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Cynthia Harris, who portrayed Paul Reiser’s mother on Mad About You and the twice-divorced American socialite who prompted a British king to abdicate his throne in the acclaimed miniseries Edward & Mrs. Simpson, has died. She was 87.
Harris died Sunday, her family announced. The New York Times reported she died at her home in Manhattan.
A veteran of the New York stage, Harris joined the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company in 1971, playing the role of Sarah originated by Barbara Barrie, and in 1993 co-founded the now-defunct The Actors Company Theater, where she served as artistic director and appeared in dozens of productions.
On the big screen, Harris appeared as the head of a Connecticut women’s club who was one of Scottish poet Gowan McGland’s (Tom Conti) conquests in Robert Ellis Miller’s Reuben, Reuben (1983) and was Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg and Ted Danson’s landlady in Three Men and a Baby (1987).
She also had a long-running gig in radio and television commercials as the bargain-hunting Mrs. B. for Bradlees, a Northeast department store chain, starting in the 1970s.
In 1993, Harris was introduced as Sylvia Buchman, the quintessential Jewish mother and wife of Louis Zorich‘s character, Burt, on the second season on Mad About You. She appeared on 71 episodes of the NBC sitcom during its original run, which ended in 1999, then returned for the show’s reboot in 2019.
Harris received a BAFTA nomination for best TV actress for her turn as Wallis Warfield Simpson, the future Dutchess of Windsor, on the seven-part 1978 Thames Television/ITV miniseries Edward & Mrs. Simpson. Also starring Edward Fox as King Edward VIII, who left the monarchy in 1936 to wed Simpson, it won the Emmy for outstanding limited series.
On the complicated relationship between Edward and her character, Harris said in a 1978 interview: “I think her Americanism attracted him [to her] … he felt that he would be a new king for a new age. And she didn’t really know all the things that you are not supposed to do. She could have made him feel that everything was possible. I think she was very warm and very witty.”
Cynthia Lee Harris was born in New York on Aug. 9, 1934. Her father, Saul, was a businessman. “The only thing I ever wanted for my birthday from the time I was old enough to speak practically was, ‘I’d like to go see a play,'” she said.
She started taking a theater class on Saturdays when she was 12, graduated from Smith College in 1955 with a degree in theater and literature and studied acting with George Morrison and Lee Strasberg.
While working as the third assistant stage manager and an understudy on William Inge’s 1963 Broadway drama Natural Affection, she was inspired by the talents of actress Kim Stanley, she said. She then understudied for Sandy Dennis in the 1964-66 comedy Any Wednesday.
After making her onscreen debut in Karel Reisz’s Isadora (1968), the ginger-haired Harris appeared in the Barbra Streisand-starring Up the Sandbox (1972) and had regular roles on two short-lived 1970s TV comedies — Sirota’s Court, starring Michael Constantine, and Husbands, Wives & Lovers, co-created by Joan Rivers.
Later, she played Iris Hubbard, a law intern and secretary to Richard Dysart‘s Leland McKenzie, on the first season of NBC’s L.A. Law and the mother of Michael Lombardi’s character on FX’s Rescue Me.
Harris also showed up on episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, Kojak, Three’s Company, Knots Landing, Benson and Archie Bunker’s Place and in Paul Mazursky‘s Tempest (1982).
Survivors include her partner, Nathan Silverstein; her devoted assistant, Terence Mintern; brother Matthew (Frances); sister-in-law Maryjane; and nieces and nephews.
She was married to Eugene Wolsk, a company manager and producer on Broadway, from 1961 until their 1972 divorce.
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