Actress Julie Harris dies at 87; Tony-winning Broadway star

Julie Harris, the delicate yet steely grande dame of the stage whose performances earned her a record five Tony Awards and 10 Tony nominations, died Saturday. She was 87.

Harris died of congestive heart failure at her home in West Chatham, Mass., actress Francesca James, a close friend, told the Associated Press. Harris had suffered a stroke in 2001 and another in 2010, James said.

In addition to her theatrical awards, Harris was nominated for an Academy Award in 1952 for her indelible performance as Frankie Addams in Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding,” a role she had created on Broadway.


The actress also appeared in Elia Kazan’s 1955 film “East of Eden” opposite James Dean and later became familiar to television viewers as Joan Van Ark’s mother, Lilimae Clements, on the CBS television series “Knots Landing.”

But she was at heart a stage actress, appearing in more than 30 Broadway plays as well as Off Broadway and regional productions almost too numerous to count. Throughout a career that spanned more than 50 years, she never lost her passion for the stage.

“What is thrilling about the theater,” Harris told the Washington Post in 1999, “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.”

She said she didn’t regret that her performances came and went with no record of them, “because the thing that is so exciting to me in the theater was that very thing — it burns for a time, and then it’s gone. Except it’s never gone in your head and in your heart.”

In many of her best-remembered roles, Harris held the stage alone or virtually alone, as in her solo performances as Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” Isak Dinesen in “Lucifer’s Child” and Charlotte Bronte in “Currer Bell” and her role as Mary Todd Lincoln in the four-member cast of “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln.”

“I feel akin to certain souls,” she told an interviewer for the Christian Science Monitor in 1976 as she was playing Dickinson on Broadway.

On Broadway and Off Broadway, she appeared in numerous major roles from her 1945 Broadway debut in “It’s a Gift” to her last role 52 years later as Fonsia opposite Charles Durning in “The Gin Game.” Her Tony Awards came for her 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).

But if she wasn’t playing a role on Broadway or Off Broadway, Harris took to the road. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd once affectionately called her “a theatrical dinosaur” for her determination to tour the country in her biographical stage portraits and in road companies for “Driving Miss Daisy” and many other plays.

“I’m of the opinion that you always follow the work,” Harris once said. She also just plain liked living out of a suitcase. “It goes like the wind, there’s so much to do,” she said of her time on the road.

Besides “The Belle of Amherst,” she toured almost a year as Daisy Werthan in Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” and she also was Leticia (Lettice) Douffet in “Lettice and Lovage,” Fonsia in “The Gin Game” and Carrie in “Fossils” in various regional productions.

It was while performing in “Fossils” in May 2001 in Chicago that Harris had a stroke.

The following year, she was honored in a tribute at New York City’s Lincoln Center. Though her speech was impaired, she found the words to thank those gathered to sing her praises: “I love you. I love you. I love you.”

Julia Ann Harris was born Dec. 2, 1925, in Grosse Point Park, Mich., the middle child and only girl of three. Her father was an investment banker whose avocation was mammalogy — he was assistant curator at the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology; her mother had trained to be a nurse.

Both loved the theater and began taking their children to performances in Detroit when they were children. Harris later recalled that once she saw Ethel Waters, with whom she would later star in the stage and film versions of “The Member of the Wedding.”

“Even today I can picture, clear as day, and even hear in my mind, Ethel Waters singing ‘Taking a Chance on Love’ in ‘Cabin in the Sky,’” Harris wrote in her 1971 book, “Julie Harris Talks to Young Actors,” written with Barry Tarshis.

As a teenager, Harris had a gift for mimicry and, like many girls her age, she was star-struck, keeping scrapbooks of movie stars and seeing every movie she could — she said she saw “Gone With the Wind” nine times. One of her first roles in drama class was in “The Juggler of Notre Dame,” for which she received high praise.

“This was a new experience,” she wrote in her book on acting. Used to being criticized for being too thin or not good enough in her studies, she felt overwhelmed by the praise.

“It was as if, after all those years, I’d discovered a secret power,” she said. “I wasn’t sure exactly what this power was, but I certainly wasn’t going to let it get away from me.”

Harris attended Yale School of Drama for a time in the 1940s and also trained at the Perry-Mansfield School of Dance and Theatre and the Actors Studio.

She had several roles in Broadway plays before “The Member of the Wedding,” but she said that playing 12-year-old Frankie when she was twice that age “was really the beginning of everything big for me.”

After she went on to play Frankie on screen in that well-regarded film, she had other wonderful moments in movies, including “East of Eden,” as Abra, the sensitive fiancée of Aron Trask, brother of James Dean’s character Cal.

But she was the first to acknowledge that her film career never really took off.

“I wish I had gotten bigger parts in the movies,” she told the Washington Post in 1988. “But I could never compete with the great beauties.”

She appeared frequently on television. Besides her role in “Knots Landing,” she had two series — the short-lived “Thicker Than Water” in 1973 and “The Family Holvak” in 1975 — and also made guest appearances in numerous series, TV movies and miniseries. She won two Emmys, for “Little Moon of Alban” (1959) and “Victoria Regina” (1962).

But Harris always returned to that “magical place” — the stage. She loved “that first moment when the curtain goes up.”

Harris was married and divorced three times. She had one son, Peter Alston Gurian.

Luther is a former Times staff writer.