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A Tony-, Emmy- and Grammy-winning actress and an Academy Award nominee, Julie Harris distinguished herself early in her diverse career a model for perseverance in the American entertainment industry. Though she made her Broadway debut in the forgotten 1945 flop, "It's a Gift," Harris returned to the Great White Way in a string of critical successes, drawing raves for her lead roles in "The Member of the Wedding" in 1951 and "I Am a Camera" the following year. In Hollywood, Harris coaxed a charismatic but inexperienced James Dean through his film debut in Elia Kazan's "East of Eden" (1955) and later specialized in neurotic older woman roles, from the psychic spinster of "The Haunting" (1964) to the self-mutilating Southern belle of "Reflections in a Golden Eye" (1969). As lead roles in film dried up, Harris dove into work on stage and television, where she recreated several of her theatrical successes, including "The Belle of Amherst" (1976) and "The Last of Mrs. Lincoln" (1976). A diagnosis of breast cancer did not stop Harris from becoming a series regular on the long-running primetime soap opera "Knots Landing" (CBS, 1979-1993), nor did a stroke in 2001 keep the elderly actress from plying her...
A Tony-, Emmy- and Grammy-winning actress and an Academy Award nominee, Julie Harris distinguished herself early in her diverse career a model for perseverance in the American entertainment industry. Though she made her Broadway debut in the forgotten 1945 flop, "It's a Gift," Harris returned to the Great White Way in a string of critical successes, drawing raves for her lead roles in "The Member of the Wedding" in 1951 and "I Am a Camera" the following year. In Hollywood, Harris coaxed a charismatic but inexperienced James Dean through his film debut in Elia Kazan's "East of Eden" (1955) and later specialized in neurotic older woman roles, from the psychic spinster of "The Haunting" (1964) to the self-mutilating Southern belle of "Reflections in a Golden Eye" (1969). As lead roles in film dried up, Harris dove into work on stage and television, where she recreated several of her theatrical successes, including "The Belle of Amherst" (1976) and "The Last of Mrs. Lincoln" (1976). A diagnosis of breast cancer did not stop Harris from becoming a series regular on the long-running primetime soap opera "Knots Landing" (CBS, 1979-1993), nor did a stroke in 2001 keep the elderly actress from plying her trade by sculpting her characterizations around her physical limitations. Awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 1994, Harris was also the recipient of a 2002 Tony Award for lifetime achievement and a 2005 citation from the Kennedy Center for contributions to American culture through the performing arts.
Julia Ann Harris was born on Dec. 2, 1925, the daughter of William Pickett Harris, an investment banker, and the former Elsie Smith, a nurse. In her native Michigan, she was raised in an atmosphere of affluence and privilege and attended Grosse Point Country Day School. Her parents had intended for their daughter a debutante's entry into society, but even as a teenager, Harris had other ideas. Trips with her parents into nearby Detroit to see Broadway plays making their national tours had given Harris an idea that she might like to make a living as an actor. She spent the 12th grade in New York City at an elite boarding school known as Miss Hewett's Classes (now The Hewett School). Upon graduation, she set off for Yale University in New Haven, CT, where she became the youngest person ever to be admitted into the prestigious School of Drama. A classmate at Yale urged Harris to audition for a Broadway play that her parents were producing and so she wound up taking a six-week leave from her studies in the spring of 1945 to make her Broadway debut in "It's a Gift." After the production closed, Harris returned to the Yale campus long enough to pack her bags and head back into the city to begin a new life as a working actor.
Harris spent the next few years honing her craft as she leapfrogged from one production to the next, on Broadway and on the road. In 1949, she participated in the inaugural venture of the newly-minted Actor's Studio. Directed by Elia Kazan, "Sundown Beach" was the story of soldiers reentering society after World War II. Savaged by the critics, the show closed after only seven performances but netted Julie Harris a Theatre World award for "Best Actress." In 1950, the 24-year-old Harris won the role of Frances "Frankie" Addams, the 12-year-old tomboy protagonist of "The Member of the Wedding." This Broadway adaptation of the 1946 novel by Carson McCullers ran for over 500 performances at New York's Empire Theatre. Harris won a Tony Award for Best Actress as Sally Bowles in the Broadway premiere of John van Druten's "I Am a Camera," adapted from Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories. She was Joan of Arc in Joseph Anthony's staging of Jean Anouilh's "The Lark" at the Longacre Theatre, for which she won her second Tony. Harris received an Academy Award nomination when she recreated the role of Frankie Addams in Fred Zinnemann's big screen adaptation of "The Member of the Wedding" (1952). The Stanley Kramer production was distributed by Columbia Pictures and marked Harris' film debut at the age of 28.
