They came from as far away as New Zealand and Australia. One gentleman flew over from London dressed in a tuxedo for the occasion. An overflow crowd had to be satisfied with sitting in a closed circuit TV room. The lucky group that filled the auditorium spent an enchanted ninety minutes up close with an entertainment legend, Julie Andrews. Thanks to the Paley Center for Media’s incredible collection of programming, the guests were treated to numerous clips from the many TV shows Andrews graced over the years, including the Julie Andrews Hour.
Pat Mitchell, the Paley Center’s president, served as moderator for Andrews’ “trip down memory lane.” The two women, longtime acquaintances, had a wonderful rapport that made the evening seem less like an interview and more like a chat between two good friends, provided that one has access to the Julie Andrews TV collection.
“Let’s Start at the Very Beginning…”
Andrews, looking slim and elegant in a navy pant suit with silver trim, her reddish hair in the familiar short cut, told about growing up in a musical vaudeville family. She made her stage debut at age twelve. “I had this strong and powerful singing voice with a four octave range,” she said. “Dogs would howl for miles and miles around!” Declared a child prodigy, Andrews was an overnight sensation and toured all around Great Britain.
In 1954, Andrews came to the U.S. to play Polly Brown in the Broadway production of The Boy Friend. Only a teen, she won the Theatre World Award in her Broadway debut and was sought after for the lead in My Fair Lady. Asked about her co-star, Rex Harrison, Andrews laughed, “He was wicked.” Andrews admitted that Harrison, “charismatic and superb” in the role of Henry Higgins, was underwhelmed by her performance as Eliza Doolittle. She characterized the role as one of the most difficult for an actress because it involves singing, acting, and keeping to the Cockney accent.
Moss Hart, the play’s director, dismissed the rest of the cast for a weekend and for 48 hours worked with her scene by scene. “By the end, he had given me the foundation of Eliza Doolittle,” she said. Even Harrison had no complaints.
In 1957, while she was still performing in My Fair Lady, Andrews appeared in a live television production of Cinderella. A clip from the musical featuring a very young Andrews singing with Edie Adams was shown to the Paley audience. The live broadcast of a musical was groundbreaking at the time and attracted more than 107 million viewers.
During the rehearsals for Cinderella, Andrews was reminded about the power of television when someone told her: “You realize more people will see this than would see My Fair Lady if you played that for fifteen years.” She also told about a conversation she had with the production’s floor manager who was quitting to launch free Shakespeare in the Park productions for the public. “That was Joe Papp,” she said.
The Simple Joys of Maidenhood
In 1960, Andrews was cast as Queen Guinevere in Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot opposite Richard Burton as King Arthur. After watching a clip from the Ed Sullivan Show of the duo singing “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” Andrews was visibly moved, saying it was wonderful “to remember what is was like to work with Richard Burton.” She stayed with the Broadway production after he left to film Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor.
Her role in Camelot caught the eye of Walt Disney and she was chosen to play everyone’s favorite nanny, Mary Poppins. “Disney had a great talent for spotting talent,” Andrew said. In 1964, she won the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. (Ironically, Audrey Hepburn, who had been cast as Eliza Doolittle in the film version of My Fair Lady, failed to receive even a nomination). Andrews said that it was at this time in her career that she began to understand her impact. “I realized that I could give pleasure, that I could help people forget about their problems and give them a good three hours of entertainment.”
The Hills Are Alive
The Paley Center’s technical staff excels at putting together clips from various television shows. They outdid themselves with Julie Andrews. The audience saw the star singing with Carol Burnett, Harry Belafonte, Jackie Gleason, Kermit the Frog, and dancing with Gene Kelly, to name just a few. Andrews singled out her three shows with Carol Burnett, one of them at Carnegie Hall, with a script partially written by Mike Nichols. “She’s a great friend and godmother to my daughter, Emma.” Andrews said.
Andrews’ dramatic roles on TV are less heralded, but several excerpts were shown, including a 1991 production of Our Sons with a very young and unknown Hugh Grant. “I was always a singer first and then an actor,” Andrews observed. “You’re never sure you could pull it off without the music.”
In 2001, she appeared in a TV production of On Golden Pond, reuniting with her Sound of Music co-star Christopher Plummer. Like Cinderella, the production was live and anxiety producing, she said. The director, wanting to depart from the Oscar-winning film with Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, asked Andrews and Plummer to make their relationship sexier, she recalled, saying that wasn’t hard to do with the charismatic Plummer.
Although the Paley Center program focused on TV, Andrews spoke about some of her film roles, including Victor/Victoria directed by her husband, Blake Edwards. “We have done seven or eight films together and all have been a joy,” she said. “I always felt very, very safe in his hands.” She brought a laugh from the audience when she said that during one love scene, he told her, “That’s fine darling, but I know you can do it better.”
Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?
In the late 1990s, Andrews developed vocal problems and underwent surgery that has left her unable to sing. Acting then became her focus and one question from the audience concerned working with the young actors in The Princess Diaries. Andrews said she thought she would be able to give these young people the benefit of her experience, but found that they were prepared and focused. “They didn’t need me!” she said, with a laugh.
Even while she was working on her musical career, Andrews was always writing, including stories for her children. Those books have now become a major focus in her life. Her current publication, Julie Andrews’ Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies written with her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, was published on October 6.
Andrews appears to have taken some of Mary Poppins’ advice, taking a “spoonful of sugar” to sweeten the hard times. While she truthfully admitted she wished she could still sing the way she once had, she has moved on while acknowledging that she had a very special career. “I have been blessed by the most amazing serendipity,” she said. “The people I met along the way helped to mold me. It’s more than I could ever have dreamed or imagined.”
All the clips shown during this Paley Center Program are available in the museum’s library. For more information, go to www.paleycenter.org.