Barbara Harris (actress)

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Barbara Harris
Barbara Harris 1967.jpg
Harris in 1967
Barbara Densmoor Harris[1]

(1935-07-25)July 25, 1935
DiedAugust 21, 2018(2018-08-21) (aged 83)
Years active1959–1997
(m. 1955; div. 1958)

Barbara Densmoor Harris (July 25, 1935 – August 21, 2018) was an American actress. She appeared in such movies as A Thousand Clowns, Plaza Suite, Nashville, Family Plot, Freaky Friday, Peggy Sue Got Married, and Grosse Pointe Blank. Harris won a Tony Award and was nominated for an Academy Award. She also received four Golden Globe Award nominations.

Early life[edit]

Harris was born in Evanston, Illinois, the daughter of Natalie (née Densmoor), a pianist, and Oscar Graham Harris, an arborist who later became a businessman. In her youth, Harris attended Senn High School and then Wilbur Wright College. She began her stage career as a teenager at the Playwrights Theatre in Chicago. Her fellow players included Edward Asner, Elaine May and Mike Nichols.

She was also a member of the Compass Players, the first ongoing improvisational theatre troupe in the United States, directed by Paul Sills, to whom she was married at that time.[2] Though the Compass Players closed in disarray, a second theatre directed by Sills called The Second City opened in Chicago in 1959 and attracted national attention.[2] Despite Sills and Harris having divorced by this time, Sills cast her in this company and brought her to New York to play in a Broadway edition at the Royale Theatre, opening on September 26, 1961. She was nominated for the 1962 Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance.[3]



A life member of the Actors Studio,[4] Harris received a Tony Award nomination in 1962 for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for her Broadway debut in the original musical revue production From the Second City, which ran at the Royale Theatre from September 26, 1961 to December 9, 1961. The revue also featured the young Alan Arkin and Paul Sand. Produced by Max Liebman (among others) and directed by Paul Sills, the production presented Harris in such sketches as Caesar's Wife, First Affair, Museum Piece, and The Bergman Film.[3]

In a 2002 interview with the Phoenix New Times, Harris recalled her ambivalence about even bringing the troupe to New York from Chicago. She said, "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!"[5]

While Rodgers and Lerner were busy working on their original musical for her, she won the Theatre World Award for her role in playwright Arthur Kopit's dark comedic farce, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad. She earned a nomination for the 1966 Tony for Best Actress in a Musical for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965), a Broadway musical created for her by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane. She starred as Daisy Gamble, a New Yorker who seeks out the help of a psychiatrist to stop smoking. Under hypnosis, the apparently kooky, brash, and quirky character reveals unexpected hidden depths. During her hypnotic trances, she becomes fascinating to the psychiatrist as she reveals herself as a woman who has lived many past lives, one of them ending tragically. While critics were divided over the merits of the show, they praised Harris's performance.[citation needed] The show opened on October 14, 1965 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre and ran for 280 performances, earning a total of three Tony nominations. Harris performed numbers from the show with John Cullum on The Bell Telephone Hour ("The Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner", broadcast on February 27, 1966).[citation needed] She had previously appeared on Broadway with Anne Bancroft in a 1963 production of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, staged by Jerome Robbins, at the Martin Beck Theater; the production received five Tony Award nominations.

Harris gave another well-received performance in The Apple Tree, another Broadway musical created for her, this time by the team of composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick. The show, in which Harris co-starred with Alan Alda and Larry Blyden and was directed by Mike Nichols, opened at the Shubert Theater on October 5, 1966 and closed on November 25, 1967. The show was based on three tales by Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton, and Jules Feiffer and Harris starred in all three. She played Eve in Twain's The Diary of Adam and Eve, a melodramatically campy temptress in The Lady Or The Tiger?, and two roles in Jules Feiffer's Passionella. She was the forlorn, soot-stained nasal-congested chimney-sweep who wants only to be "a beautiful glamorous movie star, for its own sake", and, by virtue of an instantaneous costume-change, the huge-bosomed, gold-gowned, blonde bombshell of a movie star she always dreamed she'd be.[citation needed] Richard Watts Jr. of the New York Post wrote "[t]here are many high triumphs of the imagination in the vastly original musical comedy ... [b]ut it is Miss Harris who provides it with the extra touch of magic." Walter Kerr called her "the square root of noisy sex" and "sweetness carried well into infinity". Harris captured the 1967 Tony for Best Actress in a Musical as well as Cue Magazine's "Entertainer of the Year" award. Of her friend and colleague Mike Nichols, she said in 2002, "Mike Nichols was a toughie. He could be very kind, but if you weren't first-rate, watch out. He'd let you know."[5]

