Julie Harris recounts a bountiful career

Julie Harris made her Broadway debut 56 years ago, in a play called "It's a Gift." She was 20, and she played the oldest of 11 children. Five years later, she memorably played the 12-year-old tomboy Frankie in Carson McCullers' "The Member of the Wedding," and two years after that, in 1952, she won the first of her five Tony Awards for her portrayal of Sally Bowles, the flamboyant heroine in the stage adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel "I Am a Camera" (also the basis for the musical "Cabaret").

Today, she is here in Chicago, working in the 195-seat Victory Gardens Theater in "Fossils," a new play by Claudia Allen, in which she plays a former schoolteacher who develops a deep attachment with a fellow female retiree during a week at a small inn on the shores of Lake Michigan. It is her second time at the Gardens. She made her debut there in 1999 in Allen's "Winter," and, as she remembers, "When I first walked into this theater, I thought, Oh, my, the first row is very close. But now I love it, because here, the play's the thing, and I believe in that!"

Sitting in a quiet room at the theater, she speaks in that whispery voice that somehow can be heard in the back row. She is small and slight, but unstoppable in her desire to be on stage.

She started acting when she was a youngster growing up near Detroit ("My mother and father loved the theater"), and for a year she attended the Yale School of Drama. When she was offered the part in "It's a Gift," she asked her teacher at Yale if it was wise for her to quit school and accept the role. "What did you come here for?" the teacher asked. Harris took the job and has never really been out of work since.

`East of Eden'

Her career has included several memorable screen performances, beginning with "East of Eden" in 1955, when the director Elia Kazan insisted that she should be cast in the film opposite James Dean -- "much to the displeasure of the studio," Harris says, "which wanted an actress with bigger breasts."

Her home, however, has always been the theater.

Before she came here, she toured in an encore presentation of "The Belle of Amherst," her one-woman show about poet Emily Dickinson, which won her the last of her Tonys in 1977; and once she has finished her Chicago engagement, after a brief summer at her home in West Chatham, Mass., she planned to get back on the road.

Sandy Shinner, who directed "Fossils," says of Harris, "She has fabulous energy. She's not only on time, she's there early, and she's always ready to go with an unexpected, interesting idea. I think she must have been thinking about this play ever since we had our first workshop, which was two years ago."

Modestly, however, Harris will talk about herself in context of the work she has done.

About "The Member of the Wedding," for example, she says, "It was just a gift from God, the fact that the three of us -- Ethel Waters, Brandon de Wilde and I -- came together. Ethel didn't want to do it at first, but her part (that of a motherly servant who nurtures Frankie and the little boy who hang out in her kitchen) turned out to be one of her finest creations. And Brandon, this golden-haired child, had never acted before. He was like a little bird learning to fly. Sometimes we thought he was never going to learn to speak his lines naturally. But by opening night, he had found that keyhole in the sky, and he was perfect."

Making of Sally Bowles

"I Am a Camera" came Harris' way because several other actresses had turned it down. "It was supposed to be Joan Greenwood, the English actress with that great sleepy, smoky voice, but she didn't want to leave London. Then it was Cloris Leachman, but she wouldn't do it because Sally Bowles had to smoke. So I said, `Well, sorry, I'll take it.' It was an extraordinary and a very frightening experience. I was so nervous that I threw up on opening night in our pre-Broadway run in Hartford, the only time I've ever done that. I hate being nervous. It gets in the way of your work."

She resisted working in "The Lark" (Tony No. 2), in which she portrayed Joan of Arc, because, "I was pregnant with my son at the time, and anyway, I just didn't think I could do it. Then, when I had my baby, the producer said, `Well, that's over. Now you're going to do it.'

Her key to playing Joan came from a line she found in reading the records of her trial. The maid was continually asked, "Are you in a state of grace?"

That's the Joan she found, a young woman in a state of grace. "She was a little European sparrow," Harris says, "singing her sweet song until the very end."

The 1969 romantic comedy "Forty Carats" (Tony No. 3) gave her a chance to display her keen sense of humor. But when she first read the script, about a woman who has an affair with a much younger man, she said, "If I was 40, I would never fall in love with a boy of 20."

Nevertheless, she accepted a lunch invitation from the producer, David Merrick. When she begged off, saying, "I'm afraid I'm attracted to the losers of this world," he answered, "Why don't you go with a winner for once?"

She did, and the show was a hit.

"The Last of Mrs. Lincoln" (Tony No. 4, in 1973) was originally written for Bette Davis but when she left the project, it was offered to Harris, who has always been "interested in anything to do with Abraham Lincoln."

She found Mary Todd Lincoln's story "very, very touching. She suffered a great deal after his death. He had not wanted to go to Ford's Theatre the night he was assassinated, but instead of sending him to bed, she insisted that, yes, they had to go. Imagine the guilt she must have felt.

"She dearly loved him. But when he died, just think, she was kicked out of the White House.

"So sad."

Harris' portrayal of Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst" (Tony No. 5) came after she had read some of the poems for Caedmon Records. Following the release of the record, she put together a program on Dickinson for schoolchildren on Long Island. Her good friend Charles Nelson Reilly, with whom she had worked in the 1965 musical "Skyscraper," saw the performance and said, "This is wonderful material. We must do something more with it."

The making of Emily

From that initial contact, Harris says, "The play went through many stages, and finally, after William Luce had written the one-woman show and Charles had directed it, we had our Emily Dickinson."

Frank Galati, who directed Harris in a 1994 revival of "The Glass Menagerie" on Broadway, calls her performance as the mother Amanda in that Tennessee Williams drama "totally remarkable. She played her as a woman of deeply maternal energy. The damage she does to her children all stemmed from the deepest possible love for them.

"She was so generous, interested in everything about the production. I remember when we rehearsed the gentleman-caller scene, she would tiptoe in her slippers to my seat in the theater, and she would cry, because she was so moved by these young actors on stage.

"She's the most passionate theatergoer I know. She sees everything. She loves the theater. It's her entire soul."

"Well, I like to keep busy," Harris says. "I love acting in the theater; but the more I do it, the less I know. It's a mystical experience."