This fascination began when I first saw one of my favorite films, A Thousand Clowns (1965). It's possible to "fall" for that film in several ways: devotions can be developed to the super-charismatic Jason Robards, the gorgeously epigrammatic writer Herb Gardner, the manic Gene Saks, or the the wonderful BH. Harris was cast in the film instead of Sandy Dennis (whom I also love, but that’s a story for another post), who had played the female lead onstage. Harris's performance in the film causes one to wonder, “who is this adorable woman, who can be cute but not cloying and impish but not off-putting?”
At various points in the Sixties and Seventies, Harris was perched on the brink of superstardom, but didn’t have much interest in it (in that regard, she is a “legit” theater, less sex-kittenish version of the wonderfully hesitant Tuesday Weld). The only trace of a recent interview with her on the Net, from 2002, finds her saying she didn’t have an impulse to keep acting, and she has in fact been an acting teacher for the past few decades — before, during, and after the final flourish in the Eighties and Nineties where she played a few moms onscreen.
So who is this “mystery” performer who was marvelously endearing onscreen, but deliberately forsook fame and wealth at just about every turn? The basic facts of her life are available in the usual places online. She was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1935, and found her first great foothold as a performer in a troupe called the Playwrights Theatre; other members of the troupe included Ed Asner, and Nichols and May. She graduated from there to the Compass, which is best known for serving as a springboard for both the aforementioned comedy team (whose three LPs never, ever go outta date) and Shelley Berman (whose wonderfully paranoid visions also never, ever date). The group was run by her first husband, Paul Sills, one of the true legends of American improv comedy.
|The first cast of the Second City.|
|On a Clear Day You Can See Forever|
At this point, the story gets a little fuzzy — I distinctly remember looking her up in the Lincoln Center Library to find out where she “went” after the big films of the Seventies and discovering an article in a theater magazine that mentioned that she had scuttled her Broadway career by having a night where she went “dry” onstage and abruptly left a show in mid-run (I believe the show was Apple Tree). I’m told by many people that “everything you need to know is available on the Net,” but the name of that particular show is mentioned nowhere online, nor is her supposed “nervous breakdown” confirmed or denied anywhere.
|The cast of The Apple Tree.|
Harris is indeed an enigma of sorts — the Garbo of adorable urban neurotic Sixties actresses. We don’t know anything about her private life, which is fine (I was intrigued, though, to see Robert Klein mention in his autobiography that he had a crush on her when they worked together in The Apple Tree). But we also don’t know much about her as a performer, except for the work that was preserved onscreen.
So Harris is an actress who left us with some superb starring and supporting performances on film, some well-remembered but ephemeral theater and TV work (out of which only a jarringly disturbing and brilliant Naked City episode exists on DVD), and a bunch of unsubstantiated show-biz-style rumors (another one appears on the always-unreliable IMDB, but I will only refer to the ones I’ve actually read in print sources). Of course what it comes down to is that Harris’s personal reputation, whatever that may have been, has been washed away by the sands of time and what we’re left with are the performances, for which I am incredibly grateful.
Since A Thousand Clowns, Nashville, Family Plot, and Freaky Friday are all imminently available, let me just direct you to the nicest rarities that appear online. First, audio tracks of an ill-fated, off-B’way revival of Brecht’s Mahagonny starring Harris and Estelle Parsons. Then the underrated (okay, forgotten) Herb Gardner character masterwork Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971). Harris has a bravura scene that earned her an Oscar nomination. She is utterly sublime.
Jerry Schatzberg’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) is remembered primarily for its early starring performance by Meryl Streep, but Harris is equally wonderful. The trailer can be seen here.
The only Harris film I’ve yet to see — and I'm certain it will appear on the Net in some fashion — is Hal Ashby’s 1981 picture Second Hand Hearts (originally called “The Hamster of Happiness” — I’m not kidding!). A fan of the film put up a clip here.
|The Apple Tree|
She also played “split” characters in both shows, so she affects a very cute and somewhat silly voice for each introverted personality. Here she is on the Tony Awards performing a scene from The Apple Tree where she plays the Jules Feiffer character “Passionella,” who wants to be a “beautiful, glamorous, radiant, ravishing… movie star!” Check out the ultra-quick costume change:
And please let us not speak of forthcoming revivals with Harry Connick Jr., or overblown Minnelli movies with Streisand (was there a movie musical with Streisand that was not overblown?), Yves Montand, and a young (singing — yes, I’ve got the LP with the outtake) Jack Nicholson. Here are the original stars of On a Clear Day…, John Cullum and Barbara on The Bell Telephone Hour’s 1966 special “The Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner.” On a Clear Day… is very much of its era (the lyrics get into very cutesy places, as when "bestir" is rhymed with "disinter"), and I have no idea how it will be packaged as a revival, and I don’t care, because I won’t see it. This is the real deal:
Wherever you are, Ms. Harris, thanks for the performances. You did turn out to be a very different sort of “radiant, ravishing movie star,” and are not forgotten.
Update: My Deceased Artiste tribute to Barbara Harris can be found here. RIP.