A Tribute to Julie Andrews
Biography by Robert Corbell, September 2003
To paraphrase an enthusiastic critic, “Julie Andrews is not only a star, she’s an entire whirling constellation.” Julie Andrews has been entertaining audiences for close to sixty years — first in her early years as a child performer with her parents in the waning years of British vaudeville, then to the international arenas of stage, films, television and recordings.
In a career that has known Everest-like highs as well as several lows, Julie Andrews continues to reach for new heights and areas to conquer. In the early 1980s she recorded an album of country and pop songs; after a 35-year absence from the Broadway stage she returned in a triumphant smash musical based on her 1982 film hitVictor/Victoria, which broke box-office records for advance ticket sales that exceeded six million dollars in just a few months. Continuing to remain in the public eye, Julie also wins new fans with viewings of her films on video and TV, and regularly makes appearances at awards shows, tributes and charity events.
Julia Elizabeth Wells was born on Tuesday, October 1, 1935 in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey (England). The eight-pound baby was named after her grandmothers Julia Morris and Elizabeth Wells; Julia was born under the star sign of Libra – the Balancing Scales. Her parents, Ted and Barbara Wells, were a working-class couple. Ted was a handicrafts teacher, with a deep love of poetry and the English countryside. Barbara was a talented pianist, who helped her sister Joan run a local dancing school, while also pursuing a career as a popular pianist in local pubs and music halls. Young Julie was a student in her aunt Joan’s dance academy for most of her childhood years.
In the summer of 1939, the shadow of war loomed over the European horizon. Britain was also concerned at the threat of another war. Barbara Wells was working at this time as a pianist in a music hall variety act in the south coast resort of Bognor Regis. Husband Ted joined Barbara and little Julia, now aged 3-1/2 years, and her younger brother John. Also in the variety act at Bognor Regis was a burly, thirty-two-year-old tenor, styled as “The Canadian Troubadour,” named Ted Andrews. This man would have an influential place in the life of little Julia Wells.
Barbara Wells and the guitar-playing troubadour Ted Andrews began a not-so-discreet affair that summer. Eventually, little Julia’s parents would divorce in late 1942, thus interrupting her young childhood. She grew to resent the loud, brash Canadian singer who tried to replace her father.
Her parents, feeling it was for the best, decided that Julia would remain with her mother and Ted Andrews, while younger brother John, needing a male influence, would stay with his father. Ted and Barbara had formed a variety act; they would eventually tour the entire British countryside, from Brighton to Aberdeen. Eventually little Julia would join “the family act,” often standing on a crate to perform with her stepfather, while mum Barbara accompanied the group on piano. Young Julia astounded audiences with her remarkable five-octave vocal range. Leaving for America in 1954 to debut in the American version of the West End hit musical The Boy Friend, she became something of an overnight star on Broadway. She received the Donaldson Award for “Best Newcomer” for her role of Polly Browne in the show.
She left after a one-year run and was promptly hired for Lerner & Loewe’s adaptation of G.B. Shaw’s Pygmalionwhich was retitled My Fair Lady. The show was the hit of the 1956-57 Broadway season, and to say that it redefined the American musical theater is an understatement. After a year-and-a-half run on Broadway as Eliza Doolittle, Julie left, along with Rex Harrison, to recreate their roles on the London stage for an additional six months’ run. The jet-set London audiences were as impressed as the Americans had been with the show, and Julie received more praise from the hard-to-please London critics.
Next came Lerner & Loewe’s Camelot (1961-62), with Julie as Guinevere to Richard Burton’s Arthur in this re-telling of the King Arthur legend. In the audience one night was Walt Disney, who saw Julie as perfect for the title role in his film musical of Mary Poppins (1964). From Poppins to Maria in the smash hit The Sound of Music, Julie became a bona-fide star and the new toast of Hollywood. In fact, she appeared on the cover of Time magazine, in a story entitled “Now and Future Queen of Hollywood.” The Sound of Music broke box-office records all over the world, with many fans going for “repeat” viewings of the film. The all-time champ has to be the woman in Cardiff, Wales, who reportedly saw the film over 300 times. To this day, The Sound of Music remains most likely the best-loved film musical of all time.
