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Julie Harris, one of the US's great stage actresses dies at 87

By Jack Thomas | PUBLISHED: 25, Aug 2013, 14:10 pm IST | UPDATED: 25, Aug 2013, 14:10 pm IST

Julie Harris, one of the US's great stage actresses dies at 87 Julie Harris, 87, one of the great stage actresses of the last half-century who amassed five Tony awards and was also renowned for her film work, died Aug. 24 at her home in West Chatham, Mass. The cause was reported by the Associated Press as congestive heart failure.

In a career of durability, longevity and versatility, time and her own gifts transmuted her roles from troubled tomboy to appealing ingenue to scheming older woman. Presidential wife Mary Todd Lincoln, poet Emily Dickinson and Shakespeare’s Ophelia were all portrayed with panache and verve by Julie Harris.

She was the wistful, lonesome pre-adolescent Frankie in Carson McCullers’s “The Member of the Wedding” on Broadway and in Hollywood. The film performance more than 60 years ago earned her an Academy Award nomination.

The year the movie came out, 1952, she created the devil-may-care Sally Bowles on Broadway in “I Am a Camera,” winning the first of her Tony awards.

Broadway appearances also included “The Lark” in 1955, in which she played Joan of Arc and appeared as Joan on the cover of Time magazine. She was in “Forty Carats” in 1968 and “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln” in 1972. She played Mrs. Lincoln in the stage and film versions.

In the movies, her work on “East of Eden” with James Dean was credited by director Elia Kazan with bringing out the best in her often difficult co-star. She was in “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” and she and Paul Newman acted in “Harper,” a private-eye drama. She was also known for “Reflections in a Golden Eye.”

A Tony recognized her portrayal of the reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst.” An audio recording of that role won her a Grammy Award for best spoken-word recording.

She was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2005.

At a ceremony in the White House, President George W. Bush said: “It’s hard to imagine the American stage without the face, the voice and the limitless talent of Julie Harris. She has found happiness in her life’s work, and we thank her for sharing that happiness with the whole world.”

That work also included many television appearances, most notably in “Knots Landing,” in which she was a scheming Southern belle.

Known for her sensitivity, she was quoted as saying that “God comes to us in theater in the way we communicate with each other. . . . It’s a way of expressing our humanity.” She was also a gritty survivor of surgery after a backstage fall, of at least one stroke, and of breast cancer. Chemotherapy continued while she played in the long-running “Knots Landing.”

In the Ken Burns series “The Civil War,” she gave voice to diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut.

Julia Ann Harris was born in the prosperous Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, Mich., on Dec. 2, 1925. Her father, William Pickett Harris, was an investment banker. Her mother, Elsie, was a nurse. She was impressed by plays they saw in Detroit, and in her teens , unwilling to remain at home and do what was expected of a young woman of her background, she enrolled in the Yale School of Drama. In 1945 she left in mid-semester for a role in a Broadway show, which flopped, sending her back to New Haven.

She made her home on Cape Cod. Reference works indicated that three marriages ended in divorce. She had one son.