Actress Barbara Harris, who capped Robert Altman’s masterpiece Nashville with a strangely haunting musical performance, won a Tony Award for 1967’s The Apple Tree and co-founded Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, died today in Scottsdale, Arizona. She was 83.
The cause of death was reported by the Chicago Sun Times as lung cancer.
Harris was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar for 1971’s Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, but might best be remembered by children of the era for her role in 1976’s original Freaky Friday, Disney’s body-switch comedy in which Harris and a young Jodie Foster did the switching.
That same year, Harris appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s dark comedy Family Plot, an indication of her range. Later audiences would see her as the tender-hearted, understanding mother in Peggy Sue Got Married or appearing alongside John Cusack and Minnie Driver in 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank.
With Elaine May, Harris was one of the leading female lights of the Chicago comedy scene, and was among the founders of the improv style that the group would make famous. According to the official Second City website, Harris was one of the original Compass Players, along with her then-husband Paul Sills, May, Mike Nichols and Ed Asner.
As an original Second City cast member, Harris was the first performer of the first show, singing “Everybody’s in the Know” on Dec. 16, 1959.
Harris transitioned to a major acting career, first on Broadway, where she earned a Tony nomination for her debut in From the Second City (her co-stars included Alan Arkin and Paul Sand) and then again for 1965’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
Her Hollywood career, aside from some episodic TV appearances (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Naked City, The Defenders), began in earnest with 1965’s A Thousand Clowns, in which she more than held her own with the brash, growling scene-stealer Jason Robards. By 1971 she was costarring with Walter Matthau, Maureen Stapleton and Lee Grant in the hit comedy Plaza Suite.
Her first Oscar nomination came with the odd, now barely remembered Who is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, a Dustin Hoffman part-fantasy, part-drama vehicle about a songwriter and his women.
Perhaps her most lasting performance, though, would come five years later, when she played Albuquerque, a wannabe country singer on the run from her abusive husband. The role, often rumored to be based on real-life star Tammy Wynette, is a stand-out in a movie full of stand-outs. In the film’s climactic scene, after an assassin shoots the Loretta Lynn-like Barbara Jean character onstage, Harris’ unknown Albuguerque takes the mic and begins to sing “It Don’t Worry Me,” getting her country music break and winning over the audience.
If the scene proved to be a highlight of Harris’ career, it wouldn’t be her last: Subsequent films included The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Peggy Sue Got Married, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Grosse Pointe Blank, among others.
Information on survivors was not immediately available. The Sun Times reports that Harris taught acting after moving to Arizona.
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