WEST CHATHAM - Julie Harris, one of Broadway's most honored performers, who brought her talents later in life to the theaters of Cape Cod, died at her home Saturday of congestive heart failure. She was 87.
In a career that spanned almost 60 years, Harris won a record five Tony Awards for best actress in a play, showing range in roles that varied from the flamboyant Sally Bowles in "I Am a Camera" to the reclusive Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst." She was honored again in 2002 with a sixth Tony, a lifetime achievement award. Only Angela Lansbury's four Tonys in the best actress-musical category and one for best supporting actress in a play rivaled Harris' tally.
Harris was also known on the screen, playing James Dean's love interest in "East of Eden" in 1955 and the free-spirited Lilimae Clements on the prime-time soap opera "Knots Landing."
But she was best known and most satisfied on the stage. And after making Chatham her home in 1987, Harris became a fixture in the front rows of Cape theaters and graced their stages with her talents, even lending her name to the Julie Harris Stage at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater.
It was for her decorated past, and the humility and graciousness she displayed both onstage and behind the scenes, that Cape Cod's theater community mourned the loss of Harris late Saturday.
"When she came to the Cape, she just spread her generosity to so many people and so many theaters," said Nina Schuessler, the artistic director at the Harwich Junior Theatre. "Her voice was unlike anybody else's. She always sat in the front row of a show. Everybody was so excited to be performing in front of her. It was just a thrill."
As she digested the acclaimed actor's death Saturday, Schuessler recalled not just Harris' acting but also the mentoring role she played in 2005, when Harwich Junior Theatre produced "The Lark."
In 1955, Harris played the role of Joan of Arc on Broadway in her second Tony-winning performance in that play. Fifty years later, Harris would go on to mentor a cast that included Schuessler's daughter, who played the same role.
"She just inspired everybody," Schuessler said. "She came to a lot of performances and rehearsals. She just shared herself with the community."
In the late 1990s, Harris was one of the first people Jeff Zinn approached when he was trying to establish a board of directors for the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. Zinn, who was WHAT's artistic director for 25 years, said Harris politely declined but expressed her willingness to become an honorary member, helping to raise money for the troupe.
Zinn would later ask if Harris would lend her name to the theater. Again she declined out of humility, he said, though she said a part of the theater would be acceptable.
Thus came the Julie Harris Stage.
"I have that moment on video of her kissing the stage, blessing it," Zinn said. "That was a priceless moment from Julie."
Harris suffered a stroke in 2001 while she was in Chicago appearing in a production of Claudia Allen's "Fossils." She suffered another stroke in 2010.
While she appeared on the biggest screens and stages, Harris was not above those of Cape Cod. In the early 2000s, Zinn asked Harris whether there was a role she was burning to play.
She answered "that horrible old woman in 'The Beauty Queen of Leenane,'" Zinn remembered her saying, in reference to the mother who tyrannically controls her middle-aged daughter from their home in the Irish hinterlands.
Zinn directed her in the role, and she happily took direction. In one scene, Zinn asked if Harris could eat the porridge so messily that someone would not want to share the table with her.
"She was entirely game to do that. There was absolutely no vanity about having to somehow look beautiful," Zinn said. "In her whole career, she had so often played elegant ladies and women with a lot of respectability and class. So here she was given an opportunity, and she seized the opportunity to be someone who was horrible and unpleasant."
At Cape Playhouse in Dennis, producing artistic director Evans Haile remembers Harris going backstage to talk to the actors. When the theater put on the classic comedy "Born Yesterday," Harris went backstage and singled out the actor who played the bellhop.
"She said, 'Oh, darling, you were just marvelous,' and it made his night."