Barbara Harris Knew Bill Clinton Was White Trash

Scottsdale "has-been" gives her regards to Broadway

Thespians, take note: Barbara Harris has moved to town, and she's hung up her teaching shingle. Local acting students could do worse; Harris' brief but notable Broadway career snagged her a Tony Award for The Apple Tree in 1967, and she was nominated for her role in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Her more memorable films include Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot (1976), and a turn as Jodie Foster's mom in Freaky Friday (1977) -- all three performances nominated for a Golden Globe -- and her Oscar-nominated spin in Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? (1971).

We met for drinks at Mancuso's at the Borgata, where our sniffy waiter served Miss Harris a whisper of white wine and a whole lot of attitude, and where I tried and failed to convince her that she is some kind of a legend.

New Times: So, what's a famous actress doing in Scottsdale?

Barbara Harris has forsaken the glamour of New York for Scottsdale.
Kevin Scanlon
Barbara Harris has forsaken the glamour of New York for Scottsdale.

Barbara Harris: I knew you'd ask that. I'm teaching acting classes. I had been based in New York, and maybe I should have stayed. I mean, I like it here, but it's very conservative, isn't it? I was talking to this man the other night, and he was ranting about people who come here from the East and wreck the state by voting Democrat. Hey, how would you vote on Prop 202?

NT: That's the Indian gaming prop.

Harris: The commercials are hysterical! All that carrying on about how Indians are being greedy, but the commercials never once tell you anything about the proposition itself. So you end up having to read the Republic or some other piece of nonsense. But since I'm one of those nasty Easterners, I'll probably vote straight Democrat. It's just how it goes. I didn't want to vote for Clinton, but I had to -- even though I figured he was white trash.

NT: You have a pretty distinctive voice and personality. Do you get recognized in the grocery?

Harris: No, thank goodness. I don't usually mention that I have been in movies, because I'm afraid people will say, "Well, I don't watch black-and-white films." Most people don't know who I am.

NT: Come on. You've starred in some pretty well-regarded movies.

Harris: 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. I turned down Alfred Hitchcock when he first asked me to be in one of his movies.

NT: But you eventually appeared in Hitchcock's Family Plot.

Harris: Yes. Mr. Hitchcock was a wonderful man. He always wanted emotionless people in his movies. There was a scene in our film, where Karen Black was acting, acting, acting -- all that Lee Strasberg human-struggle stuff. And it took her so long to get those tears going, and Mr. Hitchcock turned to the cameraman and said, "We will just photograph the actors' feet in this scene." He wanted a beautiful woman who wasn't showing her life's history in a scene.

NT: In his review of A Thousand Clowns, theater critic Walter Kerr described you as "the square root of noisy sex."

Harris: He did? My goodness, mathematicians are going to be furious! By the way, I called a friend of mine in New York and had him read me some of your reviews. Why did you write that A Thousand Clowns is dated?

NT: Well, a story that condemns socialism was more relevant in the early '60s. And the notion of a single-parent household isn't all that shocking today.

Harris: I wish you'd written that.

NT: So, now you're teaching acting. But I thought all actors wanted to be directors.

Harris: I'm much more interested in what's behind acting, which is the inquiry into the human condition. Everyone gets acting mixed up with the desire to be famous, but some of us really just stumbled into the fame part, while we were really just interested in the process of acting.

NT: I can see the joy of appearing on Broadway or in a big Hollywood film, but where's the joy in teaching people how to cry?

Harris: Who wants to be up on the stage all the time? It isn't easy. You have to be awfully invested in the fame aspect, and I really never was. What I cared about was the discipline of acting, whether I did well or not.

NT: Still, you did pretty well.

Harris: Well, sometimes. People always want to talk about the ones that won you awards, but I have a better memory of my first part, which was Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The critic for the Chicago Tribune wrote, "Will someone please get rid of Peter Rabbit?" I was crushed, and after that I had to be pushed out on stage. Of course, I had made my own costume. That may have been a mistake. But anyway, we weren't up there on that stage for any reason other than the process of acting. We certainly weren't making any money back then, my friends and I. Elaine May was eating grapefruit rinds.

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Always good to hear about Barbara Harris even if it's an old interview. She was magic on stage and fun to watch on the screen.