Detroit’s Jewel of Broadway

Dead at 87, Grosse Pointe Park native Julie Harris spent her career as one of the most revered stage actresses of her time.

Better known in New York, famed Broadway actress and Grosse Pointe Park native Julie Harris died on August 24 at her home in Massachusetts. Former Hour Detroit Managing Editor George Bulanda not only was a fan, but spoke with her on occasion about her life and career for the magazine. In a Q&A for the September, 1998 issue of Hour, Harris talks about working with the likes of James Dean, the challenge of finding roles as an older actress, and the Detroit theater scene in the early 20th century. Bulanda interviewed Harris again in 2007, calling her “the most honored stage actress of our time” whose “gentle voice” unfortunately fell victim to a stroke and the subsequent aphasia she experienced in her early 80s. Below is the sidebar, “A Woman of Many Roles,” that Bulanda wrote about Harris’s career to accompany the article. “She was a local treasure who wasn’t treasured enough here,” Bulanda says. “But New York adored her.”
–Monica Mercer


A Woman of Many Roles

Grosse Pointe Park-born Julie Harris, whom playwright James Prideaux called “a bride of the theater,” has been nominated for 10 Tony awards (a record) and has won five — also more than any other performer. She also added a special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award to her stash in 2002. In a 1998 interview with Hour Detroit, Harris told of her early love for the stage and of going with her parents to see plays at Detroit’s Shubert and Cass theaters. “I saw the cream of the American theater,” she said then, referring to such actors as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Helen Hayes, and Ethel Waters. In 1945, at age 20, Harris made her Broadway debut in It’s a Gift. She gained wide renown in 1950 playing Frankie Addams in the stage production of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding. She has won Tonys for the following plays and roles:

1952: I Am a Camera, (Sally Bowles)

1956: The Lark (Joan of Arc)

1969: Forty Carats (Ann Stanley)

1973: The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (Mary Todd Lincoln)

1977: The Belle of Amherst (Emily Dickinson)

Also a distinguished actress on the big and small screens, Harris has won three Emmys — in 1959, 1962, and 2000, but she is perhaps best known on television for playing Lilimae Clements on Knots Landing in the 1980s.

Her work in motion pictures has been spotty but impressive. Among her films are The Member of the Wedding (for which she received a Best Actress Oscar nomination in 1952); 1955’s East of Eden, in which she played opposite James Dean; Shirley Jackson’s chilling The Haunting in 1963; and The Hiding Place, a 1975 drama in which she played a Dutch woman harboring Jews during World War II. She has also filmed her stage roles in The Belle of Amherst and The Last of Mrs. Lincoln.

Harris has recorded many spoken-word albums and has done considerable voice-over work, most notably with documentarian Ken Burns.

Harris was also a 2005 Kennedy Center Honors recipient.