Julie Harris, a luminous stage actress who appeared in 30 Broadway plays and was nominated 10 times for Tony awards, winning five, has died. She was 87.
However much she may have welcomed the money that television and movies provided over the years, Harris remained devoted to the theater. Harold Clurman, who directed Harris in four Broadway plays, likened her to “a nun whose church is the stage.”
Her 10 Tony nominations were a record for performers, while her five wins were equaled by Angela Lansbury and Audra McDonald.
Harris won her first Tony in 1952 for “I Am a Camera,” the play that inspired the musical “Cabaret.” As Sally Bowles, Harris showed “the quicksilver and the genius we all long to discover on the stage,” wrote New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson.
Playwright Donald Freed called her “a throwback to a time when theater and religion intersected. No matter what character she plays, there is something transcendent about her performance.”
The actress had a simple explanation of what the stage had given her. “I found God in the theater,” she said in 2005.
Aside from “Camera,” her Tony awards were for “The Lark” (1956), “Forty Carats” (1969), “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln” (1973) and “The Belle of Amherst” (1977). Her final Tony nomination came for “The Gin Game” in 1997, more than five decades after her first Broadway appearance.
She received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2002, the year after suffering a stroke that ended her stage career.
On television, she was best known as Lilimae Clements in the drama “Knots Landing” from 1980 to 1987. She won three Emmy awards and was nominated for another eight.
Julia Ann Harris was born on Dec. 2, 1925, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the daughter of an investment banker whose family home in the Detroit suburb was a shorefront mansion on Lake St. Clair.
While she wasn’t a strong student, she was a good mimic and “always got the juicy parts” in school plays, the actress told Joan Kufrin, author of the 1981 book “Uncommon Women.”
Harris spent three summers at a camp for aspiring actors in Colorado and persuaded her parents to send her to a private girls’ school in New York City that emphasized the arts. She enrolled in the Yale School of Drama and, at 19, made her Broadway debut in 1945 in “It’s a Gift.”
Five years later, Harris was the talk of Broadway. Only 24, the slight, blue-eyed actress played a 12-year-old tomboy in “The Member of the Wedding,” the Carson McCullers play that ran for 501 performances and marked Harris for stardom. The movie version, in 1952, gained Harris her only Academy Award nomination.
A versatile actress, Harris was deft at comedy as well as drama, playing opposite Walter Matthau in the original Broadway production of “A Shot in the Dark.”
Still, she preferred the challenge of portraying historic women on stage. She played Joan of Arc in “The Lark,” Mary Todd Lincoln in “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln” and poet Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst.”
Preparation and research were Harris hallmarks. She hired a staff of experts and used authentic props for “The Countess,” a one-woman show about Count Tolstoy’s wife.
For “Marathon ‘33,” a play about the grueling Depression-era dance contests, Harris practiced with a weighted dummy to simulate a sleep-heavy partner. Her efforts earned a Tony nomination in 1964; the play closed after 48 performances.
Harris was 20 when she married Jay I. Julien, a lawyer who later produced a Jean Anouilh play in which she starred. They divorced in 1954.
She then married Manning Gurian, who had been the company manager of “I Am a Camera.” Three months after the birth of their son, Peter, she began rehearsals for the 1955 production of “The Lark.”
Years later, the actress said she regretted not having more children. She had lacked the courage to attempt raising a larger family while pursuing her stage career, she said. She and Gurian divorced and a subsequent marriage to Walter Erwin Carroll, a newspaperman and playwright, also failed.
“Of course it would have been wonderful to have a great home life and the companionship that supports it,” she told the Washington Post. “But that doesn’t always happen. And so I went back to work, as the saying goes.”
She remained a frequent theatergoer after her stroke and retirement to her home in West Chatham, on Cape Cod. The nearby Wellfleet Harbor theater named its stage after her in 2007.
Unassuming in person, she traveled alone by train to Washington, D.C., when she was honored at a Smithsonian “Evening with Julie Harris” event in February 2005. She was among five honorees at the Kennedy Center that December, cited by President George W. Bush for becoming “the most respected actress in American theater.”
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