For "East of Eden" (1955), Warner Brothers' CinemaScope adaptation of the 1952 John Steinbeck novel, director Elia Kazan relied on Harris to help coax a strong performance out of James Dean, who was making his screen debut. Accustomed to the more improvisatory nature of live stage acting, Harris was able to adjust her performance moment by moment to complement whatever impulse the brilliant but inconsistent Dean chose to follow. Studio head Jack L. Warner had opposed Harris' casting as the compassionate, independent-minded Abra, expressing to Kazan his preference for a younger, prettier actress in the role; Kazan stuck with his casting choice, even though Harris was seven years older than Dean. The actress received a BAFTA Award nomination the following year for starring in the film version of "I Am a Camera" (1955), directed by Henry Cornelius and lensed in England. Harris and her "I Am a Camera" co-star Laurence Harvey reteamed for "The Truth About Women" (1957), a flashback-driven melodrama directed and co-written by Muriel Box, one of the few female directors at work in the British film industry. Harris next traveled to Ireland to star in George Pollock's comedy "The Poacher's Daughter" (1958), an adaptation of George Shiels' "The New Gossoon," whose supporting cast was comprised principally of members of Dublin's Abbey Theater.
Upon her return to America, Harris divided her time between stage work (principally in the works of Shakespeare, both in the United States and Canada) and appearances on live television; she won an Emmy in 1962 for playing "Victoria Regina" on "Hallmark Hall of Fame" (NBC/CBS/PBS, 1951- ). Although she still commanded the odd ingénue role in the theatre (she was a 38-year-old Ophelia to Alfred Ryder's 48-year-old Hamlet at the Public and Delacorte Theaters in New York in 1964), she had by this point, as far as Hollywood was concerned, entered the neurotic older woman phase of her career. In Ralph Nelson's feature film version of the award-winning Rod Serling teleplay "Requiem for a Heavyweight" (1962), the actress was in ugly duckling mode as a social worker who falls for Anthony Quinn's down-at-heel prizefighter. In Robert Wise's "The Haunting" (1964), she was an emotionally fragile spinster with latent psychic abilities. In the whodunit "Harper" (1966), based on the 1949 novel The Moving Target by mystery writer Ross MacDonald and starring Paul Newman, Harris painted the minor role of a drug-addicted lounge singer with disarming pathos and a touch of vestigial sensuality. Harris played a mentally unstable soldier's wife who has cut off her nipples with a pair of pruning scissors in a gruesome fit of postpartum depression in John Huston's "Reflections in a Golden Eye" (1967), based on the Carson McCullers novel of the same name.
After playing a criminal mastermind who partners with Jim Brown to rob the Los Angeles Coliseum in the heist drama "The Split" (1969), Harris' feature film roles grew fewer and farther between. Still active in theatre, she also classed up episodes of such popular TV series as "Bonanza" (NBC, 1959-1973), "Daniel Boone" (NBC, 1964-1970), "Run for Your Life" (NBC, 1965-68) and as African missionary Charity Jones in four episodes of "Tarzan" (1966-69). The actress perfected her stock-in-trade of potty older woman roles in the made-for-TV thrillers "The House on Greenapple Road" (1970), "How Awful About Allan" (1970) and "Home for the Holidays" (1972) and was a series regular on the short-lived ABC sitcom "Thicker Than Water," which was canceled after only nine episodes were aired in 1973. Around this time, Harris recreated for television a number of her successes on the legitimate stage, including "The Belle of Amherst" (1976) and "The Last of Mrs. Lincoln" (1976). Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980, she endured a radical mastectomy and while undergoing chemotherapy accepted a recurring role on the primetime soap opera "Knot's Landing" (1979-1993), as duplicitous Southern belle Lilimae Clements.
Subsequent films included "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988), Michael Apted's biopic of martyred naturalist Dian Fossey, the Frank Oz comedy "HouseSitter" (1992) with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, and "The Dark Half" (1993), George Romero's adaptation of the Stephen King bestseller. In 1981, Harris began a long association with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, contributing voiceovers to his films "Brooklyn Bridge" (1981), "The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God" (1984), "The Civil War" (1990) and "Not for Ourselves Alone: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony" (1999). Injured in a backstage fall in 1999, Harris suffered a stroke in 2001, which left the 75-year-old actress with impaired speech. Following her rehabilitation, Harris would use her handicap to play a stroke victim in the independent feature "The Way Back Home" (2006) and enjoyed limited screen time in "The Golden Boys" (2008) and "The Lighthkeepers" (2009), both directed by Daniel Adams and set on Cape Cod at the dawn of the 20th century. Julie Harris died at home in West Chatham, MA, of congestive heart failure on August 24, 2013, at the age of 87.
By Richard Harland Smith
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CAST: (feature film)
Milestones close milestones
Not to be confused with British costume designer Julie Harris.
Harris was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame
She has received honorary degrees from Mount Holyoke College, Smith Colllege and Ithaca College, among others.
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