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Julie Harris Looks Toward Still More Roles as Historic Women

By Mary C. KernerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 1989


`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.

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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.''