American actress-author-composer Jessica Harper was born on October 10, 1949 in Chicago, Illinois, to Eleanor (Emery), a writer, and Paul Church Harper, Jr., a painter who was chairman of the Needham Harper Worldwide advertising agency in NY. Jessica launched her professional acting career soon after graduating from Sarah Lawrence. Drawing on her considerable singing skills, she was an understudy in the Broadway production of the “tribal love” rock musical Hair (1979) — other understudies included Diane Keaton, Melba Moore, Keith Carradine, Meat Loaf and Cliff De Young, who would later co-star with Harper in Shock Treatment (1981),which also showcased her musical gifts.
In the 1970s and 1980s, she developed quite a reputation for herself as a cult actress: her wide-eyed, fresh-faced beauty and air of melancholy made her a unique presence on film. As “Cathy Cake” in the X-rated Inserts (1975), she was arguably the first “serious” American actress to have a truly explicit on-screen sex scene. Other memorable films she appeared in were Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Dario Argento’s seminal slasher film Suspiria (1977), and two for Woody Allen: Love and Death (1975) and Stardust Memories (1980). Since her appearance in the American remake of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven (1981) and My Favorite Year (1982), her film career has cooled somewhat (likely as directors didn’t know how to use this seemingly fragile, ethereal and always unique talent), though she continues to work steadily in film and on television.
Since the 1990s, Harper — the wife of motion picture executive Tom Rothman — has developed a second successful career as an author of children’s books and as a composer of music for children. She has written four picture books in collaboration with her sister, Lindsay Harper DuPont, including her most recent, “A Place Called Kindergarten”. Her debut music CD, “A Wonderful Life” (1994), which won both a Parent’s Choice Gold Award and a National Association of Parenting Publications Award, was particularly praised for the lyrics written by Harper. Her other five children’s music CDs include “Inside Out” and “Hey, Picasso”.
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