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What I suppose I'd like to be, one day, is someone who is fascinating. You know-a person you want to look at or see, no matter what she's doing. I think what I'm trying to say is that I'd like to be an original, to be myself and not a pale copy of anyone else. You know, the really marvelous actors and actresses we admire have qualities that can't be pinned down. I suppose I would like to be that type of performer if I were to leave a mark.

March 1966

Overnight Success - After 22 Years

Julie Andrews, who celebrated her thirtieth birthday last October, had six months earlier received an Academy Award for her performance as Mary Poppins. In the following interview with Roy Newquist, she looks back on the years of hard work and training that preceded her sudden success.

I was born in a little town called Walton-on-Thames, which is about eighteen miles south of London. It's suburbia, but it was a very pretty little village, with a village green and all that vaguely bucolic sort of thing. It isn't absolutely swamped with building projects even now, though it's part of Greater London, or Outer London. My mother was born there, all of my family were born there, and the fact that I married a Walton who comes from Walton-on-Thames is sheer coincidence.

I was born in Walton, but we didn't stay there long; we moved all about. My father, Edward Wells, Ted Wells, was a schoolteacher; in fact, he still is. When I was about three years old, my parents were divorced. I don't remember my exact age at the time, because I was kept rather in the dark about it all. The next thing I knew, an Uncle Ted had come into my life-another Ted. This was my stepfather, Ted Andrews. There was an awful time when I really didn't know who I wanted to be with, and I spent some time with Mother and some with Father. I guess I mostly wanted to be with Mother, because she seemed to lead a rather colorful existence; but I missed Daddy very much indeed.

My stepfather is a Canadian, a vaudeville performer who came to England and married my mother. She was a fine pianist. They teamed up and did a vaudeville act and subsequently became famous. They were a very good second II top-of-the-bill" in vaudeville, if you know what that is. When I was about eight years old, they were beginning to make a name for themselves, and they'd let me go on tour with them during school holidays. At the time, I thought that was a great treat. Then, with the war raging, my school closed down.

My listing of times and ages is the best I can remember. I've gotten so confused with all the publicity stories that have been printed I honestly don't remember precise details of time and date. But the gist of this period is the fact that the school closed because of the war. We were all supposed to be evacuated, which we were, for a while. My stepfather-mostly to give me something to do because I was under everyone's feet-decided to give me some singing lessons. Suddenly they discovered, quite out of the blue, that I had a freak voice, an adult larynx-they checked on this-with a four-octave range, including some fierce high notes. This big, belting sound came out of a rather bandy-legged, buck-toothed child and must have shocked half to death everyone within range.

I became a rather weird oddity in the family group. I was made to practice at least a half hour every day, and I loathed singing and resented my stepfather. I'm sure, now, that one of the reasons he gave me the lessons was an attempt to get closer to me, to win me over, so to speak. Looking back at it all, I realize that he did a lot of very sweet things for me.

Anyway, on the odd touring dates when I would join my family, they'd give me a chance, occasionally, to appear as a surprise item in their act. They'd have to get permission from the theater manager to allow me to appear, and some of them wouldn't take a chance on a rather ugly nine- or ten-year-old child. They thought my parents were quite out of their minds, but the ones that did take a chance were very nice indeed. I stood on beer crates in order to reach the microphone and sang my head off. My mother played the piano-my stepfather sang-I joined him in a duet once in a while. It must have been ghastly. But it seemed to go down all right.

This went on until I was twelve, when my stepfather, who was not only a good tenor but a good salesman, brought a man named Val Parnell - at that time the head of the Moss Empire Circuit in England, then the largest theater circuit-down to the house to hear me sing. Val said he would like me to be in his review in London. It was very exciting, my very first real engagement. With Val Parnell was my present manager, Charles Tucker, who signed me up there and then, and I've been with him ever since.

At any rate, the opening is the full color show-biz story. The night before the review opened, they suddenly decided I was too naive for a sophisticated London show at the Hippodrome, so my mother and my agent descended upon them and said, "You've got to give this girl her big break," and all that sort of awful nonsense.

The upshot of it was that I sang a song that was ten times more difficult than the one I'd started out with. It was the "Polonaise" from Mignon, and it stopped the show on opening night and got all the notices the next morning. I really haven't stopped working since, except for an odd holiday once in a while.

