Class of 1950
Leonard Harris was best known for his television and theater criticism, but he also wrote three novels and acted in two feature films, one of them a classic. From 1966 to 1974, he was a fixture on WCBS-TV in New York as an arts and theater reviewer, often returning to the studio from the theater at 10 p.m. and getting his 75-second review onto the teleprompter by 10:40 p.m.
In William Goldman’s 1969 book “The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway,”Harris said, “Obviously, there’s no trouble getting 75 seconds of stuff written in 40 minutes: the problem is narrowing it down.” Goldman praised those TV critics who worked under tight deadlines to craft reviews with taste and intelligence. “The two most important,” he wrote, “are Leonard Harris of CBS and Edwin Newman of NBC … I think the main reason they are gaining in influence is because they are the two best people commenting overnight on the Broadway scene.”
Harris’s approach to theater criticism was rooted in compassion.
“I’m not by nature a gregarious person,” he told Goldman. “I’m not close to the theater crowd; I don’t see Broadway people socially. [In my reviews,] I try not to be funny for the sake of being funny; it’s so easy, and the play’s helpless to defend itself. I try never to turn out a good piece at the expense of the play; you always have to guard against that.”
Harris was born in the Bronx on Sept. 27, 1929. After graduating from City College, he went to Yale Law School for two years, was drafted, and served in the Army during the Korean War. When he came out, he was unsure of what to do. In Goldman’s book, he is quoted as saying, “I was 28, and I thought, ‘What can I do without training, without schooling, without ability?’ The obvious answer was newspaper work.”
He began his career writing book reviews and obituaries for The Hartford Courant in 1958, then went to work for The World-Telegram & Sun in New York before switching from print media and joining CBS. After eight years of cultural criticism on television, he turned to writing novels. His first, “The Masada Plan,” came out in 1979 and was highly praised; the novelist Meyer Levin in The New York Times Book Review called it “gripping, fast-moving, expertly engineered.” Harris’s other books were “Don’t Be No Hero,” published in 1981, and “The Hamptons,” which appeared a year later.
Harris also achieved something few theater and film critics have done — he appeared in two movies and was cast as politicians in both of them. In Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976), he was Charles Palantine, a senator campaigning for president. Scorsese cast Harris because he knew him as part of the Broadway drama community.
|Campaigning for president in “Taxi Driver.”|
Harris appears in only a few scenes, but they are memorable because he seems to be a likely target of Travis Bickle, the highly disturbed title character played by Robert De Niro. Bickle, in fatigue jacket and Mohawk haircut, confronts the buttoned-up senator and lectures him about the “scum and filth” that need to be flushed out of New York. When Harris’s character cautiously seems to agree with him, he might unwittingly be contributing to Bickle’s sociopathic acts later on. In 1980, in the largely forgotten romantic comedy “Hero at Large,” Harris portrayed the mayor of New York. In what might have been a nod to his previous role, he gives a speech with his arms outstretched, just as he did in “Taxi Driver.”
Harris died on Aug. 28, 2011. He was 81.