Julie Harris Remembered
Long-time Milwaukee arts writer Dominique Noth remembers a 1979 encounter with the late, great actress Julie Harris.
When Julie Harris died August 24 at age 87, after years of illness, major tributes poured in for the diminutive actress. Few touched on an aspect that I knew not only from years of reviewing and interviewing her but from conversations with those who worked with her. Whatever the enormous ego and will every performer needs simply to go on, in private she remained one of the most down to earth, least egotistical and most thoughtful performers I ever met.
As a drama critic for the Milwaukee Journal in 1979, I was able to touch on some of those basics in a December cover interview for the Lively Arts section, as Sunday entertainment content was then known. I blended my observations into the question and answer format of the era. Collectors of those yellowing pages reminded me of the piece, which led me back to my tapes of the original interview.
The story started:
The Pabst Theater can be a barren place two hours before a performance. In fact, there was only one person to be found backstage – a pleasant birdlike woman with a half-distracted smile, large eyes peeking from behind big glasses as she ironed a blouse in a basement dressing room.
Her name: Julie Harris. Profession: Working actress, one of the most honored of our time, winner of five Tonys, with a character range stretching from rebellious child in “Member of the Wedding” to Joan of Arc in “The Lark,” from Shakespeare’s Juliet to England’s Queen Victoria.
She won her fifth Tony for the play that brought her to Milwaukee and holds a special place in her heart: “The Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman presentation of the life and thoughts of 19th century poet Emily Dickinson, that reclusive New England spinster whose poetic passions and stylistic daring have made her a dominant influence of 20th century authors.
Here are some excerpts from that Q & A interview:
JH: And yet the New York newspaper critics unanimously did not like “The Belle of Amherst” (in 1976). The magazines were different – I don’t think John Simon though, because he hates me. But we were shocked at the newspaper reception because on the tryout road to Broadway our heads were swimming in adulation. And it didn’t stop the play.
(Side note: Simon was then writing for New York magazine. A famous and sometimes quite erudite critic, he was also notorious for taking a dislike to performers based on physiognomy, or succumbing to describing them in grotesque terms. Harris – though radiant in performance, was never regarded as a glamour queen and was a regular victim of his invective. But back to the 1979 tapes.)
JH: It’s the curious thing about this play. If I give it all I have, then the play somehow finds the people who want to see it. I think Emily Dickinson somewhere up there must be smiling. She was bound to be heard. There’s a powerful soul there. It’s just like when you hear Beethoven’s music. You know it was destined to survive.
DN: Yes, but one of the things that is extraordinary in her case is that almost all the poets who endure were to some degree successes in their own lifetimes…
JH: And it happened to her afterwards. Today it’s amazing how many books use lines from her for titles and dedication. She’s penetrated into everyone’s life.
DN: You know I was supposed to do an interview with you last June after your opening on Broadway in “Break a Leg.”
JH: Oh dear.
DN: But the opening came and went – closed after one show. But you are a five-time Tony winner and there is tremendous respect for you in the New York theater…
JH: But that doesn’t sell tickets.
DN: Doesn’t it? Couldn’t your name make it last more than one night?
JH: Not really. It was sort of a catastrophe. There was a point when we thought it would get better. But it didn’t. I did “Break a Leg” because I thought the script could be fixed, and it was a lark for me, a comedy about critics. I think it was the play that failed – a good first act and terrible trouble in the second. But sometimes you wonder if it’s you.
DN: One night is a bit short (to make that judgment), but three years is a long time to keep coming back to “The Belle of Amherst.” Can you really enjoy doing a play this often? [Present-Day Editor’s Note: As it happens, Renaissance Theaterworks will open its season with “Belle” Oct. 10-Nov. 10, with Jenny Wanasek in the title role.]
JH: Oh, yes, especially this one. I believe that the excitement of doing something over and over is that. If the piece is good, it gives you back more than you give to it.
DN: Many people thought the fact that it was on television (it drew large audiences in a 1976 Hallmark presentation often re-telecast) would be injurious.
JH: It hasn’t been true. So many people have said. “We saw it on television, which made us want to see it onstage all the more.” It’s a hard play to do traveling. Because it’s only me. And a company manager; the stage manager and his assistant, who is his wife, and their little boy. Then there’s Sid, who sells the programs, and the two boys who drive the truck.
DN: And nobody to iron your blouse.
JH: I wouldn’t think of asking anyone else to! Someone usually irons my stage dress, but I used to wash and iron it myself when we started out.
DN: Not the glamorous touring life most patrons envision.
JH: Not at all.
DN: Despite your movie awards, your reputation by choice seems more as a stage actress, big on Broadway but willing to take your work on the road.
JH: I think that’s true. I am. I never did have my pick of films. In the theater I do have a big choice and it’s wonderful. You can usually find a way to get a play done if you want it. They’re different worlds, really, but sometimes good movies do get made – and you wonder how. There are films I would stop my life to see again.
DN: Such as?
JH: Never my own. Can’t judge. Movies like “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “The Grapes of Wrath” – I get up at the end of that one and think, “I’m so proud of America.”