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Barbara Harris, the wildly talented actress, comedian and singer who starred on Broadway and in such films as Nashville, Family Plot and Freaky Friday before shunning show business, has died. She was 83.
Harris died Tuesday of lung cancer in Scottsdale, Arizona, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
She was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her performance as a stage actress who has a lot in common with Dustin Hoffman’s suicidal pop-songwriter character in Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971).
In the mid-1960s, the alluring Harris delighted Broadway audiences when she starred in the musical comedies On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Mike Nichols’ The Apple Tree, shows that ran for nearly 800 performances. She received Tony nominations for best actress in a musical for both efforts, winning in 1967.
As a ditzy country-western wannabe nicknamed Albuquerque in the Robert Altman masterwork Nashville (1975), Harris memorably calms down a concert crowd after a shooting by performing “It Don’t Worry Me,” a song written by co-star Keith Carradine.
The press-shy Harris also co-starred as Blanche Tyler, a philandering psychic and Bruce Dern’s girlfriend, in Family Plot (1976), Alfred Hitchcock’s final film.
Harris also switched places with her contentious daughter (Jodie Foster) in the original Freaky Friday (1976) and portrayed the wife of a straying U.S. senator (Alan Alda, her Apple Tree co-star) in Jerry Schatzberg’s The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979).
One of the pioneering women of improvisational theater, Harris was a member of The Compass Players, co-founded and directed by Paul Sills — her husband from 1955-58 — and its successor, The Second City.
After playing the widow Fanny Eubanks in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988), Harris made just one other big-screen appearance — as John Cusack’s mom in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) — before leaving Hollywood for good.
“I used to try to get through one film a year, but I always chose movies that I thought would fail so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the fame thing,” she said in a 2004 interview with the Phoenix New Times after she had decamped to Scottsdale.
Harris was born on July 25, 1935, in Evanston, Illinois. Her mother was a pianist and her father an arborist.
Shortly after she graduated from Nicholas Senn High School in Chicago, she joined the Playwrights Theatre Club, a repertory company founded by Sills whose members included Nichols, Elaine May and Edward Asner. Many of the group continued on in 1955 as The Compass Players.
Harris and Sills departed after he won a Fulbright grant to study theater in England, and she played in a production of The Tempest at Bristol University. After a year, the couple returned to Chicago to discover that The Compass Players were no more, dissolved in January 1957.
In December 1959, Sills co-founded The Second City, and the theater sent Harris, Alan Arkin, Paul Sand and other players in the comedy troupe to Broadway to appear in a 1961 musical revue, From the Second City, that ran for 10 weeks.
Around this time, Harris also guest-starred on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and, with Dan Duryea playing her father, Naked City.
In 1962, Harris starred in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, winning Drama Desk and Obie awards for playing a sex-obsessed babysitter. A poll of drama critics named her the season’s most promising new actress.
After appearing with Anne Bancroft in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, Harris ventured into the movies, playing a loopy social worker opposite Jason Robards and Oscar winner Martin Balsam in A Thousand Clowns (1965).
Harris’ turn as kooky psychic Daisy Gamble — famed lyricist Alan Jay Lerner had written the role just for her — in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever brought her new acclaim and her first Tony nom.
The Apple Tree consists of three playlets, each inspired by a short story; in the first, she played Eve opposite Alda’s Adam. Wrote Walter Kerr in his 1966 review for The New York Times: “Miss Harris is Eve to the toenails, Eve to the single ringlets that spill down over her shoulders, Eve to the baby-bright eyes that are so enchantingly startled as they look into a reflecting pool.”
Harris appeared in the 1967 movie version of Oh Dad, Poor Dad, then paid a visit to the hotel room of her old high school boyfriend Walter Matthau, now a famous Hollywood producer, in Plaza Suite (1971). In The War Between Men and Women (1972), she had a quirky romance with Jack Lemmon.
Her other films include Mixed Company (1974) with Joseph Bologna, Movie Movie (1978), The North Avenue Irregulars (1979) and — as Kathleen Turner’s mother — Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).
She moved to Scottsdale in the early 2000s and taught acting for a spell, saying the chances of her returning to the screen were slim.
“I don’t miss it,” she said. “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,” she said in the Phoenix New Times piece.
“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,” Harris said.
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