SAN FRANCISCO — `THE theater does change people's lives. It speaks to us about what we're capable of as human beings.'' Julie Harris is speaking, in muted, unaffected tones, from a lifetime of experience with theater, as well as television and film. Television viewers may know her face from ``Knots Landing'' and moviegoers may first have fallen in love with her in ``East of Eden,'' ``I Am a Camera,'' and ``The Member of the Wedding.'' But like many powerful theater talents, Miss Harris considers herself a stage actress.
Being a star was not her goal and she is known among her colleagues for not behaving like one. She has never hired a secretary to protect her; she makes her own career decisions; and she greets the public backstage after every performance.
``To me that's an old tradition,'' she explains. ``When I started in the theater, you could go backstage if you liked the performance. I'm very happy when people come back; it's an expression that they liked it and want to tell you so. Besides, it takes at most 20 minutes.''
She may make it sound simple, but the truth is that Julie Harris is warm, compassionate, and caring with each individual. She greets each fan in turn, patiently autographing photos and playbills, responding with particular attention to each.
Harris made a rare live appearance here at Marines Memorial Theater just a year ago in ``Bront"e,'' a solo portrait of the author of ``Jane Eyre.'' Written by playwright William Luce, who also wrote the enormously successful ``Belle of Amherst'' about Emily Dickinson, ``Bront"e'' was actually Harris's idea.
``I'd been asked to host a radio show in Boston and told them I'd always been quite interested in the Bront"es. I felt a good starting point was Charlotte's return from Scarborough, where she buried her last sister, Anne.'' The entire play, which began as a radio drama eight years ago, takes place on that one day, when Charlotte's loneliness - she having lost all her family except her father - is finally assuaged by a proposal of marriage.
``The family is the most important thing there is in life. The work is important, it's what keeps you going, but don't underestimate the family.'' Harris still vividly recalls her son's very first steps, taken in the park opposite the Huntington Hotel, when she was in San Francisco appearing in ``The Lark.''
Now she is back at that same hotel, appearing for six weeks in the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning play ``Driving Miss Daisy.'' The play, which spans 25 years, appealed to Harris because ``it's a story about love, friendship, understanding, communion. I liken it to a Mozart trio;it's very melodic and very precise and very poetic. The playwright was a lyricist and it shows.
``He's also like Picasso or Matisse - each broad stroke is done so that you scream with laughter. It's really high comedy, and underneath are all these layers of feeling and life going on.''
Harris admits there are still problems, in spite of having a strong technique as an actress. ``It's never easy to find a part. This play had one scene that's very trying; and it's never been easy, but now I just accept that it's difficult and sort of enjoy the difficulty.''
Harris is perhaps unique in that she has worked almost constantly during her career and always in a variety of roles and media. Her agent for many years, Ed Bondy, seems to have been responsible for much of it. ``He would direct me - go here, go there.''
While she's handling most of her career decisions herself nowadays, Harris still has a plethora of roles: this past year she had an important role in the feature film ``Gorillas in the Mist,'' based on Dian Fossey's life, starring Sigourney Weaver; an HBO movie, ``The Christmas Wife,'' with Jason Robards Jr.; ``The Woman He Loved,'' a CBS television special about Wallis Simpson, with Jane Seymour and Olivia DeHavilland; narrated a documentary about Isadora Duncan; and a play about Robert Louis Stevenson, called ``Tusitala,'' by the playwright who wrote ``The Last of Mrs. Lincoln,'' one of Harris's most famous roles
As for that role on ``Knots Landing,'' Lilliemae was written out of the script and ``I was sorry to see her go,'' Harris concedes, ``but it's done in such a way that I could come back later.'' Despite the hectic pace of this kind of TV work, Harris enjoyed it: ``Actors have to learn to work very fast in television, which is good; we don't get any rehearsal.''.
While no specific role can be cited as changing her life, Harris feels that many of them ``have entered my consciousness and enriched me. When you learn about somebody and they have contributed something remarkable, in that way they expand your consciousness.
``I still wonder at Emily Dickinson - as obscure a little lady as she was, she's been a powerhouse, all over the world. ... `The Belle of Amherst' has a moment in the last of the play that is very, very metaphysical. It rises above life, I think. It just soars; I always felt I was riding on a magic carpet. She's literally passing over, she's saying goodbye and she's saying this is just the beginning; it's a huge moment.''
Harris is known for her portrayal of women such as Joan of Arc, Mary Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, and - of course - that lonely 12-year-old, Frankie, in ``The Member of the Wedding,'' the hit which launched Harris's own career.
But she remembers it beginning with watching performances by road companies to the Midwest where she grew up; Maurice Evans, Helen Hayes, and Ethel Waters, with whom she later worked - these were her heroes; and with a walk-on for the Old Vic in 1947, which allowed her to watch performances every single night.
And Shakespeare - the litmus test for aso many fine actors - she finds ``wonderful, the basis and, always a challenge, don't you think?''
By this question she's managed to turn the conversation around. This is a self-effacing woman; interested in other people and not inclined to talk about herself unless specifically asked..
Her plans include portraying some other famous women: a play is being written for her by Bill Luce about Isak Dinesen which she hopes to do with three black actors in 1991; and she's scheduled for a remake of her one-woman show about Empress Tolstoy, as well as a new play about the wife of James Joyce titled ``Is He Still Dead?'' ``I never get to the end of these ideas for one-woman plays.''
Meanwhile, this indomitable actress will appear as Miss Daisy in several other cities before the tour ends in April. ``I think of working on a new play as being the most intensely exciting kind of work that you can do.
``There are some moments in the play when you think, `I don't really know how to do this,' but you keep plodding along like a painter keeps making strokes. And you know it's not right, but you keep making them because you've got to do something. Then one day it sort of comes together, but you don't know it's going to come together, you just have to keep going.''