After this show, I toured all over England-endlessly, it seems. We did a family act for a while; then I branched out on my own and did a vaudeville act. All my background is vaudeville training-plus concerts, radio and television work, still vaudeville, essentially.

I did a lot of English pantomimes they're epic, and they're marvelous experience. I was always the principal girl, who is rather wet and makes googoo eyes at Our Hero and gets him in the end.

Most of the time, I was kept in short, short dresses, patent-leather shoes and ankle socks, trying desperately to look ten years younger than I really was, growing a bosom and feeling wretched about that.

Schooling was rather a problem. Until I was ten, I went to various schools-no one in particular, except for a type of dramatic-cum-ballet school I attended when I was about eight that offered regular school in the afternoon and dramatic and ballet training in the morning. From ten to twelve, I got some of the best schooling in my life; I went to a private girls' school in the town we were then living in; but from twelve on, I was working professionally and had a governess travel with me, a combined chaperon and teacher. I had a compulsory three or four hours of lessons every day until I was fifteen, and that was all the education I had. I bitterly regret not having had more.

You mentioned that your intensive early training was in vaudeville. Was that entertainment area a grooming for performers in England, as it once was in America?

Yes. I came on the scene when vaudeville was really on its last legs. Certain towns had already closed their theaters, and there really weren't many good old standards left Oddly enough most of the English people I know today, the comedians in particular, stemmed from vaudeville. I can't imagine how they would get a comparable training now. It would have to be in television; but it's an awful thing to ask anyone to be that exposed before he has time to gain some experience elsewhere.

This isn't to say that performers don't work today. It's fantastic the way people work on Broadway and out in California. When I was on Broadway, all the singers and dancers in the show took at least two classes a week and worked hard to improve any area they considered weak. I think the reason competition is so intense over here is because there are literally ten people who can do your job just as well as you can, so you have to pull up your socks and be even better or they will be in like a shot.

To turn, now, to the key appearances in London that have led so directly to the present. What were they?

Well, we've covered the London Hippodrome, and though I worked in London in various pantomimes, it wasn't until I was eighteen, playing in the Christmas pantomime of Cinderella at the Palladium, when a lady named Vida Hope, who had directed The Boyfriend in London, came to see me. She said she was putting together an entirely new company for the American production and wondered if I'd be interested in going. The producers wanted a two-year contract, and I was petrified-absolutely panic stricken. I thought I was much too green to leave England, that I didn't know enough about the business, and simply couldn't stay away from home for two whole years. I said, "No," but they came back and said, "Please reconsider," and one thing and another, and-well, everybody was saying, "Go," and I didn't especially want to, so finally I went to my father, my real father, and said, "What on earth shall I do?"

He was very sweet and said, "Now, listen, it may only run for three weeks, and you'll be back. You'll have seen the States, you'll have had a marvelous experience, and we won't be that far away."

So I finally said that I would go, but only if it was a one-year contract-if it was a hit, I couldn't bear the idea of two years away from home. I wouldn't have earned enough to bring my family over, and they certainly couldn't afford the trip, so one year was it.

I came to America in The Boyfriend. I was nineteen the day after we opened, and as you know, it was quite a success and ran a year and a bit.

The incredible thing about that year's contract was the fact that just about six weeks before my year was up, I had a call from a man who represented Lerner and Loewe. He asked me how long a contract I had with The Boyfriend, and I said, "A year," and he almost fell off the wire. He said, "My god, we all thought you had a two-year contract, like everyone else in the company. We're thinking of you for the musical we're going to do of Pygmalion." And I thought, What are these Americans going to do to poor George Bernard Shaw? I really had grave doubts as to what it was all going to be like.

At any rate, I auditioned for Mr. Lerner and Mr. Loewe and also for Richard Rodgers. Rodgers was doing Pipe Dream at the time, so I sang for him, and he said he would very much like to have me in his show. My manager said, "We have to tell you that she is being offered another musical, My Fair Lady by Lerner and Loewe." Dick was absolutely wonderful about it and said My Fair Lady would be the wiser move. Anyway, I got the part, and things went on from there.

What were your reactions to My Fair Lady?