After reading scripts for David Merrick, Harris directed a Broadway production of The Penny Wars by Elliott Baker in 1969 starring Kim Hunter, George Voskovec, and Kristoffer Tabori. She stopped appearing on stage after The Apple Tree, except for the off-Broadway first American production of Brecht and Weill's Mahagonny in 1970, in which she played the role of Jenny, originally created by Lotte Lenya. In the 2002 interview, Harris said, "Who wants to be up on the stage all the time? It isn't easy. You have to be awfully invested in the fame aspect, and I really never was. What I cared about was the discipline of acting, whether I did well or not."[5]

Early films and television[edit]

From 1961 through 1964, she appeared as a guest star on such popular television series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Naked City, Channing and The Defenders. In 1965, she made an auspicious feature film debut as social worker Sandra Markowitz in the screen version of A Thousand Clowns. She co-starred opposite Jason Robards Jr., who played the freewheeling, eternally optimistic guardian of his teenage nephew, the custody of whom is threatened by authorities' dim view of his bohemian lifestyle. The New York Times critic wrote on December 9, 1965 that the movie "has the new and sensational Barbara Harris playing the appropriately light-headed girl". Harris and Robards won Golden Globe nominations. She then the screen version of Arthur Kopit's darkly comic Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad (1967) with Rosalind Russell as the monstrous mother of Robert Morse who takes the stuffed corpse of her dead husband along on trips. Reviewing the latter film for The New York Times on February 16, 1967, critic Bosley Crowther wrote, "Barbara Harris from the original play cast is as wacky as she was on the stage — casual and direct and totally blasé about the boisterous business of sex. Her tussle to accomplish her purpose, with the corpse falling out into the room every time she is about to score a field goal, is still the funniest scene."

In Neil Simon's Plaza Suite (1971) with Walter Matthau, the British entertainment magazine Time Out called the "delightful" Harris' gifts "wasted". She had only slightly better opportunities in The War Between Men and Women (1972) with Jack Lemmon.

She earned an Oscar nomination for the 1971 film (which co-starred Dustin Hoffman) Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, about a rich, successful, womanizing pop songwriter suffering a debilitating but oddly liberating mental crisis. The script was by Herb Gardner, who also wrote A Thousand Clowns.

In 1975, Harris appeared in one of her signature film roles in Robert Altman's masterpiece Nashville, playing Albuquerque, a ditzy, scantily clad country singing hopeful who may be far more opportunistic and calculating than she would first appear. Accounts of the film's chaotic and inspired production, particularly in Jan Stuart's book The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece, indicate a clash between actress and director. Harris earned a Golden Globe nomination (one of 11 for the film); as Oscar-nominated co-star Lily Tomlin put it, "I was the hugest of Barbara Harris fans; I thought she was so stunning and original." Although the two were set to reunite with Altman in a sequel, that film was never made.

The following year, Alfred Hitchcock cast her in Family Plot as a bogus spiritualist who searches for a missing heir and a family fortune with her cab driver boyfriend. Among a cast that included Bruce Dern, William Devane, and Karen Black, Hitchcock was particularly delighted by Harris' quirkiness, skill and intelligence. She received praise from critics as well as a Golden Globe nomination for the film, which was based on the novel The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning, and which marked a reunion of Hitchcock with Ernest Lehman, who had created the original screenplay for North by Northwest. In her 2002 Phoenix New Times interview, she admitted that she "turned down Alfred Hitchcock when he first asked me to be in one of his movies". After agreeing to star in Family Plot, she recalled that "Hitchcock was a wonderful man."[5] The film was Hitchcock's last and inasmuch as Harris appears by herself in its final shot (in which she winks at the audience), she has the distinction of being the actor who, so to speak, ended Alfred Hitchcock's long and illustrious career.

Later career[edit]

Harris continued to appear in films of the 1970s-80s, including Freaky Friday (1976) with a young Jodie Foster, Movie Movie for director Stanley Donen, and The North Avenue Irregulars with Edward Herrmann and Cloris Leachman. She co-starred in The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979) with one of her former Broadway leading men, Alan Alda (who also wrote the screenplay), a tale of a liberal Washington Senator caught in an affair with a younger woman, played by Meryl Streep.

In 1981, she starred in Second-Hand Hearts for esteemed director Hal Ashby as "Dinette Dusty", a recently widowed waitress and would-be singer who marries a boozy carwash worker named "Loyal", played by Robert Blake to get back her children from their paternal grandparents. The film, based on a highly sought-after "road movie" screenplay by Charles Eastman, was a critical and box office disaster that tarnished the careers of all concerned. Critic Vincent Canby in his negative The New York Times review on May 8, 1981 opined, "[t]he film's one bright spot is Barbara Harris, who plays Dinette as sincerely as possible under awful conditions. She looks great even when she's supposed to be tacky, and is genuinely funny as she tries to make sense out of Loyal's muddled philosophizing, which, of course, the screenplay requires her to match." Harris was offscreen until 1986 when she played the mother of Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married. Her last films were Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997).

