It is usually a trivia stumper: Which actor has the most Tony Awards? The answer is Julie Harris, with six.
Five were won competitively, from her star-making turn in 1952’s I Am A Camera to The Last of Mrs. Lincoln in 1972, plus a special lifetime achievement Tony in 2002 as a career capper.
But the answer always surprised people, who would guess flashier, larger-than-life performers instead of the 5-foot-4-inch Harris, who made a point of being quietly, unassumingly brilliant onstage.
At the age of 87, Harris died on Saturday, of congestive heart failure.
I met and interviewed Harris many times, for unlike other major figures in the theater, she relished the opportunity to tour the country. She appeared in such Pulitzer Prize-winning vehicles as Driving Miss Daisy and The Gin Game to the relatively minor mystery-melodrama Ladies in Retirement, which brought her to the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1995.
That was surely my most memorable encounter with Harris — not because of the play, which was eminently forgettable — but the photo session in the Playhouse’s Miami lobby. At the time, Harris was 69 and already pretty frail. I would have been content with a simple headshot, but the photographer found a 4-foot-high platform and told the reigning actress of the American theater that he needed her to climb up onto the platform for a pedestal portrait. Although she was clearly wary of his choice, she gamely accepted the boost up and posed like the trouper that she was. I cringe a bit every time I see that photo in my files.
She appeared in Ladies in Retirement largely because her favorite director, Charles Nelson Reilly, told her she should. They collaborated countless times, including on her quintessential solo performance as poetess Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst. He brought her to South Florida often, including in a 1981 production — as improbable as it is legendary — of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre. Yes, it was her only foray into dinner theater.
She recalled the experience for me, noting “They did say they would finish the dessert course so there wouldn’t be the clanking of dishes as the play started.” The production is immortalized in all its glory in the opening scene of the film comedy Soapdish.
The last time Reilly brought Harris to the area was 1999, with a post-Broadway tour of The Gin Game that co-starred Charles Durning and played the Royal Poinciana Playhouse. Soon after that engagement, she stopped in at Caldwell Theatre to accept its Spotlight Award for lifetime achievement in the arts. Two years later, she suffered a stroke, appropriately while out of town working on a new play in Chicago.
Of course, in the way that television has a way of overshadowing stage work, Harris is probably best remembered by the general public for playing Alec Baldwin’s eccentric mother, Lilimae Clements, on Knots Landing from 1981 to 1987. She made a few films, most notably repeating her scene-stealing Broadway turn in A Member of the Wedding, playing James Dean’s love interest in East of Eden and supporting roles in Gorillas in the Mist and a Steve Martin comedy, Housesitter.
But she most came alive on a theater stage, where those of us lucky enough to have seen Harris perform will remember her with awe.