Julie Harris entertained us for decades, whether it was in one of her Tony-award winning stage roles, movies, or on television shows such as Knots Landing. She received the National Medal of Arts, and entry into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. She also experienced aphasia.
A Stroke Before a Performance
Perusing the 101 acting credits on Julie Harris’s Internet Movie Database page only gives you a taste of a career that also included numerous stage performances. But being in the acting world almost came to an end after a stroke in 2001. When she didn’t show up for a performance, the theater sent someone to her apartment who found her on the floor. She explains, “I knew something was wrong but I couldn’t get help.”
The stroke left her with aphasia, which she treated with speech therapy for two years. She recounted her experience in an interview with The American Stroke Association:
This therapy helped her improve her vocabulary but not her fluency. Like many survivors with aphasia she had difficulty finding the right word; she sometimes said words that rhymed with the word she was trying to say, e.g., “wife” instead of “life.” She avoided starting conversations, and when she spoke, there were lots of hesitations.
To keep acting, she played a role where the character was also recovering from a stroke, but aphasia was bringing her long-running career to an end.
A New Beginning
Five years after her stroke, University of Michigan Aphasia Program contacted her to see if she wanted to try a different therapy. She started a very intense therapy plan, completing 23 hours of speech therapy per week for six weeks. The therapy changed her life, giving her ways to circumvent her aphasia and return to conversations with people. Even though she didn’t return to acting full time, she did return to connecting with people.
Rather than being on the stage, she switched to a life of theatergoing, attending performances in New York and Boston and tracking those performances in a personal scrapbook.
When Julie Harris died in 2013, Broadway theaters dimmed their lights for a full minute in her honour. A fitting tribute to a woman who lit up the stage and screen.
Image: Julie Harris via WikiCommons