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Sharing the Soul of the Poet

Julie Harris became hooked on Emily Dickinson in the '60s, and she's still addicted.

September 03, 2000|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

What becomes a legend most? In the case of Julie Harris, one of the leading ladies of the American theater, the answer may well be other legends.

Winner of an unprecedented five Tony Awards, the famously petite actress has assayed a wide range of roles in theater, film and television, in a career that spans six decades and is still going strong. Yet she's also made a specialty of portraying historical women.

Harris has taken on the roles of Mary Todd Lincoln, Isak Dinesen, St. Joan, Charlotte Bronte, Countess Tolstoy and others. Recently, it was announced that she will receive her third Emmy, for voice-over performance as Susan B. Anthony in the PBS special "Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony."

But the one that has become Harris' signature is Emily Dickinson in William Luce's "The Belle of Amherst." The performance, for which she won her fifth Tony in 1977, also triumphed on television and as a Grammy-winning recording. Originally conceived and directed by Harris' longtime friend and colleague Charles Nelson Reilly, "The Belle of Amherst" opens Saturday at the Laguna Playhouse, again directed by Reilly. The engagement marks the beginning of a national tour of the new production.

From her breakthrough movie role as Frankie Addams in 1952's "The Member of the Wedding," to her performance opposite James Dean in "East of Eden," to her seven-year stint on the CBS series "Knots Landing," Harris has proven both a virtuoso and a chameleon.

"I like to think an actress can put on any kind of mask," says the dulcet-voiced Harris, 74, speaking by phone from her home in Cape Cod, Mass., where she's lived for the last 20 years. "I've been very blessed in being able to do many remarkable plays. I love variety in the theater. I don't want one kind of play. I like being a clown one minute and a queen the next. I have no favorite roles."

"There's a lot of the child in her, but there's also the regal qualities of the women she's played," says Reilly, who has known Harris for 35 years and worked with her on 14 productions. "She says, 'I'm just a showoff,' playing all these famous women. But she's a very good one, an artist."


It's especially apt that Dickinson has become a signature role for Harris because the actress' love for the poet is long-lived.

"Since I was introduced to Emily about 40 years ago, I've loved her," Harris says. "She inspires and nurtures me all the time. She's the one who said, 'My business is to love.' I understand, and I feel for her capacity to love.

"Emily Dickinson is a unique figure in American literature, a great poet and a great woman. Her philosophy always washes over like a balm for the soul. It's spiritually good for all of us to hear her words.

"I believe that Emily Dickinson has a great deal to say to human beings," Harris continues. "I'm like an evangelist. I want everyone to hear her words and partake of her soul."

One of the striking qualities of Harris' performance is how thoroughly she embodies Dickinson. The veracity is a result not only of Harris' passion for her subject, but also of assiduous craftsmanship. She believes in research.

"I would like to know as correctly as I could know what actually did occur, for the person I'm doing the story about," the actress says. "It makes it more interesting to have it as authentic as possible."

Yet Harris takes her pursuit of authenticity beyond research. "When she's sitting in a dressing room, filing down the shoes of her costume so that they look worn, she teaches me detail," Reilly says. "She will not fake anything. It has to be true. She taught me that word. That's her favorite word."

It is a conviction that's part and parcel of her profound respect for the theater itself--a quality Reilly describes with an anecdote from one of their many outings together. " 'At Wit's End' was playing at the Coronet, and she used to like to come to see the last half-hour," he recalls. "One night, we were walking down La Cienega laughing. We arrived at the theater, and she walked into the stage door ahead of me. I saw her make the slightest adjustment that she didn't even know she'd made. Her body changed because she was entering a place of great reverence."


Born in Grosse Pointe, Mich., Harris became interested in the theater--and in performing--when she was a girl. "My mother and father took me to see plays, and it was just something that I grew into gradually," she recalls. "It was just something that happened to me, that I worked my way into, because I wasn't a very good student and I was a good mimic."

As a teenager, she studied at the Perry-Mansfield School of Dance and Theater in Colorado. Due to a wartime shortage of applicants in 1944, Harris was accepted for graduate-level study at the Yale School of Drama, even though she had only just finished high school. She stayed there one year, then decided to continue her training at the Actors Studio in New York.

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