But decades before Harley was drawn into its existence, her forebear character, Harlequin, appeared on the cover of LIFE, as part of a photo story on Broadway actors donning costumes for their dream roles. The character of Harlequin had been a particular fascination for actress Gwen Verdon, a musical comedy legend and the winner of four Tony Awards.
Harlequin was a comic character from the Italian commedia dell’arte of the 16th century. While that original character was male, he and Harley Quinn share a common DNA which shows through in many ways, from costuming to a reputation for trickery.
In the April 14, 1958 issue of LIFE, Verdon explained the appeal of playing Harlequin, which included the character’s infatuation with another character from the commedia dell’arte, the mischievous maid Columbine:
“Harlequin is a well-rounded, sensitive person,” says Gwen. “His love for Columbine—especially when she breaks his heart—makes a man of him. He’s transformed by suffering. The twirl of blue paper in his eye represents tears. The flower on his nose is a symbol of unattainable beauty—like Columbine. He hunts for it everywhere, not realizing it is right in front of him. Whenever I get a new part, I always stop and ask myself how Harlequin would do it. It’s helped me a lot.”
The concept of actors playing their dream roles was one LIFE would revisit. Five years later LIFE asked film actors to dress up for their dream roles, and the resulting story featured Paul Newman as a swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Cary Grant as Charlie Chaplin, Rock Hudson as Dr. Jekyll and more.