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Senior Women Web Interviews:

Julie Harris - Too Good to be True?

by Rose Madeline Mula

When I accepted Seniorwomen's assignment to interview Julie Harris, I had no idea what I was getting into.

The problem, you see, is that the woman is a paragon. After some fairly extensive research and a lengthy telephone conversation with Harris, it was obvious that if I wanted to write the truth-which I was determined to do-it was going to sound like a "puff" piece dreamed up by a highly-paid public relations agent. But I had to stick to my resolution to be honest; so if you're looking for juicy gossip, you can stop reading now, because the lady apparently has no failings.

Before telephoning Harris, I spoke to Russ Gorman, a journalist/TV show host friend in Rhode Island who had interviewed her a few years ago, and to my buddy Jay Adler, a stage manager who has worked with her on Broadway, as well as on tour. If she had bribed them, they couldn't have been more flattering.

Russ reported that he had driven to Boston from Providence on a stormy afternoon for his appointment with Harris. Not only was she extremely gracious during the interview, he said, but she also phoned him the next day to thank him and to be sure he got back home safely. Jay is equally smitten. "She's a consummate actress," said he, "and an angel. In all my years in this business, I've never heard anyone say one negative thing about her. Everyone loves her." Even on an extensive, exhausting tour, her good nature never wavered, he said. "Not one complaint, not a hint of temperament. Everybody in the company adored her. She was our mother hen."

Still another friend told me that a few years ago a young director with whom Harris had worked was killed in a tragic boating accident that left a good friend paralyzed for life. Though she had never met the friend, she wrote him a long condolence letter and has continued writing and phoning periodically to check on him.

These are only three of dozens of similar Julie Harris tales. However, I was still skeptical. Nobody could be that lovable, I thought. I would reserve my judgment.

I wrote to her to request an interview. A few weeks went by, and I had no response. Aha! A chink in the sugar coating? But then she phoned, apologizing for the delay, in her distinctive, mellifluous voice. She had been away and was getting ready to take off again the following day. She checked her calendar, and we set a date for me to call her in three weeks. She said 9:00 AM would be a good time. Another surprise. Most theatre people don't function until well after noon.

On the prearranged morning, I phoned. She had just flown in from California to Boston the night before, she said, and then had a two-hour automobile ride, in the rain and sleet, to Chatham, the lovely Cape Cod town she calls home. I observed that she no doubt had jet lag, and the ride to Chatham must have been very tiring. "Not at all," she said. "I used the time sitting in the back seat of the car in the dark to review the script for 'The Belle of Amherst' in my mind. I'm doing it in Boston next month, and it's been four weeks since I last performed it." I still thought she should go back to bed, and I offered to call back later or the following day. "No, no. This is just fine," she said. "I had a good sleep last night." And we were off and running.

I had read that Julie Harris was brought up in affluent Grosse Pointe, Michigan, but she was disenchanted with the debutante scene and fled to New York at 19 to become an actress. I assumed her family must have been very upset. She laughed, "No, it wasn't like that at all! I had spent my last year of high school in a New York boarding school, Hewitt's Classes, on 79th Street." She lived with Miss Hewitt, who ran the school. When Harris graduated, she went to the Yale Drama School for a year, with a brief interruption to do her first play in New York, "It's a Gift." She got that part through a Yale classmate whose friends were producing the play and holding auditions. "She thought it would be good experience for me to go and read for it," said Harris. She did, and much to her surprise, was offered a role.

"I never expected that," she said. "I didn't know what to do." So she went back to Yale and asked the advice of Walter Pritchard Eaton who headed the Drama School. He laughed, "Why did you come here?" "To act," she told him. "Well, go act!" he said. So she accepted the part. The play ran about six weeks, and then she went back to Yale and finished the year.

Was it always that easy for her, I asked? Hardly, she said. "Actors have to face rejection all the time. You learn to deal with it." She has "dealt with it" by amassing dozens of nominations and awards, including an Oscar nomination, a Grammy, two Emmys and five Tonys--a record; but she really didn't want to talk about it. And when I asked her if she has videos of all her movies and television performances, she laughed and said, "Good heavens, no!" No resting on her laurels and basking in past glory for this lady. At 75, she's too busy living today's life and planning future projects.

How closely does Harris identify with the roles she plays--is she able to leave them behind at the theater, or do they go home with her? "For the four-week rehearsal period, when I'm trying to build a character, I definitely take a role home with me" she said, "but not after that, as a rule." That's fortunate, I observed, since she has played so many tragic heroines. "When you became immersed in the role of Joan of Arc, for instance," I asked, "you didn't have nightmares about being burned at the stake?" No, that doesn't happen, she laughed. "You can separate the reality from what happens on stage or in front of the cameras."

Though most of us remember Julie Harris for her darker, dramatic roles, she also enjoys and has excelled in comedies. In fact, she won her third Tony in 1969 for the light and frothy "Forty Carats." Also, she pointed out that there's a lot of comedy in tragedy. "'The Belle of Amherst' is a serious play," she said, "but it has many wonderful, funny moments.there are even comic moments in 'Hamlet.'"

I wondered how she copes with doing the same play night after night, month after month. Is it still possible to keep her performance fresh and to enjoy it? "Oh, yes!" she said enthusiastically. "It never gets boring! With each new audience it's a new experience."

What about the physical demands, I persisted. All of us find as we get older that we're not able to do many of things we did easily in the past. But not true for Harris's acting regime--not yet, at any rate. She still thrives on a busy touring schedule, going from city to city, and performing eight times a week. "You get used to that," she said with her characteristic good nature. If anything, she believes the hectic pace keeps her agile physically, and the effort to remember lines keeps her mind young.

