Perhaps you know her role as Sylvia Buchman, the quintessential Jewish mother on the nineties sitcom Mad About You. And there was the classic British drama Edward and Mrs. Simpson, in which she played the Duchess of Windsor—and received a BAFTA best-actress nomination. She made her Broadway debut in 1963 and she has performed in dozens of plays (on and off Broadway) and countless TV and film roles—All My Children, LA Law, Murder She Wrote, Up the Sandbox, Three Men and a Baby, to name just a few.
Take a bow, Cynthia Harris, for bringing dimension and nuance to six decades of diverse roles all done with diligence, dignity—and for those who don’t already know it, type 1 diabetes (T1D). Has it ever gotten in the way of a demanding theatrical career? “No,” Cynthia said quickly and emphatically. “For one thing, I’m very lucky to have Robin Goland as my doctor. She never says no to anything. She likes to say, ‘we can do that. We can work that out. And we do.’”
In June, Cynthia completed her latest role (the great aunt in a play about sibling rivalry by A.A. Milne called The Lucky One) and she had time to talk (by telephone) to the Berrie Center about her life and her diabetes. Here is some of what she had to say.
When did you start acting?
Actually, I came out the womb and said, ‘this is it. I want to be an actor.’ I never wanted to be a movie star. I just used to say, ‘I want to be an actor.’ I started taking theater class when I was 12-years-old on Saturdays. I worked with Madame Piscator, who was the wife of a famous German theater director, and I studied dance, speech and improvisation—and I’ve just kept going.
Do you have a favorite role?
Not really. For me, it’s like falling in love many times over. In my last role, I played a great aunt in an old English family and I thought, ‘it’s the closest thing to Maggie Smith in Downton Abby.’ So for a while, I’m in love with her. The reason I love acting so much is that you get to be many people, and I rarely get attached to one where I can’t give it up. I do go out of my way not to repeat roles. I’ve done the quintessential Jewish mother, and I doubt I’ll do that, or play another Duchess ever again. But one never knows.
Tell us about The Actors Company Theater.
I’m a co-founder and was the artistic director of The Actors Company Theater (TACT). Our central mission has been to give a core group of actors challenging roles in rarely seen plays. Happily, I played 42 different roles in 25 years.
You seem to have a great attitude about diabetes...
I prefer to think of diabetes as a condition that you live with. I have been trained to do just that by Dr. Robin Goland and her staff at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center. Anybody can be trained to do anything they want to do with diabetes. I’m just extraordinarily grateful for the Berrie Center’s help and consider myself extremely fortunate under their care.