For the dwindling number of film-goers of the Fifties who witnessed the first scintillating moments of James Dean on the screen, the death of Julie Harris on the 24th will not go unnoticed.
Harris played “Abra” as the female lead in Dean’s first film, “East of Eden” that came out in April of 1955.
I thought at the time that Harris was miscast. And I still think that. It was hard to believe in Abra, that she could command the attention, much less the love, of such a wild creature as Dean’s “Cal Trask.” And, on reflection, maybe that was the point, to contrast Abra with Cal’s mother, “Kate,” who abandoned the family and later operated a whorehouse.
Harris’s Abra was dutiful, a good girl but her passion for Cal and his affection for her just didn’t click with me. She had the vehicle to do great things with the role and didn’t grab the chance.
Among the cast’s leading characters, Harris’s death leaves only Richard Davalos, now 82, the same age Dean would have been had he survived. Raymond Massey (the Bible-strict father, “Adam,”) died in 1983; Burl Ives, who played “Sam,” the sheriff, died in 1995; and Jo Van Fleet, who won an Oscar for her Supporting Role in “Eden” as the hard-hearted mother, in 1996.
Harris died at her home in her home at Chatham, MA. The reported cause, congestive heart failure. She was 87.