Barbara Harris Knew Bill Clinton Was White Trash

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: 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.

NT: Your friends were a rare group.

Harris: Yes. Mike Nichols was a toughie. He could be very kind, but if you weren't first-rate, watch out. He'd let you know. Elaine May read Molière night and day.

NT: You seem completely unimpressed with your own celebrity.

Harris: I'm a has-been!

NT: Does that mean you've left acting?

Harris: Well, if someone handed me something fantastic for 10 million dollars, I'd work again. But I haven't worked in a long time as an actor. I don't miss it. 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. 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.

NT: You were also in the Compass Players, the first improvisational theater troupe in America. You're acknowledged as one of the pioneering women in the field of improv, and scenes you created with the Second City and Compass companies are still studied as masterpieces of the form.

Harris: Boy, you really did your homework. Uh, yes. We were the first to do improv, and it was hard, because improv was new and no one had come before us.

NT: You starred in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad and Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?. Do you enjoy selecting films with long-winded titles?

Harris: That's a very silly question. Well, you writers do like words, don't you? And so those titles must have been written by writers. No, there wasn't a great deal of design to the path of my career. I was a small-town, middle-class girl who wore a cashmere sweater very nicely and ended up on Broadway because that's the way the wind was blowing. I didn't have my sights set there. When I was at Second City, there was a vote about whether we should take our show to Broadway or not. Andrew Duncan and I voted no. I stayed in New York, but only because Richard Rodgers and Alan Jay Lerner came and said, "We want to write a musical for you!" Well, I wasn't big on musical theater. I had seen part of South Pacific in Chicago and I walked out. But it was Richard Rodgers calling!

NT: You stayed, and you ended up with a Tony. Speaking of theater awards, I heard you're a Zonis judge. Say it isn't so!

Harris: I am now. They rejected me, at first. I filled out the application, and they just never called. (Arizona Jewish Theatre artistic director) Janet Arnold, who's a real sweetheart, called and told them, "Hey, it's Barbara Harris! Call her back!"

NT: You're a famous actress living in Scottsdale, so you're probably hanging out with Marshall Mason and Dale Wasserman, our other resident theater legends.

Harris: I wish I knew Marshall Mason. I didn't know Dale Wasserman lives here, too. So, you see? Famous theater people are everywhere in this town. You just don't see us because we're hiding under things.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela