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Julie Harris on Television

Belle of Amhearst (1976)
March 16, 2013 - 4:00 pm
Dan Einstein, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

The recipient of five Tonys and a Special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award; three Emmys and eleven total nominations; one Grammy and an Oscar nomination, Julie Harris is one of the most honored and accomplished performers in the history of American theater. And as with so many talented young hopefuls who flocked to New York during the post-war years, television played an important role in her development as an actor. Harris cut her teeth in the pressure cooker atmosphere of live television in 1949 and over the next few years, continued to hone her craft in such dramatic anthology series as Actor’s Studio, Starlight Theatre, The United States Steel Hour, and Goodyear TV Playhouse. In 1956, she appeared as Lu in the Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of Ferenc Molnar’s “The Good Fairy,” her first of twelve exceptional Hallmark performances over the next 40 years; more than any other actress. Between stints on Broadway and in motion pictures, Harris returned often to television, starring in productions of the prestigious Play of the Week, DuPont Show of the Month, and Hollywood Television Theatre anthologies; in dramatic specials such as The Power and the Glory; in guest-starring roles on, among others, Bonanza, Rawhide, Run For Your Life, Columbo and Family Ties; in TV-movies and mini-series like The Woman He Loved and Backstairs at the White House; and as a regular cast member in three series: Thicker Than Water, The Family Holvak and Knot’s Landing. In recognition of her television work and her unparalleled ability to inhabit characters which delight audiences while at the same time moving them to tears, UCLA Film and Television Archive is pleased to present Kennedy Center honoree Julie Harris in two charming programs spanning 25 years of her long and distinguished career.

Dan Einstein

Goodyear Television Playhouse: "October Story" (NBC, 10/14/51)

Goodyear Television Playhouse: "October Story" (NBC, 10/14/51)

Directed by Delbert Mann

Over fifty years before the debut of comedienne Tina Fey’s backstage television sitcom 30 Rock, writer David Swift (creator of the pioneering Mr. Peepers) cast NBC’s Rockefeller Center as the setting for "October Story," a gentle comedy and subtle satire of the TV industry. In this debut episode of Goodyear’s alternating sponsorship with Philco of their well-established anthology Television Playhouse, a fresh-faced Julie Harris stars as an inventor that sets the National Broadcasting Company, and their TV-set manufacturing parent company RCA, on edge when she builds a portable television out of junk parts. Desperate to learn the secret of her profit-threatening invention, the network charges a handsome young NBC executive, Leslie Nielsen (of Airplane and Naked Gun fame) to supervise Harris as she struggles to replicate her electronic marvel. In the process, the tomboy Harris finds herself unexpectedly attracted to Nielsen, setting in motion a sweet coming-of-age story that lightly swipes at gender expectations and takes good-natured jabs at show-biz types.

The ambitious production stretched the limits of what was technically possible for a live program in 1951, alternating between locations at Rockefeller Center, including the observation deck at NBC’s Rainbow Room, and claustrophobic TV soundstages. The program’s clever opening sequence, with live man-on-the-street interviews in front of  Rockefeller Plaza, garnered a write-up in Life Magazine, which reported that Harris had to sprint off-camera with a police escort “half a block and eight floors up in 90 seconds flat” between a location scene and a studio set. Variety also lauded the innovative staging, noting that “…location shots were well done, and the medium should do more of the same.”  October Story’s producer Fred Coe and director Delbert Mann would continue to advance the artistic potential of television, just a few years later bringing the landmark production of  Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty (with Rod Steiger) to the Goodyear Television Playhouse.

Mark Quigley

Producer: Fred Coe. Writer: David Swift. With: Julie Harris, Leslie Nielsen.

Digital Betacam, b/w. 60 min. 

Transferred from the original kinescope by Wisconsin Public Television.

The Belle of Amherst (PBS, 12/29/76)

The Belle of Amherst (PBS, 12/29/76)

Directed by Charles S. Dubin

Julie Harris brought her sensitive portrayal of poet Emily Dickinson to Broadway’s Longacre Theatre for 116 performances from April to August of 1976, and she reprised it in this faithful television adaptation for PBS just four months after the conclusion of the New York stage run. Taped before a live audience, the video version of William Luce’s single-character monologue is essentially a recreation of the Broadway production, set in Dickinson’s Amherst, Massachusetts home, where she lived in seclusion while writing nearly 1800 poems, only seven of which were published (anonymously) during her lifetime. Harris, playing the poet at age 53, is a delight. In constant motion, she addresses both home and studio audience members as though they were her houseguests, pouring tea and serving cakes; sharing recipes; recalling friends, family members and schooldays; poignantly revealing the joys and disappointments of her reclusive life; and relishing “the game” of being the town eccentric. Playwright Luce draws incisively from Dickinson’s poetry, diaries and letters to create a fully-realized portrait, while director Charles S. Dubin’s cameras confidently follow the luminous Harris, whose familiarity with Dickinson resulted, in Luce’s words, “from years of dedicated research into her life and works.”  Harris had been awarded her fifth Best Actress Tony Award for the stage production of The Belle of Amherst and in 1978 she received a Grammy for her audio recording of the play. But although her performance (as well as the entire TV production) was universally praised, she was denied Emmy recognition for the television version. However, she was undoubtedly consoled by the fact that she did receive an Emmy nomination for her other Tony-winning portrayal of a famous 19th-century American woman which also aired on PBS in 1976: that of Mary Todd Lincoln in the Hollywood Television Theatre broadcast of James Prideaux’s “The Last of Mrs. Lincoln.”

Dan Einstein

A Dome/Creative Images Production. Producers: Mike Merrick, Don Gregory. Writer: William Luce. With: Julie Harris.

Digital Betacam, color, 90 min. 

Preserved from the original master videotape. Video transfer at the CBS Media Exchange.