Julie Harris: a life dedicated to the stage (and audiences)

julieharris1How lucky I was to grow up in Philadelphia when it was still a major theater town, with brand new shows doing try-out runs in the city on their way to Broadway.

That’s how I fell under the spell of Julie Harris at a very impressionable age when she came to town in 1968 in “Forty Carats,” a frothy concoction about a 40-year-old New Yorker who falls in love with a twentysomething guy.

Even as a teenager who had only seen a few plays I knew the comedy was not a classic for the ages, but Harris was amazing, a star in full command of the Forrest Theatre.

The actress projected so many things that I later learned might have been considered to be outside her range — sexiness, great comic assurance, and some pretty impressive nightclub dancing as well.

It was a testament to Harris’ magical ability to whip terrific entertainment out of some rather meagre ingredients that she would win a Tony Award for “Forty Carats”  — one of her record-breaking six Tonys — after it got to Broadway and became one of the hits of the season.julieharris

It was only later that I learned the play and the character were atypical for Harris who tended to excel in drama and period pieces where she could lose herself in a role rather than project the sheer old-fashioned charisma of “Forty Carats.”

The comedy illustrated the adventurous side of Harris who a few seasons earlier made her only foray into musical comedy with “Skyscraper” which didn’t last a season (the show is now best remembered for being the last one columnist Dorothy Kilgallen saw before she died under mysterious circumstances that would link her with the assassination of JFK).

Drama critic Walter Kerr, who followed Harris’ career from her first Broadway triumph in “Member of the Wedding” (where the 24-year-old actress played a girl half her age), once wrote that the performer spent much of her career working to overcome physical limitations, including a soft, girlish voice that separated her from such peers as Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page.

“She was doing a part she shouldn’t have been doing because she shouldn’t have been doing it,“ Kerr explained in a column about one of the challenges Harris faced, and met.

The next time I saw Harris in Philadelphia it was in what became one of her signature vehicles — “The Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman tribute to the life and art of Emily Dickinson. Despite a skimpy set that was notably unattractive, Harris again filled a theater, that time with the unexpected beauty and force of the repressed woman she played.

Although Harris was lucky to appear in at least a few classic films — “East of Eden” and “The Haunting,” among them — she devoted most of her life to the theater. And not just the bright lights of Broadway. Harris believed that American stage actors owed it to audiences around the country to tour in their best vehicles.

Let’s hope that our theater — in New York and around the country — remains healthy enough to support artists who come along with Julie Harris’ devotion to acting in the same space and the same time as her audience.

Joe Meyers