Harris retired from acting and began teaching. When asked in 2002 if she would resume her acting career, she said, "Well, if someone handed me something fantastic for $10 million, I'd work again. But I haven't worked in a long time as an actor. I don't miss it. I think the only thing that drew me to acting in the first place was the group of people I was working with: Ed Asner, Paul Sills, Mike Nichols, Elaine May. And all I really wanted to do back then was rehearsal. I was in it for the process, and I really resented having to go out and do a performance for an audience, because the process stopped; it had to freeze and be the same every night. It wasn't as interesting."[5]

In 2005, she briefly resurfaced, guest starring as The Queen and as Spunky Brandburn on Anne Manx on Amazonia, an audio drama by the Radio Repertory Company of America, which aired on XM Satellite Radio.


Harris died of lung cancer in Scottsdale, Arizona, on August 21, 2018, aged 83.[6]


Year Title Role Notes
1965 A Thousand Clowns Dr. Sandra Markowitz Nominated—Golden Globe for Best Actress – Musical/Comedy
1967 Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad Rosalie
1971 Plaza Suite Muriel Tate
Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? Allison Densmore Nominated—Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
1972 The War Between Men and Women Theresa Alice Kozlenko
1974 Mixed Company Kathy Morrison
1975 The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery Miss Helen Fredericks
Nashville Albuquerque Nominated—Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress
1976 Family Plot Blanche Tyler Nominated—Golden Globe for Best Actress – Musical/Comedy
Freaky Friday Ellen Andrews
1978 Movie Movie Trixie Lane Segment: Baxter's Beauties of 1933
1979 The North Avenue Irregulars Vickie Simms
The Seduction of Joe Tynan Ellie Tynan
1981 Second-Hand Hearts Dinette Dusty
1986 Peggy Sue Got Married Evelyn Kelcher
1987 Nice Girls Don't Explode Mom
1988 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels Fanny Eubanks
1997 Grosse Pointe Blank Mary Blank


Year Title Role Notes
1961 Alfred Hitchcock Presents Beth Episode: "Beta Delta Gamma"
1962 As Caesar Sees It Self TV comedy featuring insights of Sid Caesar
1962 Naked City Helga Royd Episode: "Daughter Am I in My Father's House"
1963 Chronicle Episode: "The French, They Are So French"
1963 Channing Sophie Kannakos Episode: "No Wild Games For Sophie"
1963 What's Going on Here? WNEW-produced TV comedy film
1964 The Defenders Margit Wolsung Episode: "Claire Cheval Died in Boston"
1964 The Doctors and the Nurses Anna Faye
Elaine Radnitz
Episode: "White on White"
Episode: "So Some Girls Play the Cello"
1964 The Garry Moore Show Self
1964 The Jack Paar Show Self
1966 The Bell Telephone Hour Self - singer "The Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner" w/Florence Henderson, Edward Villella, Patricia McBride, John Cullum and Stanley Holloway
1967 The Merv Griffin Show Self
1971 Stand Up and Cheer Self
1977 A Doonesbury Special Joanie Caucus Voice only (animated)
1989 Days of Our Lives Susan Faraday 5 episodes
1992 Middle Ages Jean Episode: "Night Moves"


Year Title Role Notes
1961 From the Second City Broadway debut
Nominated - Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical
1962 Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad Rosalie Won - Obie Award for Best Actress
1963 Mother Courage and Her Children Yvette Pottier
1965 On a Clear Day You Can See Forever Daisy Gamble Nominated - Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical
1966 The Apple Tree Eve - The Diary of Adam and Eve
Passionella - Passionella
Princess Barbara - The Lady or the Tiger
Won - Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical
1970 Mahagonny Jenny Off-Broadway production


  1. ^ Family Search
  2. ^ a b Hart, Hugh. "The Return Of Barbara" Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1991
  3. ^ a b " 'From the Second City' Broadway" Playbill (vault), retrieved June 16, 2018
  4. ^ Garfield, David (1980). "Appendix: Life Members of The Actors Studio as of January 1980". A Player's Place: The Story of The Actors Studio. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. p. 278. ISBN 978-0-02-542650-4.
  5. ^ a b c d e Robert L. Pela, "Barbara Harris Knew Bill Clinton Was White Trash", Phoenix New Times, October 24, 2002
  6. ^ O'Donnell, Maureen (August 21, 2018). "Actress Barbara Harris dies; Second City alum became toast of Broadway, movies". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on August 21, 2018. Retrieved August 21, 2018.

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