American theater lost one of its most prolific and affecting artists Saturday, when Julie Harris — the deceptively fragile-looking woman responsible for some of the most celebrated stage performances of the mid- to late 20th century — died of congestive heart failure at 87.
Harris received the Tony Award for best actress in a play five times — a record most closely approached by Angela Lansbury, whose five wins for musical and play include one featured-actress trophy, and Audra McDonald, whose five include only one leading-actress prize — and also garnered a special Lifetime Achievement Tony in 2005.
She was nominated for Broadway’s highest honor an additional five times. Her first nod, and win, was in 1952, for John Van Druten’s I Am A Camera, based on John Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, later adapted into the musical Cabaret. By then she had already earned praise in a number of roles, among them Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, in which Harris, then in her 20s, played a lonely 12-year-old tomboy, a role she reprised in a 1952 film adaptation that won her an Oscar nomination.
The actress drew attention for her other screen work, which included the films East of Eden, Requiem For A Heavyweight and Gorillas In The Mist and numerous TV movies and series, among them the 1980s’ sudsy hit Knots Landing.
But Harris was a stage animal first and foremost, bringing an emotional transparency and immediacy to roles as diverse as Cabaret‘s fast-living Sally Bowles and Joan of Arc, in The Lark, for which she earned her second Tony in 1956. Her last two Tonys were also for historical figures, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln and poet Emily Dickinson, in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln and The Belle of Amherst, respectively, in 1973 and 1977. (Her third was for Forty Carats in 1968.)
She performed extensively after that, and not just on Broadway. A passionate road warrior — “You always follow the work,” she remarked in one interview — she toured in numerous productions, among them Amherst, Driving Miss Daisy and The Gin Game. (The last play also marked her final Broadway credit and Tony nomination, in 1997.) She appeared on stages off-Broadway and in the U.K. and at Canada’s Stratford Festival.
The New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als observed online that Harris “was true to every character she played without sacrificing her thoughts or feelings about them…Harris never charged at the audience with her always-humane interpretations, but she wouldn’t let them be ignored, either.”
Harris was treading the boards in Chicago in 2001 when she suffered a stroke. Though her ability to speak clearly was impaired, she continued to work, appearing in films such as 2009′s The Lightkeepers and 2006′s The Way Back Home, in which she played a stroke victim. She also continued to nourish her interest in history and biography, lending her voice to documentaries.
And her love for live performance never left her. “God comes to us in theater,” she was once quoted as saying, “in the way we communicate with each other, whether it be a symphony orchestra, or a wonderful ballet, or a beautiful painting, or a play. It’s a way of expressing our humanity.”
Courtesy of USA Today