Julie Harris: Actress best known for the stage work that brought her six Tony awards

 

Julie Harris was one of the American theatre's most admired and applauded actresses, described by writer John Van Druten as "like a chameleon, taking on the colours of whatever role she inhabits." She won a record six Tonys for her work in the theatre, and her screen career includes at least two classics – Elia Kazan's powerful transcription of John Steinbeck's novel based on the Cain and Abel tale, East of Eden (1955), in which she was leading lady to James Dean, with whom she formed a close friendship, and Robert Wise's superior horror tale The Haunting (1958), a truly frightening chiller in which she was a guilt-ridden spinster slowly losing her mind in a possibly haunted house. On television she will be remembered for her eight-year run as the extroverted Lilimae Clements in Knot's Landing.

She became a Broadway star in 1950 when she played in Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding as the troubled adolescent Frankie, who yearns for companionship and plans to accompany her brother on his honeymoon. She followed it with an indelible portrait of the irrepressible Sally Bowles in John Van Druten's I Am a Camera (1951), based on Christopher Isherwood's Goodbye to Berlin, and she recreated the two star performances when the plays were filmed. The Member of the Wedding, directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1952, also featured original cast members Ethel Waters and Brandon DeWilde.

Henry Cornelius directed I Am a Camera (1955), with Laurence Harvey co-starring as Christopher Isherwood, but Harris's major career was as a stage actress, and her love for theatre was so great that she called it her "church". Asked what she would do if she knew the world was to end tomorrow, she replied, "I would go to the theatre."

Born Julia Ann Harris in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in 1925, the daughter of a nurse and an investment banker, she trained for the stage locally before attending Yale University School of Drama in 1944-45, confessing later that acting appealed to her as an escape from what she perceived as a plain appearance. Small in stature, with elfin features, she would have been a perfect Peter Pan, a role that she surprisingly never played.

She made her New York stage debut playing a 17-year-old with 11 younger sisters in It's a Gift (1945), a short-lived comedy in dubious taste (in one scene a girls' school is mistaken for a brothel). Other Broadway plays included small roles with the Old Vic Company's season in 1946, alongside Laurence Olivier, and she was one of the witches in Macbeth (1948) with Michael Redgrave. Her luminous performance of a tomboyish, desperately unsettled 12-year-old girl in The Member of the Wedding (1950) made her a star, a status confirmed by her dazzling Tony-winning portrayal of free spirit Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera (later transformed into the musical Cabaret).

In 1955 she had another personal triumph and won a Tony as Joan of Arc in Lillian Hellman's translation of Jean Anouilh's The Lark, with Boris Karloff as Cauchin. The play met a mixed response, and its six-month run is largely attributed to the performance of Harris, who was often described as a "critics' darling" because her performances were constantly received with rapture whatever the standard of her vehicles. Other roles in New York included Margery Pinchwife in William Wycherley's Restoration comedy The Country Wife (1957), a small-town girl who falls for a gigolo in Joe Masteroff's The Warm Peninsula (1959) and June Havoc in Marathon '33 (1963), Havoc's autobiographical account of marathon dancing contests during the Depression

When she was making The Haunting in the UK, I interviewed Harris on the set and asked her if she had ever contemplated starring in a musical. She laughed loudly and said, "Never! I would love to do so, but I'm afraid I can't sing at all." In 1965, perhaps inspired by the success of non-singers such as Rex Harrison, Rosalind Russell and Robert Preston, she starred in Skyscraper, a musical based on the Elmer Rice play Dream Girl, with songs by James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. The show received lukewarm reviews but Harris was liked, and was judged to have capably handled her songs, which included the moderate hit, "Everybody Has the Right to Be Wrong", and "Opposites", a cute duet with her leading man, Peter Marshall.

In 1968 Harris won another Tony for her beautifully droll playing of a middle-aged woman in love with a younger man in the comedy Forty Carats (when it was filmed in 1973 the leading role was played by Liv Ullmann and Harris's light comic touch was sorely missed). Harris had received top billing in the films Member of the Wedding, East of Eden and The Haunting, but she was the first to admit that her film career failed to acquire the lustre of her theatrical one though she had notable roles in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1966) with Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, Harper (1967) with Paul Newman, and Voyage of the Damned (1976). "I wish I had gotten bigger parts in movies, but I could never compete with the big beauties," she said.

On Broadway she received her fourth and fifth Tony awards for playing historical figures – Mary Todd Lincoln in James Prideaux' The Last of Mrs Lincoln (1973) and reclusive poet Emily Dickinson in William Luce's solo show The Belle of Amherst (1975); London saw her in the latter in 1977. Unlike many Broadway stars she enjoyed touring, and in later years did so extensively in such plays as Driving Miss Daisy and Lettice and Lovage.

She shares the record for five acting Tony awards with Angela Lansbury and Audra McDonald, but her life achievement Tony in 2005 makes her the unprecedented holder of six Tonys (as well as three Emmys). She did several prestigious plays for television, including A Doll's House, Anastasia, Victoria Regina, Pygmalion and The Heiress, and fortunately several of these are preserved as kinescopes. Her last stage hits were revivals – The Glass Menagerie (1994), in which she was an alternately amusing and heartbreaking Amanda, and The Gin Game (1997), co-starring Charles Durning.

In recent years, Harris provided extensive voice work for documentaries, especially those of Ken Burns. Thrice married and divorced, she is survived by a son.

Julia Ann Harris, actress: born Grosse Pointe, Michigan 2 December 1925; married 1946 Jay Julian (divorced 1954), 1954 Manning Gurian (divorced 1967; one son), 1977 Walter Carroll (divorced 1982); died West Chatham, Massachusetts 24 August 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
peopleJonathan Ross has got a left-field suggestion to replace Clarkson
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
Arts and Entertainment
The teaser trailer has provoked more questions than answers
filmBut what is Bond's 'secret' that Moneypenny is talking about?
News
Johnny Depp is perhaps best known for his role as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
peopleBut how did he break it?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Sport
Lewis Hamilton secured his second straight pole of the season
f1Vettel beats Rosberg into third after thunderstorm delays qualifying
Arts and Entertainment
Written protest: Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, has sent an open letter to the Culture Secretary
books
Travel
travel Dreamland Margate, Britain’s oldest amusement park, is set to reopen
News
news
News
Founders James Brown and Tim Southwell with a mock-up of the first ever ‘Loaded’ magazine in 1994
media
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss