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Julie Harris--it's Ladies First

September 05, 1985|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

Standing in the well-manicured garden of her rented house in Pacific Palisades, sunlight dancing on her burnished, close-cropped hair, Julie Harris marvels at the bounty of figs she has just harvested.

"Isn't this wonderful? " she says in amazement. Thirty-five years after she dazzled Broadway as the restless Frankie Addams in "The Member of the Wedding," an astonished child-heart still beats in the actress. Even as we prepare to see her play the slightly more demure Charlotte Bronte in "Bronte" (Friday, 9-10:30 p.m., KCET Channel 28), it's clear that there's a lot of Frankie in the woman yet.

The intervening years in the Harris career have been marked as much by distinction as by eclecticism. There have been forays into film and television, stage roles ranging from Anouilh's "The Lark" to the 1965 musical "Skyscraper."

With equal zest she has played children ("Wedding") and geriatric wives ("On Golden Pond"). Her range covers comedies ("I Am a Camera" and "Mixed Doubles") and melodramas ("The Second Mrs. Lincoln"). Lately, 19th-Century literary ladies have captured her attention, as in "Bronte" (formerly "Currer Bell, Esquire") and before that, "The Belle of Amherst," a life of Emily Dickinson.

It's hard to imagine these wildly divergent portrayals all coming from this slender, sunlit, softspoken woman in summery print skirt and T-shirt, topped with a ceramic necklace of pink and white rabbits--until we also remember that for five years now she has played the ditzy Lilimae on TV's popular "Knots Landing." Has her recent stage gravitation to spinster poets been entirely her idea?

"It's come from me," she quietly insisted, settling on the living-room couch as her Yorkie, Teresa, swiftly nested in her lap.

"Originally, with Dickinson, I was asked by Caedmon Records to read her poems and letters for an album. Up to then, my interest had been a few poems in high school, but in doing research for the recording, I read her published letters and she just captivated me with her wit and imagination.

"Simultaneously, my interest in the Brontes came about after reading 'Jane Eyre' and 'Wuthering Heights.' I started reading about the Brontes. Much later, Eleanor Stout, who was doing a program on WGBH out of Boston, asked me if I would do 'The House of Mirth.' "

Harris wasn't available, but Stout asked if there was anything else she'd like to do.

"I said, 'Well, I'd like to do a one-woman play on the Brontes.' Anne and Emily wrote very few letters that are in existence and Charlotte wrote a great many, so it was in my mind that Charlotte should be the one to tell the story."

Stout asked Harris if she'd write the play, to which Harris replied that, short of having five years on a desert island, it might be wiser simply to ask William Luce (who wrote "The Belle of Amherst").

"We did it as a radio play, but I was aching to do it on the stage," Harris said. "This was, oh, six or seven years ago. I did the first stage performance (as a benefit) for the Matrix (1983). Later I did it for a school in Pennsylvania and then at my church here, about a year ago.

"I'm very drawn to these ladies because of their originality and power. Also by a sort of hero worship. And because they were so original, they still are very vivid today. It's like buried treasure. You say a few words, bring up a few silver bars, and people say, 'Ahhh!' It's that vision of absolute heroism that's so extraordinary. And besides, they knew how to write."

Part of the reason for this recent indulgence in one-woman shows has been the demanding schedule of "Knots Landing." While the good news is that television has kept Harris in Los Angeles (though "home" remains a cottage on Cape Cod), the bad is that it's put a serious crimp in her stage career.

"Except," she argued, "that I've always been working on something during that time, so it's not as if I've cut myself off from theater entirely. And I do enjoy the character I play on television."

Still, when it comes to plays with extended casts, Harris concedes, "I can't do anything. We do 30 episodes (a season). I had about 6 1/2 weeks (off) this spring."

That 6 1/2 weeks had been reserved for "Night of the Iguana," which Harris had agreed to do as the inaugural production of the Los Angeles Theatre Center. When construction delays pushed the opening from April to September (kickoff is Sept. 19), the project simply had to be postponed.

Yet because of her gracious readiness to always lend support, Harris has become a powerful symbol to the Southern California theatrical community. The Beverly Hills Theatre Guild recently named its playwriting award after her, which both surprised and pleased her. Characteristically, she'll do a live performance of "Bronte" on Sept. 29 to benefit the guild.

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