During the run of My Fair Lady Julie wed childhood sweetheart Tony Walton on Sunday, May 10, 1959 in the Victorian church of St. Mary’s, Oatlands in Weybridge, a neighboring village to Walton-on-Thames. Julie looked stunning in her gown – which costume and set design student Tony Walton had designed. The dress of embroidered white silk organza, overlaid with tulle, cost a smart 350 pounds, and included a diaphanous veil and train. The wedding reception was held at the 300-year-old Mitre Hotel on the Thames, at Hampton Court, a short distance from London. There the new couple entertained their family, friends, and a huge assortment of press and photographers who turned the celebration into a huge, boisterous event.
In 1962 their daughter Emma was born. Then Julie began to prepare for her role in Mary Poppins. Next came a whirlwind film schedule, with few breaks Hawaii and Torn Curtain both 1966; the smash musical Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967, and Star! a film musical on the life of Gertrude Lawrence, legendary British stage actress (sadly, a box-office failure).
In the mid-1960s, with the increasing demands of celebrity and fame, Julie and Tony found the strain too difficult to keep their marriage together; they separated around 1966/67 and divorced a year later.
Julie, meanwhile, having met brilliant filmmaker Blake Edwards, found herself in a new romance with the mercurial film director; they wed in 1969. Next they embarked on a joint venture, the 1970 film musical of Darling Lili, with Julie in the dual role of the German spy/British singing star in World War I Paris. She romanced Rock Hudson, as the dashing American major (trying to pry military secrets from him) and performed several authentic WW I-era songs, as well as some new and lovely songs by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. In an attempt to further herself from her “so sweet” Mary Poppins image, Blake Edwards inserted a comic striptease into the film for Julie to perform (in anger at Rock Hudson for a supposed infidelity). Unfortunately, changing times and audiences (this being the Vietnam era, “flower power,” and hippies) were untouched by Lili and the film sadly flopped at the box office. To this day, it remains the only film of Julie’s not to receive a video release.
After a hiatus of several years (plus a foray into TV in the early 1970s), Julie’s career was resurrected in 1979 with a supporting role in Blake Edwards’ smash hit 10, which made Bo Derek an international star. More films followed (also with Blake) including a smash role in the 1982 hit Victor/Victoria, which had film critics falling over each other in praising Julie’s performance as a woman “impersonating” a drag performer. The film also earned Ms. Andrews her third Academy Award nomination.
Julie returned to film roles, TV specials, and the concert stage for the next decade or so; all the while Blake was preparing their 1982 film of Victor/Victoria for the Broadway stage. Finally, in the spring of 1995, the show had extended previews in Minneapolis and Chicago, then moved to Broadway in October. Julie remained with the show through the early weeks of June 1997, later replaced by Raquel Welch. After having vocal surgery in the summer of 1997, Julie was expected to appear in a limited run of the show in Seattle and Houston. After several delays, it was found that her voice was damaged by the surgery and she was unable to sing. After several years, Julie settled a lawsuit over this incident with the doctors and hospital involved. Her career, however, continues to reach new heights, with several TV-movies, feature films, and children’s books on her always busy schedule. She also appeared with her “dear chum” Carol Burnett at the 1999 Tony Awards and was a presenter at the 1999 Academy Awards. Also in 1999, she reteamed with old pal James Garner (Victor/Victoria) for the ABC TV-movie One Special Night.
She was named a Dame by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth on New Year’s Eve, 1999. More recently (December 2001) she was feted, along with fellow stars Jack Nicholson, Luciano Pavarotti, Van Cliburn, and Ray Charles at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. Julie also appeared in a special salute at the 2003 Academy Awards, which celebrated 75 years of “Oscar” and the awards show. She was honored with the 2006 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award on September 25, 2006.
Julie Andrews is also a talented writer of children’s books, beginning in the early 1970s with Mandy(1971) and The Last Of The Really Great Whangdoodles (1975), both of which have been reissued several times. She also has a series of children’s books featuring Dumpy The Dump Truck (5-6 books issued so far) plus Little Bo (1999) about the adventures of a tiny kitten and the sailor who befriends her. Ms. Andrews continues to be active in several charities, including the California-based Operation USA, which provides international relief; she is also the Goodwill Ambassador for UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women), which helps women and communities in impoverished countries – a post she accepted in 1992. Ms. Andrews is the mother of Emma Hamilton, stepmother to Blake Edwards’ two children by his former marriage (to actress Patricia Walker), and adopted mother to Amy and Joanna, Vietnamese orphans (adopted by Julie & Blake in the early seventies). More surprising, Julie Andrews is also grandmother to seven children. Her husband passed away in December, 2010 at the age of 88.
Part I: Introduction
Part III: Movie Reviews & Where to Find Her Movies
Part IV: Photos, Art, and Posters