The premiere of Mary Poppins should have been the best night of Julie Andrews’ life. Walt Disney had orchestrated a grand event at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood replete with searchlights in the sky, fairytale characters and cheering fans and photographers lining a red carpet. Julie, looking gorgeous in a cream silk gown and rented mink stole, arrived on the arms of her husband and her proud father, who’d flown in from England.
Sadly, it all went downhill from there. “I was unprepared for the pressure and scrutiny, the feeling of being pulled, poked and shouted at,” Julie confesses. “I never sat down, and I don’t recall eating a morsel … I couldn’t wait to go home.
A singer since her childhood in wartime Britain, Julie became the darling of Broadway in My Fair Lady, starred in two of Hollywood’s most beloved musicals, The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins and over her six-decade career has amassed an Oscar, two Emmys, three Grammys and more. At 87, the twice-married mother of three can look back on her Hollywood triumphs and the ordeals she overcame with a sense of pride and accomplishment. “Who could have imagined that life would have taken such marvelous twists and turns?” she asks.
Born in Surrey, England, in 1935, Julie began singing with her mother and stepfather as a child. “I had a very pure, white, thin voice, a four-octave range — dogs would come from miles around,” says Julie. By 12, she made her professional debut singing a difficult aria. Three years later, she was on the radio. In 1954, 19-year-old Julie debuted on Broadway in The Boy Friend. She was offered the role of Eliza Doolittle on stage in My Fair Lady the following year.
Julie felt understandably upset when Warner Bros. cast Audrey Hepburn as Eliza in the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady. “Though I totally understood why Audrey had been chosen for the role (I’d never made a movie and was a relative unknown compared to her worldwide fame), I felt sad that I would never have the chance to put my version of Eliza on film,” Julie admits.
Jack Warner might have spurned her, but Walt Disney saw Julie on Broadway in Camelot and offered her a different ticket to Hollywood. “I said, ‘Oh, Mr. Disney, I’d love to come. But I’m pregnant.’” The beloved filmmaker agreed to postpone his production of Mary Poppins until after Julie’s baby was born so she could be its star. “He spoiled me,” Julie admits. Walt even added more icing to her already scrumptious cake by hiring Julie’s then-husband, Tony Walton, as a designer on the film.
Mary Poppins was, however, a difficult shoot, and as a film novice, Julie had a steep learning curve. Plus, this brand-new mother battled heartsickness over leaving her baby, Emma, each day. Making the magical nanny fly was also dangerous and painful. The harness the actress wore left bruises, and Julie was even dropped once! “I landed hard and was quite shaken,” she says. “I have to admit, I let fly a stream of colorful expletives.”
Julie went on to win an Oscar and Golden Globe for Mary Poppins. As she triumphantly took the podium at the Globes, she wasn’t above a little revenge. “My thanks to a man who made a wonderful movie and who made all this possible in the first place — Mr. Jack Warner,” she said of the studio head who had torpedoed her chance at My Fair Lady.
While filming The Sound of Music, Julie also experienced many highs and lows. She bonded easily with the young actors who played the Von Trapp children, but Christopher Plummer remained a bit aloof, spending his evenings playing piano and drinking in hotel bars. Julie spent hers in a hotel room with her toddler. “I was quite lonely. Tony was working, and our marriage was a little rocky,” she confessed.
The Austrian weather was often cold and gloomy, too. “We had a lot of rain while we were shooting,” she notes, adding that wet weather and the helicopter used to film her famous singing on the mountaintop scene made her miserable. After each take, the downdraft of the aircraft “flung me into the grass,” she recalls. “We did this about six or seven times, and I was spitting dirt and hay!”
Today, Julie can look back at it all with laughter — even the worst parts. “Thankfully, I was willing to pay my dues and to learn,” she says. “When we were touring, my mum would drill into me: ‘Don’t you dare complain about anything. … Get on with it and you’ll be respected so much more.’”