All right, all right, so at 5’7″ and 140 lbs. she’s no Tina Turner, okay? Yet Jackée Harry’s got something different. Unique. Like the song says, “She’s got personality.” And talk about funny, the vampy sexpot of NBC’s 227 is very funny. She got vivid testimony to that effect at the Captain EO premiere in Disneyland, when Whoopi Goldberg ran up to her and said, “You know I was watching TV and getting ready to turn it off, and all of a sudden you came on. And I couldn’t turn the channel ’cause you had me on the floor!”
Join the crowd on the rugs of America, Whoopi. As 227’s Sandra, a woman who never met a man she didn’t like, Harry has become one of TV’s great scene-stealers. If you’re not in one of the approximately 16 million homes watching 227 on Saturday nights, maybe you caught Harry at the Emmys, where she was wearing a revealing pink strapless dress and waggishly telling the cameras, “With this dress maybe they’ll remember me next year.”
The 30ish Harry first manifested her outlandish talent while attending an all-girl junior high in New York City, where she played the Yul Brynner role in The King and I. “It was then that I knew she was really born to do this, because everything she did centered around some kind of entertainment,” says Harry’s older sister, Brenda. Her aunt Verna spotted the ability even earlier, when Jacqueline Yvonne Harry was 3 and would mimic people on TV.
Today Jackée (pronounced Jack-Kay) doesn’t have to imitate the stars because her 227 work has made her one. And the actress makes no bones about flaunting her neo-notoriety. “When I see something, I go for it,” she says confidently.
Getting the role of Sandra two years ago was a case in point. Faring poorly against “all the Diana Ross types” at the audition, Harry was initially rejected; 227 was looking for someone “more conventionally bimbo-ish,” concedes Joel Thurm, an NBC VP in charge of talent. At Thurm’s insistence, Harry was given a second reading. This time she tried a deliberately contrary tactic and went to Wool-worth’s on a shopping spree. She stood out from the crowd of 20 actresses—first with her tacky clothes, then with her talent. “She did something different with the material,” says 227’s star, Marla Gibbs. “She wasn’t what we were looking for, but we all agreed she had to have the part.”
Jackée, born in Winston-Salem, N.C., moved to New York with her mother at age 9 and grew up across the street from a mecca of black entertainment—Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Her grandmother cleaned and pressed shirts for groups like the Platters and the Coasters. On Saturdays Jackée, her sister and three brothers brought church dinners into the Apollo for the performers.
Supported by her mother, Flossie Harry, a hospital ward secretary who died in 1985, Jackée graduated from the High School of Music and Art and earned a degree at Long Island University. While teaching history at Brooklyn Technical High School for two years and getting bored, she decided to give theater a try by doing “little jive plays.” Eventually Harry appeared in an off-Broadway production, One Mo’ Time, and in such Broadway shows as Eubie! and The Wiz. Her 227 stint was preceded by two years on the daytime soap Another World, where she played ex-hooker Lily Mason.
Harry has homes on both coasts—a two-bedroom duplex in the Hollywood Hills and a two-bedroom apartment in New York. The latter is left over from a four-year marriage, which ended in 1984. “When I started doing TV, we ran into difficulties,” Harry says of her ex-husband, a musician. “I started to make a lot of money. It got a little rough.” She’s currently dating New York investment broker Ed Hartley, 25 (“Oh, God,” she cringes, “he’s so young”), flying in to see him once every three weeks. She explains, “I like a man who’s going to tell me ‘No!’ sometimes.”
She’s not hearing any negative injunctions in her career, however. An affable, sensitive woman, Harry is gaining increasing confidence from her outspoken 227 character. And if Jackée ever doubts herself, she can always remember her encounter with Whoopi Goldberg. “She came up to me screaming, ‘You’re the baddest, you’re the baddest!’ ” recalls Harry. “When somebody that bad praises you, you know you’ve arrived.”