Julie Harris wasn’t simply one of the great American actors of the 20th century. She represented to those in her profession a reverential ideal.

Harris died Saturday at 87 at her home in Chatham, Mass., far away from the bright lights of Broadway. Yet Broadway will never forget her. She was both the embodiment and essence of theatrical excellence -- flesh and spirit, as always with Harris’ acting, made one.

Her obituaries will tell you that she holds the record as a performer for the most Tony Awards (six, including a special lifetime achievement award) and Tony nominations (10), but even more impressive is the way she inspired actors and audiences alike with her dedication and grace.

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Her peers considered her peerless. I can still hear Charles Nelson Reilly, who directed Harris on Broadway in “The Gin Game,” “Break a Leg” and “The Belle of Amherst,” shouting her name to me with awe, as though to communicate his disbelief that someone as magnificent as this should exist. And I have a vivid recollection of Broadway veteran and acting teacher Marian Seldes lowering her voice with the hushed veneration usually observed for a saint when mentioning Harris, a saint of acting.

It’s easy to imagine that Harris’ career was a series of triumphs, beginning with her Broadway performance as the unruly tomboy in “The Member of the Wedding” in 1950, but there were years of hard toil before and after that groundbreaking success.

As theater critic Walter Kerr reminds us in a piece on Harris titled “Growing Up and Up and Up” that’s collected in his book “Journey to the Center of the Theater,” Harris wasn’t born with the natural gifts of a star.

“Miss Harris’s initial problem, I would say, was not her nose but everything,” Kerr writes. “Of course she lacked the sort of physical stature that made Katharine Cornell a presence before she’d bothered to speak. Her features lacked emphasis, did not precisely bloom into a ‘stage’ face: it might have been better if her nose had been too long. And, worse yet, her voice was a small, rustling, warm but intractably girlish one-note: raise it a decibel and it scratched.”

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But out of these deficits she acquired something truly rare: a suppleness of craft worthy of her inner radiance.

She challenged herself with roles, winning her first Tony for playing Sally Bowles in “I Am a Camera,” although she was hardly the type to be waving a long cigarette holder and acting all Euro chic.

“She was doing a part she shouldn’t have been doing because she shouldn’t have been doing it,” Kerr explains. Steadily and stubbornly, she confronted her limits. Steadily and stubbornly, she surpassed them. By 1976, when Harris was portraying Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” Kerr had even fallen in love with the way her voice “calls our ears to order.”

Helen Hayes was known as “the first lady of the American theater,” an honor that rings a little sexist to us today. Harris inherited -- pardon me, earned -- that ambassador role through her stunning commitment to the stage. As Eli Wallach wrote of his friend in his memoir “The Good, the Bad and Me,” “Winner of numerous Tonys and devoted to the theater, Julie believed in taking shows on the road because she felt that the rest of America deserved the chance to see a Broadway production.”

Broadway has changed and so too have Broadway stars, but Harris still sets the standard for conduct on and off the stage.

Her kindness was legendary. Take it from Elia Kazan, who directed Harris in the film “East of Eden” opposite James Dean: “I doubt that Jimmy would ever have gotten through ‘East of Eden’ except for an angel on our set. Her name was Julie Harris, and she was goodness itself with Dean, kind and patient and everlastingly sympathetic. She would adjust her performance to whatever the new kid did. Despite the fact that it had early on been made clear to me that [studio chief Jack] Warner, when he saw her first wardrobe test, wished I’d taken a ‘prettier’ girl, I thought Julie beautiful: as a performer she found in each moment what was dearest and most moving….  She helped Jimmy more than I did with any direction I gave him.”

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She could also apparently be quite amusing with fellow actors. Mel Gussow, in his biography of Edward Albee, recounts the time Eileen Atkins asked Harris for advice on getting the accent right for an upper-class suburban New York woman in “A Delicate Balance.”

“Think of Katharine Hepburn and cut it in half” was her reply.

The theater is an evanescent medium and so perhaps it can’t be helped that certain headline writers will resort to “ 'Knots Landing’ Actress Dies.” Harris' extensive television and movie work certainly deserves its own tribute. But the theater is where her impact was most powerfully felt, and so it’s fortunate that two of her best stage performances are preserved.

Harris’ fierceness in the 1952 film “The Member of the Wedding” still retains a startling theatrical immediacy, as does the delicate pathos every time this rough-hewn girl (a stranger in her own body, like so many of Harris' characters) seeks refuge in the arms of Ethel Waters. And the tender, otherworldly majesty of her Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” a performance captured in the 1976 TV movie version, is a miracle only Dickinson could do justice to.

“To find that phosphorescence, that light within, that's the genius behind poetry.” Dickinson’s words are easy to apply to Harris when she utters them with such transcendent longing and grace.

When the lights dim on Broadway for Harris, they will darken in honor of a woman who gave all the light she had for her art.

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Twitter: @charlesmcnulty

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com