A renowned theater actress, Julie Harris also augmented her reputation with strong performances in a number of film and TV roles, despite her aversion to the Hollywood "glamour star" trip. Born to a well-to-do Grosse Pointe, Michigan, family, Harris opted to pursue acting at Yale Drama School rather than make her society debut at age 19. She landed her first Broadway part one year later. Harris' career was truly launched at age 25, however, by her star-making performance as troubled pre-teen tomboy Frankie in Carson McCullers' play The Member of the Wedding in 1950. Reprising her role in the film adaptation of The Member of the Wedding (1952), Harris scored an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in her first major film appearance. Though she did not win, she did win the first of five Tony Awards in 1952 for her Broadway turn as Berlin cabaret singer Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera. Along with the well-received film version of I Am a Camera in 1955, Harris starred in perhaps her best-known film that same year: Elia Kazan's East of Eden. As initially-coquettish Abra, Harris became a sensitive yet sensible romantic lead opposite an anguished James Dean in his legendary debut. With this trio of films, Harris became part of the 1950s cinematic turn toward performative "realism" exemplified by Method actor icons Dean and Marlon Brando (despite her own impatience with the Method after an Actors Studio stint).
Harris continued to avoid typecasting by playing a number of different roles in TV, theater, and movie productions throughout the subsequent decades. On film, Harris showed her considerable range as a kindly social worker in the film version of Rod Serling's teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), one of the highly disturbed human guinea pigs in the original (and far superior) version of The Haunting (1963), a frustrated nightclub chanteuse in the Paul Newman p.i. vehicle Harper (1966), and a troubled wife in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). On stage, Harris' specialty became playing famous women throughout history, including Tony-award winning performances as Joan of Ark in The Lark (1956), Mary Todd Lincoln in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (1973) (adapted for TV in 1976), and Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst (1977).
After surviving a bout with cancer in 1981, Harris achieved considerable fame with a new audience by playing Lilimae Clements on the TV nighttime serial Knot's Landing from 1981 to 1988. After she left the show, Harris returned to films, after nearly a decade, as Sigourney Weaver's friend in Gorillas in the Mist (1988). Harris kept busy throughout the 1990s with supporting roles in several films, including Housesitter (1992) and the George A. Romero/Stephen King chiller The Dark Half (1993), as well as starring roles onstage and in TV films, including Ellen Foster (1997). She was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 1994. Harris would continue to act throughout the decades to come, memorably appearing in TV movies like Little Surprises and Love is Strange. Harris retired from on-screen acting in 2009, and eventually passed away in 2013. She was 87.