First of all, during the rehearsal period, then after it opened and it was such a smash hit. For a start, the impact of what had happened-what we had and the effect on the public-really didn't hit me until about three months after we opened. I was so completely involved with the show, so immersed in it, and so desperately busy trying to catch up with everyone else and to get it under my belt, that I didn't have time to think about what the show was, how very good it was.

We all felt that we had a marvelous show on our hands. There was a great feeling about it out of town, but of course there's always room for improvement. And thanks to Moss Hart's guiding hand, a show that was almost flawless to begin with got better as we neared Broadway. For me, My Fair Lady was fairly disastrous during rehearsals, because I had never done a straight acting job in my life until then.

Oh, yes, I had done one bomb in England, an incredible disaster. This was between Cinderella and The Boyfriend. I accepted a very limited engagement, thank god, and played a Southern belle from Tennessee. The story was all about Sodom and Gomorrah and bootleg whisky and Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt. I can't tell you what went on. It was a disaster. You've never heard a worse Southern accent than mine. I got pregnant by a traveling salesman-in the play, of course-and thank god the miserable thing closed before we got to London.

So when it came to My Fair Lady, I found it a monstrous task. I was all right as far as the songs went, I think; but when it came to the acting, I was awful.

Poor Moss was getting desperate, and I'm sure Rex was thinking, Good lord, what have we here? I wouldn't be at all surprised if there weren't times when they all thought of sending me back to London. Anyway, Moss said, "Look, I think I had better have forty-eight hours alone with her, to see what can be done."

So then came that dreaded weekend. We rehearsed on the New Amsterdam roof, a marvelous, filthy and theater, a famous place. Moss bullied and pleaded and cajoled and encouraged. He was just wonderful, and he did a kind of Svengali thing on me. Whereby-come Monday, though I probably dropped halfway back again through sheer nerves at facing the company-he had really given me an insight as to how the part should be played. I really did need a strong guiding hand; I had no idea of what they wanted until they told me. It was such a big musical, and I had so little courage. I didn't know what Eliza should be-a whiny girl or a gutsy girl, a weak character or a strong one. Moss supplied the character, the route, the direction, and as the nights went by, I absorbed Eliza more and more.

I think I learned more about show business during the run of My Fair Lady than in anything else I've done. I was never really sure, on any given night, that I had enough strength to do the whole thing flat out. It was such an enormous show-the screaming, the singing purely, the singing on the chest, the great dramatic requirements and everything-that I honestly don't think I could do it today. I was worried about my throat-I wasn't sure that vocally I was going to make it-and I finally learned when I could give and when I couldn't. I learned an awful lot about my limitations, or just how far I could be pushed when necessary. Playing Camelot was just my size and weight, and I enjoyed it enormously-I loved doing that show.

It wasn't until I was doing the London run of My Fair Lady that I really began to examine my feeling about show business.

Up until then I had been in the business as a sort of duty-I didn't know what else to do, and it never occurred to me that I could do anything else. I'd never really liked it; I felt it was a chore, and I hated the touring. But as I began to feel more secure about it all, I began to love it. It was very exciting. I began to really discipline myself and to practice much harder. I became a less haphazard performer.

The Americanization of Emily offered Julie Andrews in a whole new dimension. How did you enjoy that role?

I loved it. You see, the only bad thing about doing My Fair Lady, aside from the incredible hard work, was the fact that I got instantly typed. I don't know whether it was the word "lady" in the title or what, but I became the British square of all time, and it seemed impossible to lick the image.

If I wanted to go on television, they wanted me to sing something from that or from The Boyfriend, and I'd say, "Please, let me do something else, something wacky or mad or sexy or whatever." But no. Then came Emily, and I wanted it, I did it, and I loved it. James Garner was wonderful to work with. I adored him for making some difficult scenes so easy for me.

How did you feel about missing out on My Fair Lady as a movie?

I didn't feel too badly, for two reasons. At the time, I was being offered Mary Poppins, which is great compensation. And you know, after three and a half years of My Fair Lady, I didn't mind missing the screen version that much. I was disappointed, and I felt that I would have been able to do a lot with the part on film that would have been fun, but I have no sour grapes at all about not being cast. I understand the box-office reasons, and all, and I'm thrilled that Audrey did it, and I think she was marvelous.

