"If somebody's not willing to do anything to get what they want, they probably shouldn't be in a play," says Harriet Harris, stating the sound dramatic principle that's driven several of her most memorable characters: a grasping talent agent on Frasier, a scheming neighbor on Desperate Housewives, a ruthless white-slavery mastermind in Thoroughly Modern Millie (for which she won a Tony Award) and Mildred Watson Drake, the hack novelist who cranks out bestsellers but doesn't much enjoy the fruits of her labors, in the current sparkling Broadway revival of John Van Druten's Old Acquaintance.
But if she's hard-driving in her roles, offtstage Harris is soft-spoken and relatively self-effacing about her work.
"I've always felt lucky to have a job, and to get the kind of work I've wanted to do since I was a child," Harris says when asked if she, unlike her character Milly, is able to relish her success.
A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Harris was the child of a teacher and of a politically connected lawyer, her father, who died when she was just 7 years old. She began to pursue acting around that tender age, and ended up training at Juilliard under director Michael Kahn and working with John Houseman's repertory theatre The Acting Company. Playing sharp, even acerbic women, including the female roles in Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey in 1993, Harris has since been a fixture on stage and screen.
Old Acquaintance, written in 1940, follows a rocky period in the long friendship between two women writers: Milly, played by Harris, and Kit Markham, played by Margaret Colin. It's a relationship driven by professional as well as personal envy, with Kit receiving more than her share of glamour, romance and critical acclaim and Milly reaping huge sales for her novels. Though outwardly respectful of each other's work, the two friends are definitely rivals, each with something the other craves. As Harris has spent her life in show business, does she have similar relationships with her colleagues? Is every other actor a potential ally, or an obvious rival?
"It's a tough business to be in if you don't like to be around actors," says Harris. "Except for a few people I've known all my life, most of my friends are actors, and I love them very much."
Still, in the play, Kit definitely minces words about what she really thinks of Milly's "beach reading" potboilers. Does Harris do the same when she sees one of her actor friends flop?
"When you go backstage, you know what you're supposed to say: 'You were great!' You don't say, 'God, you look terrible!' Luckily my friends are gifted, and when one of them starts to do really well, it's lovely, because they actually deserve all the things that come their way."
Whether Milly deserves her success or not, she does possess a gift for quantity, if not quality.
"I think she's got what's called logorrhea," Harris says of her character. "She has been so lonely in her self-imposed exile up in Pelham. She feels cut off from a best friend, her husband has left her, and her daughter is trying to leave her. She has an enormous need to communicate, but she's not very good at it, except with her readers."
Though audiences may see the scheming Milly as the one who does all the envying in Old Acquaintance, Harris doesn't see it that way.
"As it turns out, Kit does want the things Milly has," says Harris. "She wants commercial success; she has come dangerously close to Milly's husband. And she's been cultivating her daughter. She has lived vicariously through Milly, just as Milly has through her."
The play's denouement finds them together at last, in spite of it all.
"The end is interesting, because these women have almost systematically betrayed each other throughout the play," says Harris. "They have to acknowledge: We blew this, and we could blow it again. It is a treaty, and our new policy is: Be honest. This is a difficult friendship, but it's worth keeping."
The 1946 film version of the play is famous mainly for reports of real off-screen tension between stars Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. Harris is quick to put to rest any notion that similar offstage animus fuels her friction with Margaret Colin.
"I'm extremely fond of Margaret," says Harris. She admits that in her earlier days, she did work with actors who felt that creating offstage tsuris was a great way to create drama onstage. "When I was younger, I did notice there were a lot of actors who really needed to get on the wrong side of the director, or to have a problem with another actor. Now, there will be productions where things just don't go right, but to seek that out and try to create that--why would you do that?
"You have to be able to trust everybody onstage. I noticed that all of my friends came to that conclusion some time in their 30s, that, let's all get this to work. If you're going to spend the evening trying to communicate with strangers, it's good to have the communication channels open onstage."
Besides, in her un-Milly-like way, Harris says, "I hate going to the theater and not having a good time. It's not like anybody gets to work enough that they can afford to spoil the experience.
"It's always better to want to see the people in the show when you get to the theatre."
Audiences heading for a production featuring Harriet Harris might agree.