- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 1, 2005

She’s been the prickly tomboy Frankie Adams in “Member of the Wedding” and the prim, passionate Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst.” While many people bookend actress Julie Harris between these two roles, the versatile actress has also played everything from the dissolute chanteuse Sally Bowles in “I Am a Camera” (which earned her a first Tony Award in 1950) to noted kleptomaniac Mary Todd Lincoln in “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln.”

Her filmography and stage credits read like a history of 20th-century popular entertainment, as Miss Harris co-starred with Marlon Brando, Deborah Kerr, Melina Mercouri, Laurence Harvey, Shelley Winters, Claire Bloom, Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, Mickey Rooney and Paul Newman.

Miss Harris starred opposite James Dean in his film debut, “East of Eden,” in 1955. In his biography, “A Life,” director Elia Kazan said he was grateful to have Miss Harris on the set because her presence had a calming effect on the volatile young actor.

Although Miss Harris has become associated with a composed, often patrician, demeanor, she started out as a rebel. Born in 1925 in Grosse Pointe, Mich. to a wealthy family, Miss Harris eschewed the debutante scene to run off to Yale Drama School and pursue acting. In fact, the defiant Miss Harris chose acting as her profession primarily to rankle her family.

After training at Yale and a brief stint at the Actors’ Studio — where she quickly became disenchanted with the Method and the self-absorbed egos of Method actors — Miss Harris made her Broadway debut in the 1945 production “It’s a Gift.”

Five years later, she beguiled Broadway audiences as 12-year-old Frankie Adams in Carson McCullers’ “A Member of the Wedding.” Twenty-five years old at the time of the play’s premiere, the waifish Miss Harris was entirely believable as the thin-skinned adolescent. She was equally credible in the 1952 film version, which earned her an Academy Award nomination.

She has never won an Oscar, but has Tonys by the armload. Miss Harris is the most honored performer in Tony history, with 10 nominations and five awards.

She won the award as Best Actress (Dramatic) for “I Am a Camera” (1952), “The Lark” (1956), “Forty Carats” (1969) and “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln” (1973); and as Best Actress (Play) for “The Belle of Amherst” (1977).

Her five additional nominations were for: Best Actress (Dramatic), “Marathon ‘33” (1964) and “The Au Pair Man” (1974); for Best Actress (Musical), “Skyscraper” (1966); and for Best Actress (Play), “Lucifer’s Child” (1991) and “The Gin Game” (1997). Besides her Academy Award nomination and her Tony Awards, Harris has won three Emmy Awards and been nominated for 11.

“God comes to us in the theater in the way we communicate with each other, whether it be a symphony orchestra, or a wonderful ballet, or a beautiful painting, or a play,” Miss Harris said in an interview in American Theatre magazine. “It is a way of expressing our humanity.”

Her career has been marked by resistance to typecasting and her insistence on avoiding what she called “the whole Hollywood glamour trip.”

“That’s another thing about today’s stars that makes me glad that I’m not doing it any more,” she said in a 1992 interview in TV Guide magazine. “The stars come with ten people all around them. I don’t know how you ever make any personal contact with them.”

On film, Miss Harris showed considerable range as a kindly social worker in the film version of Rod Serling’s teleplay “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962), one of the overwrought human guinea pigs in the original version of “The Haunting” (1962), a frustrated nightclub singer in the Paul Newman movie “Harper” (1966) and an uneasy spouse in “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967).

Onstage, Miss Harris became known for playing historical female figures, including Joan of Arc in “The Lark” (1956), Honest Abe’s light-fingered wife in “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln,” and, perhaps most famously, New England poet Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst” (1977).

After surviving a bout with breast cancer in 1981, Miss Harris found a new audience in our post-literate age with the character of Lilimae Clements — the mother of Joan Van Ark — on the TV nighttime soap, “Knot’s Landing” from 1981 to 1988. After a decade’s absence, Miss Harris returned to movies in the late 1980s, starring as Sigourney Weaver’s friend in “Gorillas in the Mist” (1988), as well as appearing in the films “Housesitter” and “The Dark Half.”

Miss Harris’ velvety, high-born tones have also brought in much narration work. She has been a favorite of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, lending her voice to “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “The West,” and “Frank Lloyd Wright.”

Despite her delicate appearance, Miss Harris has survived a fall backstage in a Connecticut theater in the 1990s that required surgery, and a stroke in 2001, in addition to cancer. “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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