HELLO AMERICA!—When an actor who represented true artistry dies, it is always a shock, even though it’s the way of life itself. Remembering all the special moments you watched or observed them delivering their magic, you want it never to end; after all they represent our gods on Mount Olympus. This is how I felt when reading a notice that the brilliant actress Julie Harris passed.
Since I had met her during the 1950s after she had co-starred with Ethel Waters and Brandon DeWilde in the Broadway hit “Member of the Wedding,” her leaving us was quite personal. She was co-starring with James Dean in the film “East of Eden” when he introduced me to Julie and made it very clear that she was one “nice” girl. He respected her in every way. “She’s one of the best in the business,” he would say.
Later, it was Julie who advised me how to handle the role of “Honey Camden,” the half brother character of Ms. Waters character “Bernice,” during the play’s revival beginning at the Pasadena Playhouse. Every time I had a problematic moment with Ms. Waters, I’d give Julie a call and beg for her advice as to how to survive Ethel during rehearsals. She would laugh and assure me that Ethel’s cantankerous moments were all an act, she wanted to find how far she could push those closest to her in a scene. And because my role was a rather significant one, Ethel just had the need to have some fun.
When Julie informed me of this, the pressure of being on stage with the “Great One” was gone and I gave as much as Ethel decided to unleash, especially in the actual performance. Even though she exploded with some unprintable names for me after a few performances, we became extremely good “real” friends. And it was all because of Julie who was absolutely delighted to hear about everything that was quietly going on when Ethel and I faced each other on stage. “Ethel just wants to know what you were made of,” Julie noted. “She can’t stand anyone weak around her, she wants them to show some guts. It makes her feel secure when facing an audience with the other actor.”
Later, Julie introduced me to writer Christopher Isherwood who was a quiet, charming man who smiled a lot. He had written the play “Goodbye to Berlin” which starred Julie, producing another huge success for her. Later, the play was adapted as the musical, “Cabaret” on Broadway and served as a film starring the gifted Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles. Of course, Liza went home with an Oscar in 1972.
After receiving five Tony awards, three Emmys, and being nominated for an Oscar, she established herself as one of our finest actors of our time. I asked Julie what she wanted most at this stage of her life. She answered without batting an eye with, “Just to be a better person.”
By Michael St. John