Emily Dickinson, the great spinster-bard of Amherst, Massachusetts, died young. She was just 56 when Death, in her phrase, "kindly stopped" for her in 1886. Death has been much kinder still to lovers of American acting: Julie Harris has outlived Dickinson's age by two decades, and is still going strong.
Of course, in terms of readership and renown, so is Dickinson. Biographies and scholarly works continue to be written about her, the Web bursts with sites devoted to her, her massive correspondence is minutely studied, and arguments about everything from her sexuality to the source of her inspiration continue to rage. Her house is a historic site in Amherst.
And Julie Harris can still draw a crowd all over the country playing the role of Dickinson -- possibly the most famous role of her career -- in William Luce's one-woman play The Belle of Amherst.
"Yes, we started in September in Seattle," says the actress, by phone, of her current tour in the legendary show. "Michigan; New Hampshire; Delaware; Nyack, New York; Springfield, Massachusetts." A seven-performance run, starting on Tuesday, March 20, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, is next.
"It just astonishes me," says Harris of the reception the new tour has received. "It's such a confirmation of Emily Dickinson. She was a mighty poet; I'm just the messenger."
She's not just any messenger, though. A native of the ritzy Detroit suburb of Grosse Point Park, Harris attended Yale Drama School and the Actors Studio, made her Broadway debut in 1945, and by the late '40s was a highly respected stage actress.
She made her film debut in 1952, repeating her stage role in A Member of the Wedding, and though she appeared opposite James Dean in East of Eden and Paul Newman in Harper, film and television work has remained secondary to the stage throughout her career. On film, she's probably best known for her starring role in Robert Wise's The Haunting. Asked about the great 1963 ghost story, based on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, she simply says, "Yes, it's a good movie, isn't it?"
The Belle of Amherst, for which she won, in 1977, the fifth of her five Tonys (a record; she's been nominated 10 times) remains a high point of her career. This revival, like the original production, is directed by Charles Nelson Reilly. "In the first place, he's a very gifted director," says Harris of Reilly, equally well-known as a wacky comic actor. "And he also makes it a lot of fun."
But the greatest satisfaction for Harris in revisiting the role is simply getting to bask in the words of Dickinson. "I really adore her," she says, but somehow that doesn't quite do, so she adds, "love her . . . worship her."