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UCLA Festival of Preservation turns spotlight on Julie Harris, TV

Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst" in 1976).
(UCLA Film & Television Archive)

The UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Festival of Preservation turns its spotlight on the small screen with a tribute Saturday to the television work of an award-winning actress and a celebration March 23 of an acclaimed but short-lived ABC anthology series.

Julie Harris has won five Tony Awards and is best known to film fans for her role as James Dean’s character’s love interest in 1955’s “East of Eden.” During the 1950s, she was one of the superstars of live drama anthologies.

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One of her earliest TV appearances, in the1951 Goodyear Television Playhouse “October Story,” screens Saturday afternoon at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood. The program also features her re-creating her Tony Award-winning performance as poet Emily Dickinson in the 1976 “American Playhouse” presentation of “The Belle of Amherst.”

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“October Story” stars a 25-year-old Harris as a woman who turns NBC on its ear when she invents a small television set out of spare parts. A ruggedly handsome Leslie Nielsen plays an executive who is assigned to work with the woman on rebuilding the invention after it is accidentally destroyed.

“It is lovely,” UCLA TV archivist Dan Einstein said of the program. “You look at her, and you look at subsequent performances of hers, and it’s all there — her intensity and commitment to the character. But there is a kind of lightness to her performance that is just delightful to watch.”

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The romantic comedy also features some of the earliest work by its renowned creative team. Writer David Swift created the 1952-55 classic TV series “Mister Peepers” and went on to write and direct several films, including the 1960 Disney drama “Pollyanna” and the 1961 comedy “The Parent Trap,” both starring Hayley Mills. Two years after directing “October Story,” Delbert Mann helmed the seminal live TV drama “Marty” and then won the director Oscar for the 1955 film version. And the program’s producer, Fred Coe, was one of the most respected producers of live TV and went on to direct such films as 1965’s “A Thousand Clowns.”

The hourlong presentation was also incredibly ambitious, Einstein said. The show opens at the skating rink at Rockefeller Center with a man on a street interviewing bystanders, including Harris.

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“She had a minute and half from the beginning, when they were outside the building, to get to the studio for the [first] inside shot,” he said.

Then the show moved outside for its touching, romantic finale on the observation deck at the top of the RCA Building.

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On March 23, Einstein will screen two installments from the 1966-67 series “ABC Stage 67": 1966’s “Noon Wine” and 1967’s “The Human Voice,” the latter starring Ingrid Bergman in a tour-de-force performance as a woman at the end of her rope when her love affair ends. Jean Cocteau wrote this one-woman monologue in 1930.

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“ABC Stage 67,” which was the brainchild of TV impresario Hubble Robinson, was a “really interesting series,” Einstein said. “Most anthology series were dramas, with an occasional comedic one thrown in, but ‘ABC Stage 67' was pretty eclectic. They did dramas, documentaries and musicals.”

“Noon Wine,” which stars Jason Robards, Olivia de Havilland (in her TV debut) and Theodore Bikel, was written and directed by Sam Peckinpah, based on the Katherine Anne Porter novella. It is far from the violent westerns for which Peckinpah is remembered, such as 1969’s “The Wild Bunch.”

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A darkly lyrical tale, “Noon Wine” revolves around a strange itinerant farmhand who gets hired in Texas at the turn of the last century. Bikel, who will be at the screening, appears as an odious, blustering man who arrives at the farm.

Bikel describes Peckinpah as a “brilliant director” who would allow actors to experiment.

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“It was the not the first time I worked with him,” he said. “We liked each other a lot.”

Peckinpah was allegedly unhirable because of his fiery temperament and the budget overruns on his 1965 western “Major Dundee,” a box office flop. It was during this fallow period that producer Daniel Melnick took a chance on him for “Noon Wine.”

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“The whole production is marvelous,” said Peckinpah historian Nick Redman.

“This was Peckinpah getting back a little to the elegiac nature of ‘Ride the High Country,’” said Redman, referring to the director’s 1962 western classic. “A lot of us who have cared about Peckinpah over the years believe it is so odd that this man who was labeled kind of a violence king was never better when he tackled elegiac, philosophical, low-key sort of double-edge romantic subjects.”

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UCLA Film & Television Archive’s Festival of Preservation

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What: “Julie Harris on Television”

When: Saturday at 4 p.m.

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What: “Noon Wine” and “The Human Voice”

When: March 23 at 4 p.m.

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Where: Billy Wilder Theater, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

Price: $9

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Information: https://www.cinema.ucla.edu

susan.king@latimes.com

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