Harris was born Julia Ann Harris in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, the daughter of Elsie L. (née Smith), a nurse, and William Pickett Harris, an investment banker. She graduated from Grosse Pointe Country Day School, which later merged with two others to form the University Liggett School. In New York City she attended The Hewitt School. As a teenager, she also trained at the Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School & Camp in Colorado with Charlotte Perry, a mentor who encouraged Harris to apply to the Yale School of Drama, which she soon attended for a year.
In 1952, Harris won her first Best Actress Tony for originating the role of insouciant Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera, the stage version of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (later adapted as the Broadway musical Cabaret (1966) and as the 1972 film, with Liza Minnelli as Sally). Harris repeated her stage role in the film version of I Am a Camera (1955). Of particular note is her Tony-winning performance in The Belle of Amherst, a one-woman play (written by William Luce and directed by Charles Nelson Reilly) based on the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson. She received a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording for the audio recording of the play. She first performed the play in 1976 and subsequently appeared in other solo shows, including Luce’s Bronte. Other Broadway credits include The Playboy of the Western World, Macbeth, The Member of the Wedding, A Shot in the Dark, Skyscraper, And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Forty Carats, The Glass Menagerie, A Doll’s House and The Gin Game.
Harris received ten Tony Award nominations, more than any other performer. She also held the record for most Tony wins (five) until Angela Lansbury tied her in 2009. Audra McDonald has since passed them both, with six acting Tony Award wins. In 1966, Harris won the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre.
Harris’s screen debut was in 1952, repeating her Broadway success as the monumentally lonely teenage girl Frankie in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Harris played the ethereal Eleanor Lance in The Haunting (1963), director Robert Wise’s screen adaptation of a novel by Shirley Jackson, a classic film of the horror genre. Another cast member recalled Harris maintaining a social distance from the other actors while not on set, later explaining that she had done so as a method of emphasizing the alienation from the other characters experienced by her character in the film. She reprised her Tony-winning role as Mary Todd Lincoln in 1973’s play The Last of Mrs. Lincoln in the film version, which appeared in 1976. Another noteworthy film appearance was in the World War II drama The Hiding Place (1975). She also appeared in such films as East of Eden (also 1955), with James Dean (with whom she became close friends), Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), with Paul Newman in the private-detective film Harper (1966), and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).
For her television work, Harris had won three Emmy Awards and had been nominated eleven times. One of her most famous television roles was as Queen Victoria, in the 1961 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Laurence Housman’s Victoria Regina, for which she won an Emmy. Earlier, also for the Hallmark Hall of Fame, she starred as Nora Helmer opposite Christopher Plummer in A Doll’s House (1959), a 90-minute television adaptation of Ibsen’s play. She made more appearances in leading roles on the Hallmark program than any other actress, also appearing in two different adaptations of the play Little Moon of Alban. In her later career, she was well known for her role as Lilimae Clements, the mother of Valene Ewing (played by Joan Van Ark) on the CBS nighttime soap opera Knots Landing. The role was as a recurring character from 1980 to 1981 and as a series regular from 1981-1987.
On December 5, 2005, she was named a Kennedy Center Honoree. At a White House ceremony, President George W. Bush remarked, “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.”
Harris continued to work until her death, narrating five historical documentaries by Christopher Seufert and Mooncusser Films, as well as being active as a director on the board of the independent Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. She also did extensive voice work for documentary maker Ken Burns: the voices of Emily Warren Roebling in Brooklyn Bridge, Ann Lee in The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God, Susan B. Anthony in Not For Ourselves Alone: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and most notably Southern diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut for Burns’ 1990 series The Civil War. In the summer of 2008, she appeared on stage again in her hometown of Chatham as Nanny in a Monomoy Theater production of The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.
Harris lived in Chatham, Cape Cod, Massachusetts and until recently, maintained a residence in the Detroit area near to where she grew up. Thrice divorced, she had one son, Peter Gurian. Harris battled breast cancer, a severe fall requiring surgery, a stroke in 2001, and a second stroke in 2010.
Harris died on August 24, 2013, of congestive heart failure at her home in West Chatham, Massachusetts, aged 87. She was survived by her son, Peter. Ben Brantley, theater critic for The New York Times, considered her “the actress who towered most luminously […], rather like a Statue of Liberty for Broadway.” Alec Baldwin, with whom she appeared in Knots Landing, praised her in a tribute in the Huffington Post. “Her voice was like rainfall. Her eyes connected directly to and channeled the depths of her powerful and tender heart. Her talent, a gift from God.” On August 28, 2013, Broadway theaters dimmed their lights for one minute in honor of Harris.
- December, 02, 1925
- Grosse Pointe, Michigan
- August, 24, 2013
- West Chatham, Massachusetts