Harriet Harris: The Tony Winner’s Best Stage and TV Performances

Elisa Lichtenbaum | April 16, 2021

The new Masterpiece miniseries Atlantic Crossing tells the story of the World War II relationship between U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt (Kyle MacLachlan, Sex and the City) and Norwegian Crown Princess Martha (Swedish star Sofia Helin, The Bridge). Tony Award winner Harriet Sansom Harris – known and beloved in the theater world as Harriet Harris – co-stars as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the eight-part series on THIRTEEN.

If you’re wondering where else you may have seen the supremely talented actress Harriet Harris perform, here’s a look at some of Harris’s most memorable roles on stage and television.

Harriet Harris as Eleanor Roosevelt

A middle age woman in blouse, knit sweater, pearls and round eyeglasses looks perplexed. Others are behind her in a room.

Harriet Harris as Eleanor Roosevelt in the PBS series Masterpiece – Atlantic Crossing.

Atlantic Crossing (2021) marks the fourth time Harris has portrayed the iconic First Lady. The Juilliard-trained actress has taken the stage as Eleanor Roosevelt in Paul Rudnick’s Off-Broadway trilogy Rude Entertainment and Mark St. Germain’s one-woman play Eleanor – which returns to the Barrington Stage Company in Massachusetts this summer. On screen, alongside Tony winners Patti LuPone and Holland Taylor, Harris co-stars as Eleanor in Ryan Murphy’s hit Netflix series Hollywood.

We love that Eleanor Roosevelt – the longest-serving First Lady in U.S. history and beloved champion of human rights and American democracy – keeps showing up in storylines, and that the casting gods have entrusted Harris to embody her profound humanity, dignity, grace, strength, intelligence, and humor.

Harris brings all these wonderful qualities – and perhaps her own physical warm-ups – to her performance in Atlantic Crossing. Displacement and war is a heavy weight for the characters, but moments of levity arrive for the First Lady and the Crown Princess Martha. Mid-series in Episode 5, Eleanor channels her inner Uta Hagen to give Martha public speaking lessons for a Red Cross fundraiser. Drama students everywhere will recognize their exercises to shake off the nerves.

Mrs. Meers in the Musical Thoroughly Modern Millie

Harris won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for her amazing Technicolor performance in Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002), the flapper-happy Broadway musical starring Sutton Foster and based on the 1967 Julie Andrews movie. She delighted critics and audiences alike as the dastardly Mrs. Meers, who runs a boarding house for aspiring young actresses – and sells them into servitude after drugging and kidnapping them.

The stage musical gave Mrs. Meers a backstory as a frustrated actress bent on revenge (hence her sinister behavior) and a showstopping solo in which she rhapsodizes about The Roles That Got Away. (“I almost starred as Peter Pan. Imagine moi mid-air!”)

“Harris has a grand old time playing the camp villainess,” Variety raved, while Curtain Up noted her resemblance to Rosalind Russell.

Watch highlights from The Actors Fund’s Thoroughly Modern Millie 15th Anniversary Reunion Concert featuring Harriet Harris, Sutton Foster, Gavin Creel, and other members of the original Broadway production on YouTube. (Harris’s delectable solo begins at :55.)

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Bebe Glazer, in the TV Series Frasier

“I’ve played a lot of ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ types,” Harriet Harris observes on her website. Bebe Glazer, Frasier Crane’s outrageously conniving talent agent in the hit NBC television series Frasier (1993-2004), fits that scintillating description to a tee. Whether going out on a ledge – literally! – during contract negotiations to make sure Frasier gets the raise he deserves or killing a bird (a crane) that was becoming a PR nightmare for her client, the self-proclaimed starmaker is unscrupulous, unstoppable, and deliciously diabolical. (Imagine the love child of Cruella de Vil and über-agent Swifty Lazar and you’ll get the picture.)

Harris made such an indelible impression as the marvelously larger-than-life Bebe that it’s hard to believe she only appeared in 11 episodes. “I loved playing Bebe Glazer. She would go to any extreme for Frasier…. She was an evil genius,” Harris said in a 2013 Broadway.com interview.

We adore Bebe, too, and hope she shows up to steal a scene or two in the highly-anticipated Paramount+ Frasier reboot.

BEWITCHED, BOTHERED, AND BEBE: Bebe Glazer (Harriet Harris) attempts to seduce Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) in a scene from the Frasier episode “The Devil and Dr. Phil.” Watch on YouTube.

