One of the greatest singular talents who ever shined brightly in the theatre and on film is Barbara Harris, who turned eighty-two yesterday. Long retired, she is most notable for her brief time as a go-to actress for everything from subtle comedy, to moving drama to hilarious musicals. At the time, it felt like she could do almost anything, and critics were in love with her. I never got to see her on stage, beginning my theatregoing as I did about the time she left it—in 1967 when she was on top of the world, receiving the reviews of her career in the three one act plays that made up the Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock musical The Apple Tree, written especially for her. After this personal triumph, for which she received the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, she left the show, never to appear on Broadway again.
Harris as both Chimney Sweep and Passionella in 1967's The Apple Tree.
Her illustrious (but few) theatre appearances were of such import, that people bemoan to this day missed opportunities to have seen her on stage. And with all her work essentially gone with the wind, we are fortunate at the very least to have her on film as a permanent record of her genius.
And genius it was. Just take a look at this scene from a bizarre 1971 comedy called Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? It starred Dustin Hoffman at a time when his stardom could get practically any movie made—and this one is ample proof of that. Harris, in just her few minutes on screen, received her one and only Academy Award nomination. Cast as actress at an audition with little self-esteem, but enormous reservoirs of emotional honesty, the truthfulness on display here is both painfully real and achingly funny.
"I can't seem to let go of this lamp right now," a great line from Herb Gardner's oddball script.
Harris once said, "I always chose movies that I thought would fail, so that I wouldn't have to deal with the fame thing ... I'm much more interested in what's behind acting, which is the inquiry into the human condition. Everyone gets acting mixed up with the desire to be famous, but some of us really just stumbled into the fame part, while we were really just interested in the process of acting."
And we should take Harris at her word here. Having grown up in Evanston, Illinois, she found herself (while still a teenager) falling in with a group of University of Chicago students that were in the stages of forming an acting group. This would become the Compass Players, the first improvisational theatre company in America, which featured the then unknown Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Its founding director, Paul Sills, eventually became one of the great teachers of theatre games (his mother, Viola Spolin, practically invented the method), leading to his founding of Second City, still renowned today as one of the leading improvisational companies in the U.S. and Canada. Harris become one of its original leading players, along with Alan Arkin and Paul Sand, all of whom came to be on Broadway in 1962 when From the Second City opened at the Royale Theatre. The evening of improv comedy and songs gave the twenty-four year old Harris a platform from which to show her versatility, and for her efforts, was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Musical (she lost, but so did the twenty year old Barbra Streisand for I Can Get It For You Wholesale). Whaddya gonna do? *
Harris (front row left) among the cast of the original Second City.
As Harris described it in a rare interview she gave in 2002 to the Phoenix New Times, "I was a small-town, middle-class girl who wore a cashmere sweater very nicely and ended up on Broadway because that's the way the wind was blowing. I didn't have my sights set there. When I was at Second City, there was a vote about whether we should take our show to Broadway or not. Andrew Duncan and I voted no. I stayed in New York, but only because Richard Rodgers and Alan Jay Lerner came and said, 'We want to write a musical for you!' Well, I wasn't big on musical theater. I had seen part of South Pacific in Chicago and I walked out. But it was Richard Rodgers calling!"
That show was On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, which wound up not being written by Richard Rodgers, who found that working with Alan Jay Lerner was too much of a nightmare to endure. The composer Burton Lane was enlisted, and though the show had its problems with an original book that doomed it almost from the beginning (written by Lerner himself), the score the two wrote together is actually one of the great ones. With one terrific number after another, Harris was instantly designated a worthy leading lady in a musical that was built entirely around her unique talents. And even though it wasn't a total success, she got her usual round of amazing reviews, but wound up losing the