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August 25, 2013

Julie Harris, Broadway star, dies at 87

NEW YORK — Julie Harris, one of Broadway’s most honored performers, whose roles ranged from the flamboyant Sally Bowles in “I Am a Camera” to the reclusive Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” died Saturday. She was 87.

Harris died at her West Chatham, Mass., home of congestive heart failure, actress and family friend Francesca James said.

Harris won a record five Tony Awards for best actress in a play, displaying a virtuosity that enabled her to portray an astonishing gallery of women during a theater career that spanned almost 60 years and included such plays as “The Member of the Wedding” (1950), “The Lark” (1955), “Forty Carats” (1968) and “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln” (1972).

She was honored again with a sixth Tony, a special lifetime achievement award in 2002. Only Angela Lansbury has neared her record, winning four Tonys in the best actress-musical category and one for best supporting actress in a play.

Harris had suffered a stroke in 2001 while she was in Chicago appearing in a production of Claudia Allen’s “Fossils.” She suffered another stroke in 2010, James said.

“I’m still in sort of a place of shock,” said James, who appeared in daytime soap operas “All My Children” and “One Life to Live.”

“She was, really, the greatest influence in my life,” said James, who had known Harris for about 50 years.

Television viewers knew Harris as the free-spirited Lilimae Clements on the prime-time soap opera “Knots Landing.” In the movies, she was James Dean’s romantic co-star in “East of Eden” (1955), and had rolls in such films as “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962), “The Haunting” (1963) and “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967).

Yet Harris’ biggest successes and most satisfying moments have been on stage. “The theater has been my church,” the actress once said. “I don’t hesitate to say that I found God in the theater.”

The 5-foot-4 Harris, blue-eyed with delicate features and reddish-gold hair, made her Broadway debut in 1945 in a short-lived play called “It’s a Gift.” Five years later, at the age of 24, Harris was cast as Frankie, a lonely 12-year-old tomboy on the brink of adolescence, in “The Member of the Wedding,” Carson McCullers’ stage version of her wistful novel.

The critics raved about Harris, with Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times calling her performance “extraordinary — vibrant, full of anguish and elation.”

“That play was really the beginning of everything big for me,” Harris had said.

The actress appeared in the 1952 film version, too, with her original Broadway co-stars, Ethel Waters and Brandon De Wilde, and received an Academy Award nomination.

Harris won her first Tony Award for playing Sally Bowles, the confirmed hedonist in “I Am a Camera,” adapted by John van Druten from Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories.” The play later became the stage and screen musical “Cabaret.” In her second Tony-winning performance, Harris played a much more spiritual character, Joan of Arc in Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s “The Lark.” The play had a six-month run, primarily because of the notices for Harris.

The actress was something of a critics’ darling, getting good reviews even when her plays were less-well received. These included such work as “Marathon ‘33,” “Ready When You Are, C.B.!” and even a musical, “Skyscraper,” adapted from an Elmer Rice play, “Dream Girl.”

Her third Tony came for her work in “Forty Carats,” a frothy French comedy about an older woman and a younger man. It was a big hit, running nearly two years.

Harris won her last two Tonys for playing historical figures — Mary Todd Lincoln in “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln” and poet Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst” by William Luce. The latter, a one-woman show, became something of an annuity for Harris, a play she would take around the country at various times in her career.

The actress liked to tour, even going out on the road in such plays as “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Lettice & Lovage” after they had been done in New York with other stars.

Harris’ last Broadway appearances were in revivals, playing the domineering mother in a Roundabout Theatre Company production of “The Glass Menagerie” (1994) and then “The Gin Game” with Charles Durning for the National Actors Theatre in 1997.

In 2005, she was one of five performers to receive Kennedy Center honors.

Harris was born on Dec. 2, 1925, in Grosse Pointe, Mich., the daughter of an investment banker. She grew up fascinated by movies, later saying she thought of herself as plain-looking and turned to acting as a way of becoming other persons.

She made her stage debut at the Grosse Pointe Country Day School in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at age 14. In the years that followed, she studied drama in finishing school, prep school, Yale University and the Actor’s Studio.

Before “Knots Landing,” Harris made numerous guest-starring television appearances on dramas and was a regular on two quickly canceled series — “Thicker Than Water” in 1973 and “The Family Holvak” in 1975.

Her Emmys were for performances in two “Hallmark Hall of Fame” presentations: “Little Moon of Alban” in 1958 and “Victoria Regina” in 1961.

Harris was married three times, to lawyer Jay I. Julian, stage manager Manning Gurian and writer William Erwin Carroll. She had one son, Peter Alston Gurian.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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