R.I.P. Barbara Harris

Nothing could ever make me feel so old as reading the words, “Barbara Harris, Dead at 82″. She is precisely one generation ahead of me, and I grew up watching her as a goofy, adorable young lady: the mom in the original Freaky Friday (1976), the woman-in-trouble in Hitchcock’s Family Plot (1976), the singer of that devastating final song in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975). The latter of course produces a similar feeling to the loss of Karen Black, whom we eulogized here. I am startled to see just now that I have seen almost every single one of her film performances. Not that I’m so thorough — she just didn’t make many movies.

Harris was mostly a creature of the theatre. She started out in Chicago. She was the wife of Paul Sills, founder of the Compass Players. When he later went on to found Second City, though she was ex-wife by that point, she continued to work with him. Her early collaborators were people like Nichols and May and Ed Asner. Second City brought a revue to Broadway in 1961 and that put her on the map. Then came Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad (1962) and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1966). Her earliest film work had theatrical connections: A Thousand Clowns (1965), the film version of Oh Dad…(1967), and Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite (1971). Later performances included Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997). She spent her last couple of decades as an acting teacher.

But man — whew, boy — I totally had a thing for Barbara Harris. Funny, lively, always in the moment, and quite simply, really cute, almost in the way that flappers are cute. There is an irony to how she left us (lung cancer). Her character’s whole predicament in On a Clear You Can See Forever starts when she goes to a shrink to stop smoking. I’m guessing she didn’t!

Now I’m gonna be glomming on that last scene in Nashville all night. It’s already devastating and so timely at the moment (“You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me.”) Well Barbara Harris is free now.

For more reflection on this great stage and screen actress (and teacher) I refer you to the infallible O’Malley.