So apart from the initial, "Oh, well, there-it's gone. I mustn't think about it any more," I didn't mind too much. Now, of course, it seems like the best thing that could possibly have happened, because I would have forever been typed as that square lady. The danger, now, is that I'll be considered the nanny of all time, after The Sound of Music, where I play a governess, and Mary Poppins, where I'm a nanny. Emily saved my life.

I spoke with P. L. Travers recently, and we discussed her book Mary Poppins and you at great length. She seemed to think you were a bit lovelier than her Mary Poppins but she ended up pleased.

You know, she called me the day after I had my baby. This was between Camelot and Poppins, and I was in the London clinic, when this strange woman's voice came on the phone and said, "Hello, talk to me, P. L/ Traverse here. I want to here your voice." And I said, "Oh, dear, what can I say?" "When can we meet?" she said. And I replied, "Well, I'm feeling rather weak at the moment," and asked her if we could leave it for a while. Well, when we met, she sort of walked around me-mentally walked around me, at any rate-and we instantly liked each other enormously. I used to send her long letters from Hollywood about how the filming was going. She's a dear.

Do you feel any obligation to the role you play? Onstage or in a motion picture? To yourself or the audience?

Oh, there's an enormous obligation, but it's mostly to the role, because if that is done well, the rest will follow. In trying to take the saccharin out of some of the things in The Sound of Music, it occurred to me that Maria couldn't be sweetness and light with seven kids on her hands all the time. Seven kids would have to get on one's nerves, at some point or other, so I tried once in a while to show that I might be slightly exhausted by them. For instance, on the bed when they ask me to do this or that, and say, "What kind of things do you mean?" just before I go into "My Favorite Things," I thought, Oh, my god! Children always do ask questions like that. Maria must have had moments when she bordered on being tired and cross:

Is there ever a moment, though, when you are someone else? An Eliza or a Maria or whoever?

Well, on Broadway, it seems that once you finally get your characterization worked out, you can be you for the day, and then at performance time you fling yourself into the role. Actually, I need about an hour or an hour and a half before the performance to think about what I'm going to do. With a movie. however, there is some area of your mind that must constantly retain the role until the picture is completed. The whole thing is such a jigsaw, each shot is hardly ever filmed in sequence, and there are a thousand other things to distract you. You have to hold the whole thing together in your head until the filming's done. I like the challenge.

Did you do any special studying before you tackled Eliza?

I ran the original movie with Wendy Hiller over and over again and bawled every time. I studied cockney with an American professor of phonetics here I was English, learning cockney from an American!-but I'm not very good at accents. Most of the work, I frankly confess, happened during performances-I didn't know what I was doing until about three months after we opened. Even with all of Moss Hart's help, I had to learn onstage, so to speak, and it's the best way to learn -if you can get away with it!

As far as the theater is concerned, does any individual night's performance depend on the reactions of the house?

Heavens, It's almost the biggest part of the challenge. Nobody knows you were good last night except the people who were there. So each night is entirely new and must be good. You know, also, the weather makes a great difference. If it's raining, everybody seems to cough, and you have to time your lines to get the laugh across. If it's terribly hot, the programs are going, and you've got a loud rustle to contend with.

Then again, you might have a cold or a headache, or your leading man might have a cold or a headache or even be off, and you have to adjust to slightly different circumstances each night. There are the orchestrations to listen to all over again, and there's always one scene you didn't do well the night before, and you can't wait to get to do it a little better. Or there's the laugh that disappeared-why? You had it three weeks running. Why did you lose it last night. All these things are maddening, but they're fun.

Have you had any difficulty making the transition from your non celebrity days to the present?

Well, the celebrity part of it has sort of just happened, so I don't know what problems will be presented. You know, it's been more than ten years since I first came to America. Although I can recognize the girl who came here in nineteen fifty-four, it's hard to identify with her. So I suppose I have changed a great deal over the years.

Have you any idea of the mark - the permanent mark, if anything is written on materials more substantial than water-you'd like to leave as an actress and singer?

What I suppose I'd like to be, one day, is someone who is fascinating. You know-a person you want to look at or see, no matter what she's doing. I think what I'm trying to say is that I'd like to be an original, to be myself and not a pale copy of anyone else. You know, the really marvelous actors and actresses we admire have qualities that can't be pinned down. I suppose I would like to be that type of performer if I were to leave a mark.

A final, simple, corny question: How does it feel to be a star?

I suck my thumb a lot.



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