissolves into laughter. "No, no," she cries. "No, no, no, no."
In fact, it's hard to find a lot of "What about me?" in Julie Harris. A note from the interview with her six years ago reads: "You can pay her a compliment and she'll accept it graciously. She just doesn't seem very interested in it." It was the doing that mattered, the striving, the stretching. And the friendships.
"I loved actors," she says. "I loved actors. And it was wonderful to be with them in plays. It was always -- it was wonderful to be in a play with actors." That didn't seem to come out quite right, and she laughs.
In 1999, she spoke of the ephemeral nature of theater. But did she ever envy those performers who leave a filmed or taped record of their best moments, while hers evaporate?
"No," she said, "because the thing that was so exciting for me in the theater was that very thing -- it burns for that time, and then it's gone. Except it's never gone in your head and in your heart. I can still remember Laurence Olivier on the stage, and Margaret Leighton and Alan Webb and Ralph Richardson and Wendy Hiller. I can tell you about them. It's tangible to me."
And because her own work is tangible to many other people, Harris has arrived at this weekend of remembrance and celebration. It'll be a kind of curtain call for her career, but then she knows how to take a curtain call.
All those roles, all those colleagues, all those nights on all those stages: It would be nice to think that she spends time with her memories and that they make her very happy.
"No," she responds. She shakes her head and laughs. "I don't. No. That was then. And this is now."
And now, as ever, there's much to do.