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.

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