Julie Harris, 57, arrived half an hour late to the postperformance bash in the lobby of Beverly Hills’ Bank of California, still wearing the auburn Victorian-style wig she had worn in the play. No matter. Joseph Stern, producer of Currer Bell, Esquire—Harris’ one-woman show based on the life of 19th-century English author Charlotte Brontë—welcomed her with a leather-bound volume of Jane Eyre and a tide of sentiment. “You are incredible,” he said. “A gracious, gentle human being…”
“And a diva!” Harris growled.
She was joking. But the diminutive actress got no argument from her cast colleagues on Knots Landing, who paid $100 a ticket to see the benefit performance, one of Harris’ rare stage appearances in recent years. The sold-out event raised some $20,000 for an L.A.-based company called Actors for Themselves at the Matrix Theatre. And if the evening blended soap and seriousness, well, so does Julie. For three seasons now Harris—arguably the First Lady of the American stage—has been playing Lilimae Clements, the broken-down country singer cum family matriarch (and feisty moral center) of the CBS melodrama.
“There is no one like her on the stage,” says Knots co-star Michele Lee. “When I first got to New York in the ’60s, it was ‘Julie Harris, Julie Harris,’ and now I’m working with her!” Such raves have marked much of Harris’ career. Born in 1925 in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., the second of three children of an investment banker, she recalls being a “very plain” child who spent hours staring at movie screens, fantasizing about becoming a great star. After training at the Yale School of Drama and the Actors Studio, and after a dozen or so plays in New York, she became Broadway’s darling with her celebrated 1950 performance as the 12-year-old tomboy in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding.
Thirty years, five Tonys, two Emmys and several film triumphs later, Harris is disarmingly direct about why she decided to do a prime-time soap. “Well,” she says, “I didn’t have anything to do at the time. I had just been sick and got better.” The sickness was cancer, which she says has been arrested. And, no, she finds nothing demeaning in doing 18 episodes a year (at $20,000 per) on a show that this year, thanks to more sexual intrigue, has edged out NBC’s rival Hill Street Blues in the ratings. “I enjoy it,” Harris says. “It’s a wonderful company and difficult work. It appeals to me to play a second-rate Southern singer.”
Clearly, however, Harris has not given herself up completely to pop culture. She hopes to tour with Currer Bell (named for Charlotte Brontë’s masculine pseudonym), as she did with The Belle of Amherst, her acclaimed 1976 one-woman show about Emily Dickinson. She’s also been talking to Bill Luce, author of both Bell and Belle, about doing a two-person play about novelist James Joyce and his wife, Nora Barnacle. For the time being, however, Harris has no plans to leave TV—and its financial rewards. “I thought it was like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” she says. “If you find it after a couple of years, you hold on.”