Childhood & Early Life
She was born Julia Ann Harris on December 2, 1925, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, US to William Pickett Harris and Elsie L. (née Smith). Her father was an investment banker and mother was a nurse.
She completed her graduation from ‘Grosse Pointe Country Day School’ that later became ‘University Liggett School’ after merging with two other schools.
She developed interest in watching movies from her early days and would insist her parents to admit her to the girls prep school ‘The Hewitt School’ in New York City so that she can attend drama classes. She later attended the school.
She also attended Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School & Camp in Colorado where she came under tutelage of her mentor Charlotte Perry. Inspired by Perry she attended ‘Yale School of Drama’ for a year.
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She made her debut in ‘Broadway’ in 1945 with the comedy play ‘It’s a Gift’. It was followed by bit roles in plays like ‘Macbeth’, Oedipus’ and ‘King Henry IV’.
She rose to fame at 24 years of age when she portrayed the role of a 12-year-old Frankie Adams in the 1950 play ‘The Member of the Wedding’, based on the novel by Carson McCuller of the same title. Her remarkable performance in the play launched her as a talented actress paving. A reprisal of the role in the Fred Zinneman directed 1952 film of the same title fetched her sole ‘Oscar’ nomination of her career.
Harris essayed the role of a carefree cabaret performer, Sally Bowles in the ‘Broadway’ play ‘I Am a Camera’ by John Van Druten. The play that opened on November 28, 1951, at the ‘Empire Theatre’ in New York City and closed on July 12, 1952, after 214 performances, was critically appreciated including earning rave reviews for Harris who also fetched the first of the five Tony Awards of her career. The 1966 hit ‘Broadway’ production, ‘Cabaret’, a musical, which was later made into a 1972 film and also had several theatrical productions in London and New York was inspired from ‘I Am a Camera’.
The 1955 ‘Broadway’ production ‘The Lark’ (the English adaptation of the 1952 play of French playwright Jean Anouilh was made by Lillian Hellman) and starred Harris as Joan of Arc and Boris Karloff as Pierre Cauchon. It earned Harris her second ‘Tony Award’. The 1957 TV production of the play, which was featured in the anthology series ‘Hallmark Hall of Fame’, saw her and Karloff reprising their roles.
One of her most powerful and engrossing performances remained the one-woman show ‘The Belle of Amherst’, based on the life of poet Emily Dickinson from 1830 to 1886. Directed by Charles Nelson Reilly, this Broadway production was premiered, following a preview, at the ‘Longacre Theatre’ on April 28, 1976, and closed after 116 performances. With her incredible performance portraying 15 different characters, Harris not only earned a ‘Tony Award’ and a ‘Grammy Award’ for Best Spoken Word Recording, but also received critical appreciation. She also performed in its 1976 TV production bearing the same title. For several years she performed in the revered play that travelled across the country.
Other notable stage performances of Harris that cemented her position as one of the finest leading ladies of American stage included productions like ‘Mademoiselle Colombe’ (1954), ‘The Country Wife’ (1957), ‘Little Moon Over Alban’ (1960), ‘Forty Carats’ (1968), ‘The Last of Mrs. Lincoln’ (1973) ‘The Au Pair Man’ (1973) and ‘In Praise of Love’ (1974).
Making her screen debut with the 1952 film ‘The Member of the Wedding’ reprising her role of Frankie Addams from the 1950 ‘Broadway’ play of the same title she eventually advanced in her screen career performing in several iconic roles that earned her more laurels as an actress.
One of the most noteworthy performances of Harris remains as Eleanor "Nell" Lance in the British supernatural horror film ‘The Haunting’ directed by Robert Wise and released on September 18, 1963. The film is considered one of the classics in the genre.
Her other memorable roles were that as Abra Bacon in ‘East of Eden’ (1955), as Grace Miller in ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight’ (1962), as Betty Fraley in ‘Harper’ (1966) and as Alison Langdon in ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ (1967).
This legendary actress became a household name with her performance as a weird and protective mother and country singer Lilimae Clements in the American prime time television soap opera ‘Knots Landing’ that aired on CBS. She performed in the role for 165 episodes from 1980 to 1987.
Her other notable TV performances were Brigid Mary in ‘Little Moon of Alban’ (1958), that won her an ‘Emmy Award’; Nora Helmer in ‘A Doll's House’ (1959); Queen Victoria in ‘Victoria Regina’ (1961) that not only won her an ‘Emmy Award’ but also remained one of her most lauded TV roles; and Mary Todd Lincoln in ‘The Last of Mrs. Lincoln’ (1976).
Personal Life & Legacy
Harris married thrice but none of them were successful. She was married to film producer and attorney Jay I. Julien from August 16, 1946 to July, 1954; to playwright and stage manager Manning Gurian from October 21, 1954 to sometime in 1967; and lastly to writer Walter Erwin Carroll from April 27, 1977 to sometime in 1982.
Her only child Peter Alston Gurian who became a theatre critic was born out of her second marriage.
She suffered from breast cancer and heart ailments and ultimately succumbed to a congestive heart failure at her home in West Chatham, Massachusetts on August 24, 2013.