Jed Harris: Wolf of Broadway

Broadway producer and director Jed Harris (1900-1979), was born on this day. It’s hard to reconcile the opinions of people who knew Harris with his amazing theatrical output. Everybody seemed to hate Jed Harris, on a visceral level. For example, it’s widely believed that the character of the Big Bad Wolf who made his debut in the 1933 Walt Disney short Three Little Pigs was based on Harris:

Likewise, Sir Laurence Olivier openly admitted to basing his look in his 1944 stage production and 1955 screen production of Richard III on Harris:

Olivier called Harris, who had directed him in the 1933 play The Green Bay Tree, “the most loathsome man I ever met.” When I hear words like “loathsome” coming out of the mouth of an Englishman, and see long-nosed caricatures rapping on doors, I can’t help wondering of there wasn’t a certain amount of Anti-Semitism at play. But there were plenty of Jewish people who hated him too. Harold Clurman said he was full of “venom”.   George S. Kaufman said that when he died, he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes thrown in Harris’ face.  Ruth Gordon, who bore Harris’s child out of wedlock, seemed to like him just fine, but their son, Jones, was traumatized by him. (Gordon came between Harris’s first and second wives). Much more of this rib-tickling rancor can be found in this great 1983 book review by Jonathan Yardley. 

Harris was born Jacob Hirsch Horowitz in Vienna, and was a year old when his family moved to the U.S. He grew up in Newark,attended Yale briefly, and produced his first play Weak Sisters, starring Spring Byington, when he was 25. Over the course of his career Harris produced or co-produced over 30 plays for Broadway, directing most of them himself.  It’s the “directing” part that colors it for me. We have this image of him as a ruthless, money-grubbing producer, but if we were to include the complete picture, he also happened to be a theatre artist, directing original productions of some of the greatest plays of the 20th century. His first bona fide smash was George Abbott’s and Phillip Dunning’s Broadway (1926) starring Lee Tracy, which was later made into a film. Coquette (1927) starred Helen Hayes and Una Merkel, and became Mary Pickford’s first sound film two years later. Next came the original production of The Royal Family (1927), by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, followed by the original production of The Front Page (1928) by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, followed by Serena Blandish (1929), the play on which he hooked up with Ruth Gordon. In 1938 he produced and directed the original production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which he also revived in 1944. In 1947 he directed the original production of The Heiress, an adaptation of Henry JamesWashington Square. In 1953, he directed the first production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible!  And then there were older classics: he produced and directed productions of Uncle Vanya (1930), The Inspector General (1930), and A Doll’s House (1937). His last show was Child of Fortune (1956), an adaptation of James’ The Wings of the Dove. 

In the 1950s, he began to dabble in film and tv. He produced The Billy Rose Show (1950-51) for ABC. He wrote scenarios for the films The Light Touch (1951) and Night People (1954). His last project was the movie Operation Mad Ball (1957), a miliary comedy which he produced and co-wrote with Blake Edwards, based on Arthur Carter’s play. It starred Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Kathryn Grant, Arthur O’Connell, Mickey Rooney, Dick York, and James Darren. Bebe Allen, his third wife, was also in the film; they married that year. In 1979 his autobiography, Man on the High Wire was released, and he did several interviews with Dick Cavett.