Actress Theresa Harris was born in 1906 to sharecroppers Isaiah and Mable Harris in Houston, Texas. Harris had her first taste of Hollywood in 1929 when she sang in the movie “Thunderbolt”. Roles started pouring in after that. Despite her talent and beauty she would routinely be cast as maids.
They were significant movies. She played Ginger Rogers’ maid in “Professional Sweetheart” in 1933, Bette Davis’ maid in “Jezebel” and Maureen O’Hara’s maid in “Miracle on 34th Street”. She was known as a scene stealer from some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She had the accolades, the work was consistent, but the roles were always subservient.
Still Harris kept chugging away.
In fact, she appeared on the September issue of the 1952 Jet under the teaser “Theresa Harris: She still has faith in Hollywood after 20 years of maid roles.”
But her optimism didn’t last too long. In the mid- 1950’s Harris retired from acting. Having averaged a movie a year, according to the Jet interview , Harris was able to live comfortably off of her savings. Harris who married Joe Robinson, a doctor in 1933, died in October of 1985 at the age of 78.
Theresa Harris was largely overlooked in Hollywood and Black history until African American playwright Lynn Nottage stumbled across “Baby Face” in which Harris played Barbara Stanwyck’s friend. Nottage was so intrigued by the character that she wrote a Broadway play, featuring a character who shares her same plight. Nottage’s play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark” starred well-known film actress Sanaa Lathan. Through this play short biographies, and the successes of modern day black actresses, Theresa Harris’ legacy and struggle live on.