Vera Charles in the Musical Mame

Harriet Harris lit up the stage as perpetually pickled actress Vera Charles in a 2006 Kennedy Center production of the beloved Jerry Herman musical Mame. The production starred Christine Baranski as bon vivant Mame Dennis, who famously declares, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

Variety called Harris’s performance “priceless,” while The New York Times raved, “The throaty gutsiness she brings to the role almost erases memories of Bea Arthur’s great performance in the same part.” In less capable hands, boozy thesp Vera Charles would be reduced to caricature. But as Harris explains in this Kennedy Center talk, successful comedy isn’t about getting laughs: it’s about storytelling.

“A lot of actors will do anything in order to get a laugh, but they forget what we’re really trying to do is communicate the story,” she says. “(This musical) is always about Mame’s story and her relationship with her friends: how they’re either failing her or helping her. All the humor comes from who these people are in Mame’s life, so you’re always trying to tell that story. If the audience is laughing, that story’s getting told.”

Watch highlights from the 2006 Kennedy Center production of Mame starring Christine Baranski and Harriet Harris on YouTube.

Ingrid Blix in the Netflix series Ratched

Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series Ratched tells the backstory of Nurse Ratched, the villain from Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as she begins working at a leading psychiatic hospital in California in 1947. Like his other highly stylized series (Feud, Hollywood, American Horror Story), it’s the perfect cocktail of glamour and gore, featuring breathtaking production design and a to-die-for cast including Sarah Paulson (as Mildred Ratched), Judy Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Sharon Stone, Finn Wittrock – and Harriet Harris in the role of Ingrid Blix, a faded European opera singer who comes to Lucia State Hospital for a lobotomy to help cure her melancholy.

According to this opera blog, Ingrid’s repertoire (“I’ve sung every great soprano role from Brünnhilde to Turandot.”) suggests that she’s an amalgam of real-life opera legends Zinka Milanov and Éva Marton. As Ingrid’s story unfolds, the source of her melancholy is revealed: a lifetime of suppressing her attraction to women. “You don’t know what it’s like to be constantly running from who you really are,” she tearfully confesses to Mildred in a heartbreaking scene.

The barbaric procedures depicted in Ratched, such as the ice pick lobotomy, are based in actual medical history. Lobotomies were considered revolutionary treatments for mental illness during the late 1940s, and water has been used to treat mental health issues and heal people for centuries, according to this Psychology Today article.

Harriet Harris portrays a legendary opera star suffering from melancholy in Ratched. Watch highlights from her riveting performance on YouTube.

Felicia Tilman in the TV Series Desperate Housewives

Some people cut off their nose to spite their face (figuratively speaking, mais oui!). In the hit ABC comedy-drama Desperate Housewives (2004-2012), Harriet Harris played Felicia Tilman, who cuts off her fingers – all in the name of revenge. Determined to find out who killed her sister Martha, she ventures to a mysterious suburb called Wisteria Lane. After learning that snarky Paul Young is the culprit, she cuts off two of her fingers to frame him for her own murder – then goes into hiding in a log cabin in the mountains for a decade.

Harris finds it intriguing that Wisteria Lane’s residents view Felicia as sinister while Paul is the one who has committed murder. “People do find Felicia evil. I think she’s just determined. She’s pursuing an objective that no one wants her to pursue, and so it makes her really eccentric,” she said in a 2006 Metro Weekly interview.

Felicia’s eccentricity made the character a fan favorite, and the series’ darkly comedic take on suburbia gave Harris a chance to shine in many wonderfully wicked scenes. To torment Paul, not-so-good neighbor Felicia smears vegetable shortening on his porch. Hearing him fall, she steps outside, stirring a bowl of cookie batter. “Shortening? That’s the last thing you’d want on your front porch. It’s meant for baking,” she quips with smile that’s straight outta Stepford.

READY FOR HER CLOSE-UP: Felicia Tilman (Harriet Harris) shares the grisly details of her sister’s death with the gossip-hungry denizens of Wisteria Lane in this scene from Desperate Housewives.

Fun Fact: Harris’s Atlantic Crossing co-star Kyle MacLachlan joined Desperate Housewives in Season 2 as Orson Hodge, a handsome but moody dentist who may have killed his first wife.

Atlantic Crossing on Masterpiece airs Sunday, April 4 – May 23 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN. Members of THIRTEEN can binge-watch the entire series in THIRTEEN Passport, a Member benefit providing extended access to an on-demand library of quality public television programming, including current and past seasons of PBS shows.

Has Atlantic Crossing has piqued your interest in the Roosevelts? Check out Ken Burns’ acclaimed series The Roosevelts in THIRTEEN Passport!

Learn more about Atlantic Crossing and cast members including Harriet Harrison on the official Masterpiece website.