West of Yesterday, East of Eden

Reprinted from December 13, 2007

“It’s hard to find a lot of “What about me?” in Julie Harris. You can pay her a compliment and she’ll accept it graciously. She just doesn’t seem very interested in [discussing her accomplishments] it. It was the doing that mattered, the striving, the stretching. And the friendships.” – Chip Crews

Early in my adulthood when I had the pleasure of sharing a little space and time with Julie Harris I had never seen a play. Not a real one anyway. I hadn’t caught the fire that has burned in me since the year I saw The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Angels in America (both Millennium Approaches and Perestroika), Falsettos and Evita, all of them major productions, not local or regional theater, as well as at least a dozen other regionally produced plays in greater LA. I was blessedly unaware of who she is. If I had known who Julie is I wouldn’t have been able to see her. I wouldn’t have been able to speak. I probably would have fainted.

What I remember of her is how engaged she was in the world around her, her fascination with whimsy, her kindness, her warmth. Julie was down to earth and humble. Something in her brought out the best in everyone who came into contact with her. Julie was generous. She sent Christmas gifts to every member of the crew on our show. She remembered peoples names. She always found time for people, even those of us with menial, technical jobs. One evening a friend and I had tickets to see Charles Pierce performing at a theater in Santa Monica and on a whim invited Julie to join us. I was sort of surprised when she accepted the offer. At the end of the performance that evening, she turned to us and asked, “Would you like to meet him?” She led us backstage and into Mr. Pierce’s dressing room where the two old friends (who could have imagined?) embraced and caught up with one another.

Working on a show like Knots Landing I got to see fame do terrible things to people and I got to see terrible people become famous. The single exception who I have treasured since that experience is Julie. Oddly, of all the actors on that show, she is the only one to have a career important enough to merit the kind of aloofness and arrogance that so many of her inferiors displayed.  (Since the original date this post was written, Mr. Alec Baldwin, who I also worked with, has also become rediculously famous.  When he was a nobody, changing his own motor oil and living in a crappy 1 bedroom on the Venice boardwalk, Alec was fun, and funny, and kind.  I don’t know him now, but I love his work.)  Julie was not a diva or a prima donna. Julie was a worker among workers. I adored her. Many years later, when I figured out who the hell she is I must say I was astonished and I have since had the most profound respect and affection for her. I am absolutely sure that she has no idea who I am or that her example of how to ‘be’ affected me so profoundly or how grateful I am that she passed through my life.

As you know, I’ve been, say, ‘a little stressed out’ lately. Actually I’ve been calmer than I would have expected but even so, I’ve noticed it’s been hard to pray and ‘connect’ in the morning. I’m prone to pace and fidget a bit more than normal. I’ve had a headache on and off for a couple of days. Well, Julie Harris passed through my dreams last night; not something that has happened more than two or three times in my life. When I woke up this morning I knew, in my heart of hearts, that everything is going to be OK. It just is. Whatever happens, it is going to be OK. And I really didn’t understand how I came to associate dreaming about Julie with faith or acceptance of the will of my Creator, but I did. I hadn’t actually thought about Julie in over a year. I googled her to see what she’s up to and see the face I love so much and I stumble on an article in the Washington Post, written right before she received an honor from the Kennedy Center two years ago and in the article I found this quote:

“What is thrilling about the theater is that it’s a form where people come and, for those two or three hours, belong to something — to ideas, to a feeling of being a member of the human race. Sharing something. It’s very important in life to share our stories, our backgrounds, our hopes, the things that make us afraid. I found God in the theater. It’s God.”

Suddenly it made sense to me. Suddenly I understood the attraction I had to her and her gentleness and humility. Suddenly I realized why she passed through my dream and why my affection for her has never subsided over the past (nearly) two decades since I saw her last.

I found God in Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s God. For that hour a day I spend in a meeting or the time I spend with other alcoholics taking steps and learning to live by a set of spiritual principles, sharing our lives and our stories, our hopes and the things that make us afraid, makes me feel that I belong to something, that I belong to the human race and that there is a plan, a design and a destiny for me to grow day by day in the image of my creator.

I may never know who’s lives I touch or who’s paths I help to illuminate, just as Julie has no idea how she touched mine, but I know that if I continue to seek to grow spiritually that God will work through me in ways that are wonderful. I can ‘be’ the message better than I can ever carry it. I think that is the point.

(Harris died on August 24, 2013, of congestive heart failure at her home in West Chatham, Massachusetts.  Ben Brantley, theater critic for The New York Times, considered her “the actress who towered most luminously … rather like a Statue of Liberty for Broadway.” Alec Baldwin, with whom she appeared in Knots Landing, praised her in a tribute in the Huffington Post: “Her voice was like rainfall. Her eyes connected directly to and channeled the depths of her powerful and tender heart. Her talent, a gift from God.”  Harris was cremated after her death.  -Wikipedia)

Published by Chris M.

Champion of lost causes. Aficionado of underdogs. Passionate advocate of uncommon good.

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