"I'm not that remarkable at all," said the unpretentious Harris. "A year ago I saw Hal Holbrook do "Mark Twain." He knows about seven hours of material about Mark Twain because he varies what he uses at each performance. I have it easy--I had to learn only two and a quarter hours for 'The Belle of Amherst.'" And as long as she can continue to remember her lines, she has no plans whatsoever to retire.

I asked Harris if she ever plays "what if?" Does she wonder what direction her life would have taken if she hadn't had almost immediate success with acting. She did not hesitate. "My mother was a trained nurse," she said. "That would have interested me." No surprise. Her compassion and consideration of her fellow actors, and everyone else with whom she comes in contact certainly indicate that she would have been as outstanding a nurse as she is an actress.

When asked which of her movies and plays were her favorites, Harris said she really has no "favorites." "There were so many I loved," she recalls. "'The Lark,' 'The Member of the Wedding,' 'The Last of Mrs. Lincoln,'.many, many others--it's impossible to choose.usually it's what I'm doing at the moment. For instance, I just came back from California yesterday; and we did a staged reading of Lillian Hellman's 'The Autumn Garden' which is a wonderful play, fascinating! I just think every experience gives you something and opens you up to something else. It's an adventure, an inquiring thing."

I asked if James Dean (her costar in "East of Eden") was as magnificent as legend has painted him and how she thinks he compares to the Brad Pitts, Matt Damons and Tom Cruises of today. "He would have been right up there with them," she said. "He was very exciting--not only enormously charismatic, but also a very intelligent, gifted actor. I know that he had ambition to play 'Hamlet,' for instance; so I hope he would have kept himself working in the theater. It was tragic that he died so young."

She also admired many of her directors, and she does have a current favorite--Charles Nelson Reilly, who directed her in "The Belle of Amherst" and with whom she worked on a dozen other plays, including "Skyscraper," a musical. Yes, the multi-talented Julie Harris also sings.

Known primarily for her work in the theater, Harris has also been featured in more than 40 movies and over 30 television plays. I assumed she prefers the stage, as do most theatrical actors. She absolutely loves the theater, she said; but she also enjoys film, which is quite different; and she hopes she can continue to do both.

How would she feel if she were starting out today and a role required nudity, I asked. "I don't think girls today are at all dismayed at having to take off their clothes. I think I would have always been shy about it and wouldn't have wanted to do it, but maybe because I never had that good a body," she laughed.

This called to mind the more serious subject of her bout with breast cancer in 1980. Certainly that must have challenged her positive attitude. But apparently it was the other way around--her natural optimism helped her battle the disease. She had a mastectomy, but worked throughout the post-operative treatments. Shortly after the surgery, she went to work on TVs "Knots Landing" and continued meeting the taxing demands of a weekly series while undergoing chemotherapy. Yes, it was certainly unpleasant, she acknowledged, but working helped keep her mind off her nausea and fatigue. Instead of tiring her, it invigorated her.

She does not follow any particular fitness or dietary regime. "During that time, I went on a macrobiotic diet and was pretty much a vegetarian," she said. "I don't stick to that now. I do have some meat sometimes; but I'm pretty careful about what I eat." She also believes exercise is important but admits that she's not very disciplined about it.

Unquestionably, Harris has had an incredibly successful career; and the fact that it still flourishes is even more remarkable. I asked if she's found as she gets older that suitable vehicles are scarce. It seems easier for men, I observed. In their 60s and 70s they're still being paired with very young women--not only in real life, but in "reel" life as well, which doesn't seem to be the case with women. But even this doesn't faze Harris. "I don't know," she said. "That doesn't seem to be an insurmountable problem. The roles are still there. I just have to be more aggressive about finding them now."

Her agent helps do this, but she also seeks out projects for herself. One of these is an upcoming play about Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen, who wrote "Out of Africa"), written by William Luce who wrote "The Belle of Amherst." Also, in late spring, she will appear in a new play in Chicago, "Fossils," by Claudia Allen; and in the early fall she hopes to do a new play, "As Long As It's Morning," in Lake Saranac, NY. "So far I haven't found that nobody wants me," she laughed.

What about her personal life? I knew that Harris had been married three times. Her first husband was a lawyer, her second a theatrical company manager and producer, and her third a writer and painter. Could she have survived three divorces without any bitterness? Yep. At least none that's apparent. "My husbands were good men," she asserted, and she assumes the blame for the break-ups: "My work really isn't conducive to family life, but most professions have restrictions if you're really dedicated to what you're doing."

Today, she's content with the single life. During the rare periods that she's not working, she enjoys knitting, reading biographies, and puttering in the garden and around the house in her beloved Chatham. "I've lived here more than twenty years," she said, "and people are very good to me." And she to them. What she didn't mention, but which I learned about in my research, were her many appearances at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater and benefits for various town causes. She is clearly very devoted to the community.

"It's a beautiful little town. I love it here," said Harris. She must miss it when she's away, I said. "No, I guess I don't think about missing things. Wherever I am, that's where I am; and I don't think 'Oh, I wish I were home.'" Why did that answer not surprise me?

I asked if she has any regrets at all. "Yes, one," she said, "that I had only one child--my son, Peter, by my second husband. I wish I had been strong enough to have more children. I would have loved that."

It was truly a privilege to speak to such an inspirational woman whose positive outlook and enthusiasm helped not only to sustain her career, but also to conquer her cancer and overcome her personal disappointments. Her ability to make the best of whatever life dishes up is as precious a gift as her talent. Just a hunch--I bet Julie Harris makes terrific lemonade.

As I hung up the phone, I resolved to be more positive in the future myself. And I will--as soon as it stops snowing.and my dishwasher stops making those funny noises.and my mutual funds bounce back.and I sell my screenplay, and ..

Come to think of it, unlike the indomitable Julie Harris, I make lousy lemonade.

Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.

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