This past week Broadway lost one of its longest shining stars – Julie Harris passed away at 87 years old. Harris was born on December 2, 1925 in Grosse Pointe, Michigan where she attended Grosse Pointe Country Day School. She later attended the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School & Camp and the Yale School of Drama for a year.
Harris made her Broadway debut at the age of 19. She made a name for herself in 1950 when she appeared in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding. Two years later she appeared in the film adaptation of the play and garnered her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. 1952 was a great year for Harris – she also appeared as Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera, which was later adapted into the musical Cabaret. After only a few weeks of performances, a marquis was fixed above the theater reading “Gertrude Macy and Walter Starcke have the pleasure to announce the stardom of Miss Julie Harris.” Later than year she won her first Tony Award.
Over the course of her career, Harris was nominated for a total of ten Tony Awards – more than any other performer in history. She is currently tied for the most Tony Awards held by a female performer – five – with Audra McDonald and Angela Lansbury. She garnered her five awards for her roles in I Am a Camera (1952), The Lark (1956), Forty Carats (1969), The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (1973) and The Belle of Amherst (1977).
In 1954 Harris portrayed the title role in Jean Anouilh’s Madamoiselle Colombe, which depicts the story of a strong-willed young wife in turn of the century France who abandons her husband in favor of a life on the stage. The following year she took home her second Tony Award for another Jean Anouilh play – The Lark, a retelling of struggles of Joan of Arc. She was accompanied in that production by Christopher Plummer and Boris Karloff.
Five years later, Harris appeared in The Warm Peninsula at the Helen Hayes Theatre about a small-town girl from Minnesota who meets and is dazzled by Joanne who leads a glamorous life in Miami and falls in love with her boyfriend. She appeared in the film and stage version of Little Moon of Alban about an Irish woman during the timeof the Black and Tan struggles who falls in love with the British man who killed her first husband.
In the 1960s she appeared in A Shot in the Dark as the goodhearted and guileless child of nature who is hauled before the magistrate on a charge of murder, having been found unconscious, nude, and clutching a gun, with her lover dead beside her. That decade also brought her first appearance in a musical with the 1966 Tony Award winner for Best Musical, Skyscraper, a story about the the owner of an antique brownstone in New York City that is being squashed on all sides by skyscrapers. Her longest running play on Broadway was Jay Presson Allen’s Forty Carats about a middle aged woman who marries a much younger man. Harris’ other notable stage performances include The Playboy of the Western World, Macbeth, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, The Glass Menagerie, and A Doll’s House.
Harris also appeared at dozens of regional theaters in iconic roles including Ophelia, Juliet, Blanche DuBois, and Eliza Doolittle. Harris’ last two Tony Awards were presented for her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln and her performance in the one woman show about poetess, Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst. Harris made her last appearance on Broadway in the 1997 revival of D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game – a comedy about the friendship that develops between two secluded residents of a retirement home during a series of card games.
Following her appearance in film adaptation of The Member of the Wedding, Harris also appeared in a number of films and television series and miniseries for which she earned two Emmy Award nomination. The 1955 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden with James Dean has become one of her most celebrated film performances.
By the end of her career Harris appeared in over thirty Broadway productions and countless other roles Off Broadway and at regional theaters across the country. In 2002, Harris was honored by Lincoln Center.
Harris passed away on Sunday from congestive heart failure at her home in Chatham, Massachusetts. She was attended by her close friend, Francesca James. Julie Harris’ passing marks the end of a theatrical legacy that illustrates her diversity and uninhibited growth as a performer. As a girl she is remembered as having said “Acting is my life,” to her drama teacher at the time. It is unclear whether Harris also had the talent for prophesy, nevertheless her comment was just a hint at an unparalleled career that was waiting just around the corner at the time for this vibrant actress.