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JULIE HARRIS--IT’S LADIES FIRST

Times Theater Writer

Standing in the well-manicured garden of her rented house in Pacific Palisades, sunlight dancing on her burnished, close-cropped hair, Julie Harris marvels at the bounty of figs she has just harvested.

“Isn’t this wonderful? " she says in amazement. Thirty-five years after she dazzled Broadway as the restless Frankie Addams in “The Member of the Wedding,” an astonished child-heart still beats in the actress. Even as we prepare to see her play the slightly more demure Charlotte Bronte in “Bronte” (Friday, 9-10:30 p.m., KCET Channel 28), it’s clear that there’s a lot of Frankie in the woman yet.

The intervening years in the Harris career have been marked as much by distinction as by eclecticism. There have been forays into film and television, stage roles ranging from Anouilh’s “The Lark” to the 1965 musical “Skyscraper.”

With equal zest she has played children (“Wedding”) and geriatric wives (“On Golden Pond”). Her range covers comedies (“I Am a Camera” and “Mixed Doubles”) and melodramas (“The Second Mrs. Lincoln”). Lately, 19th-Century literary ladies have captured her attention, as in “Bronte” (formerly “Currer Bell, Esquire”) and before that, “The Belle of Amherst,” a life of Emily Dickinson.

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It’s hard to imagine these wildly divergent portrayals all coming from this slender, sunlit, softspoken woman in summery print skirt and T-shirt, topped with a ceramic necklace of pink and white rabbits--until we also remember that for five years now she has played the ditzy Lilimae on TV’s popular “Knots Landing.” Has her recent stage gravitation to spinster poets been entirely her idea?

“It’s come from me,” she quietly insisted, settling on the living-room couch as her Yorkie, Teresa, swiftly nested in her lap.

“Originally, with Dickinson, I was asked by Caedmon Records to read her poems and letters for an album. Up to then, my interest had been a few poems in high school, but in doing research for the recording, I read her published letters and she just captivated me with her wit and imagination.

“Simultaneously, my interest in the Brontes came about after reading ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights.’ I started reading about the Brontes. Much later, Eleanor Stout, who was doing a program on WGBH out of Boston, asked me if I would do ‘The House of Mirth.’ ”

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Harris wasn’t available, but Stout asked if there was anything else she’d like to do.

“I said, ‘Well, I’d like to do a one-woman play on the Brontes.’ Anne and Emily wrote very few letters that are in existence and Charlotte wrote a great many, so it was in my mind that Charlotte should be the one to tell the story.”

Stout asked Harris if she’d write the play, to which Harris replied that, short of having five years on a desert island, it might be wiser simply to ask William Luce (who wrote “The Belle of Amherst”).

“We did it as a radio play, but I was aching to do it on the stage,” Harris said. “This was, oh, six or seven years ago. I did the first stage performance (as a benefit) for the Matrix (1983). Later I did it for a school in Pennsylvania and then at my church here, about a year ago.

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“I’m very drawn to these ladies because of their originality and power. Also by a sort of hero worship. And because they were so original, they still are very vivid today. It’s like buried treasure. You say a few words, bring up a few silver bars, and people say, ‘Ahhh!’ It’s that vision of absolute heroism that’s so extraordinary. And besides, they knew how to write.”

Part of the reason for this recent indulgence in one-woman shows has been the demanding schedule of “Knots Landing.” While the good news is that television has kept Harris in Los Angeles (though “home” remains a cottage on Cape Cod), the bad is that it’s put a serious crimp in her stage career.

“Except,” she argued, “that I’ve always been working on something during that time, so it’s not as if I’ve cut myself off from theater entirely. And I do enjoy the character I play on television.”

Still, when it comes to plays with extended casts, Harris concedes, “I can’t do anything. We do 30 episodes (a season). I had about 6 1/2 weeks (off) this spring.”

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That 6 1/2 weeks had been reserved for “Night of the Iguana,” which Harris had agreed to do as the inaugural production of the Los Angeles Theatre Center. When construction delays pushed the opening from April to September (kickoff is Sept. 19), the project simply had to be postponed.

Yet because of her gracious readiness to always lend support, Harris has become a powerful symbol to the Southern California theatrical community. The Beverly Hills Theatre Guild recently named its playwriting award after her, which both surprised and pleased her. Characteristically, she’ll do a live performance of “Bronte” on Sept. 29 to benefit the guild.

“I believe in new plays,” she emphasized. “Years ago people would say, ‘Los Angeles? There’s no theater, only touring companies.’ Now there are no touring companies, but lots of theater. The potential is enormous. When I used to think of theater, it was New York. Now producers almost can’t afford to do it and people really can’t spend $40 and $50 for a ticket. That’s not theater any more. It’s something else.

“I’m happy working here. I did ‘On Golden Pond’ with Charlie Durning at the Ahmanson, and I must confess that one of my favorite theaters is the Taper. I’d love to do a play there. Gordon (Davidson) likes Athol Fugard. I love Fugard. I saw his latest play, ‘The Road to Mecca,’ in New Haven a year ago and that’s one I’d like to do some day.

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“But when you ask me where my allegiance is, my allegiance is first to a good play and I don’t care where I do it as long as somebody’s there to see it.”

As for television, “Well, it’s different. I don’t have any control. I hardly have any input. You work very fast. It’s a little like vaudeville. But I do like my character.”

Yet the stage still has the strongest pull for her. “It’s where I started and where I’ve been the happiest overall. I can believe in a play, in the characters, in the prose or, if it’s Shakespeare, it’s the language that I love, the sound of it and the ideas--and the performance being live.

The day we met, the news had been full of Ruth Gordon’s death and the subject inevitably came up.

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“I adored Ruth Gordon,” said Harris, who, as an unknown, had served as a multipurpose understudy for an early version of Gordon’s play “Years Ago.” “She had such an important influence on my life. That spirit and spunk!

“When I was doing ‘The Lark’ on Broadway and Ruth was in ‘The Matchmaker,’ she sent me a wonderful note. It said: ‘We’re both on our knees this season.’ ”

Bowed, perhaps, but unbloodied.

THROUGH THE HAYES: Tao House, the Eugene O’Neill residence in Danville, Calif., where, among other things, the playwright wrote “Hughie,” “A Touch of the Poet” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” will be officially declared open to the public Sunday at a benefit dinner hosted on the premises by actress Helen Hayes.

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This official event will mark the end of a long struggle to achieve public status for the hilltop mansion and the start, by the Eugene O’Neill Foundation Tao House, of long-range artistic programming.

This will include fellowship and artist-in-residence projects, publication of a newsletter, developing a major theater library at the site, assisting the American Theatre Assn. Inc. with a planned touring retrospective devoted to O’Neill and securing funds for a 1986 West Coast Theatre Directors’ Conference. Call it a long night’s journey into day.


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