Julie Harris

Actress,December 2, 1925 -August 24, 2013

Julie Harris is widely regarded as the most respected and honored stage actress in America. Playwrights have created roles for her, critics have lavished praise on her, audiences have adored her in the theater, in the movies, on television. For decades, her awards for her stage performances in I Am a Camera (1952), The Lark (1956), Forty Carats (1969), The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (1973) and The Belle of Amherst (1977), gave her the distinction of winning more Tony Awards than any other performer.  Her 10 nominations were likewise unequalled. Then in 2002, she was honored with yet another Tony, The Lifetime Achievement Award, securing her place in the record books for decades to come.

Most tellingly, her greatest fans have been the playwrights and directors who have witnessed the miracle of a Julie Harris performance from the inside out. Harold Clurman, who directed her breakthrough performance in the stage version of The Member of the Wedding, described her as "a nun whose church is the stage." Elia Kazan, her director on the film East of Eden, called her "an angel…kind and patient and everlastingly sympathetic." James Prideaux, who wrote The Last of Mrs. Lincoln for her, called her "a bride of the theater." The playwright Donald Freed, author of The Countess, in which she portrayed Tolstoy's wife, said: "No matter what character she plays, there is something transcendent about her performance. And no matter how transcendent, there is also something poignantly human."

Indeed for more than half a century, Julie Harris has been recognized as the soul of the American theater. She is that rare artist who has devoted her life to the stage—on Broadway and off, and in theaters, large and small, throughout the nation. She says she knew she would do so from the very beginning: "The Stage!' I knew it was where I wanted to be. I loved it all. It became this great source of nourishment, spiritual nourishment, for me. I found everything in life there."

Born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, Harris was introduced to the theater by her parents who regularly took her into Detroit on weekend afternoons the see the Broadway plays and players coming through town on national tours. At 20, she made her own Broadway debut in a comedy seemingly named to describe her talent: It's a Gift. It ran just over a month, and for five more years she tried to get noticed in a variety of Broadway productions that included revivals of Shakespeare and Synge, and new plays now long forgotten. But in 1950 she opened in the stage adaptation of Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding. She was 24, and spent more than a year playing a 12-year-old, and her success was absolute. Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times: "Julie Harris gives an extraordinary performance—vibrant, full of anguish and elation." Suddenly she was a star on Broadway. In 1952, she also played the part in the film version, was nominated for an Oscar and became a household name across America. Her next stage outing back in New York was equally brilliant. As the first Sally Bowles, in John van Druten's I Am a Camera, she won her first Tony Award. Not surprising. She startled theatergoers with her miraculous transformation, going from precocious Southern tomboy one season to desperate Berlin cabaret singer the next.

Throughout the next two decades, Broadway was her playground and her home, and that astonishing versatility she displayed early on would become one of the hallmarks of her career. Rare is the actress who can triumph in one-woman shows, Restoration comedy, French farce, light comedy, historical drama and even a musical. Her vacations from Broadway found her playing the great classical roles (including Juliet and Ophelia) at Stratford in Canada and the New York Shakespeare festivals.

Harris has also made a career of bringing to the stage the lives of historical women, building over the years a rich gallery filled with luminous portraits, exciting in their boldness, often heartbreaking in their vulnerability: Joan of Arc, Mary Todd Lincoln, Isak Dinesen, Florence Nightingale, Nora Joyce (wife of James), Dora Carrington (of Bloomsbury fame), Fanny Osbourne (wife of Robert Louis Stevenson), the actress June Havoc, Queen Victoria (on television), and perhaps most famously, Emily Dickinson in her one-woman hit, The Belle of Amherst.

Some of her best work has also been for television and theatrical films. In the movies, she followed her Oscar for The Member of the Wedding , by appearing opposite James Dean in East of Eden , bringing her Sally Bowles to the screen, and working not often, but colorfully in, among others, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Haunting, Harper, You're a Big Boy Now, Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Hiding Place, The Bell Jar and Gorillas in the Mist. On television she played Ibsen (A Doll's House), Shaw Pygmalion) and Shakespeare (Hamlet); and, for seven wildly convoluted years, in a little California cul-se-sac known as "Knots Landing," where she portrayed the eccentric audience favorite Lillimae Clements from 1981-87.

Television may have brought her the widest fame, but the stage always gave her the most intense joy and once her job on the prime time soap opera was over, she returned to the theater with a vengeance. She toured the country in Driving Miss Daisy and The Gin Game and starred in a revival of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway. She continues to commission plays from playwrights and to appear in venues huge and small, because, as she says, "What is thrilling about the theater is that it's a forum 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."

"I want to touch people with the meaning of life," she adds. And she has.

(Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts)


 Award Competitions

 Julie Harris  Benefits of Membership Winners  Spotlight Awards