Glynis Johns has passed away at the age of 100

Glynis Johns has passed away at the age of 100

Glynis Johns, the beloved actress famous for playing Mrs. Banks in 'Mary Poppins,' has passed away at the age of 100.

Glynis Johns, the accomplished actress who rose to fame in the late 1940s as the playful mermaid Miranda, graced the screen as a singing suffragist in Disney's "Mary Poppins," and earned a Tony Award for her role in the musical "A Little Night Music," where she introduced Stephen Sondheim's timeless classic "Send in the Clowns," passed away on January 4 at the age of 100 in a Los Angeles assisted-living home. Her manager, Mitch Clem, confirmed her demise without specifying a cause.

Known for her infectious energy and distinctive husky voice, which she humorously attributed to "slightly twisted" vocal cords allowing air to hit "the soprano and the contralto at the same time," Ms. Johns left an indelible mark on the entertainment industry with nearly 60 films, numerous TV appearances, and a plethora of theatrical productions.

Described by film historian David Shipman as a captivating blend of sex appeal and quirky charm, Ms. Johns earned the title of "one of the more entrancing heroines of the ’40s" and was among the very few in British films who mastered the art of comedy. Despite becoming a leading box-office attraction in England, she found little joy in stardom, candidly expressing to a reporter, "It is not a pleasant way of earning a living. … It has made me ill, exhausted, and unhappy.

She attributed the challenges in at least one of her four marriages to the demands of being a leading lady. Nonetheless, by the early 1960s, she had embraced a sustained and diverse career as a character actress, infusing even average productions with her unique charm.

Ms. Johns, hailing from a show-business family spanning four generations, inherited her artistic inclinations. Born to parents touring in South Africa with a musical revue, her family later settled in England. From a young age, Ms. Johns immersed herself in ballet studies, achieving a teaching certificate at a remarkable age of 10. Her distinctive china-blue eyes, athletic prowess, and a voice described as "like honey over graham crackers" by one arts writer propelled her into a successful journey in both stage and film.

After early roles in juvenile characters, she catapulted to stardom with "Miranda" (1948), portraying a fishtailed seductress whose flowing blond hair strategically covers her upper body.

The film, a comedic fantasy featuring a boldly forward heroine, achieved remarkable commercial success. Ms. Johns revisited the role in the 1954 Technicolor sequel, "Mad About Men," and amassed numerous credits in other films, although few left a lasting impact. Nevertheless, Ms. Johns consistently earned praise for her spirited performances, whether alongside James Stewart in the aviation drama "No Highway in the Sky" (1951), Alec Guinness in the comic satire "The Promoter" (1952), or Richard Todd in the live-action Disney swashbucklers "The Sword and the Rose" and "Rob Roy" (both 1953).

Venturing into Hollywood, she portrayed a charming maiden in "The Court Jester" (1956), a musical comedy set in medieval England and starring Danny Kaye. During the same year, she and Hermione Gingold made brief yet memorable appearances as "sporting ladies" — portraying prostitutes — in the star-studded production "Around the World in 80 Days.

Her remarkable talents earned her an Academy Award nomination for the supporting role of an earthy innkeeper in "The Sundowners" (1960), a poignant drama set in the Australian outback alongside Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.

While "Mary Poppins" (1964) primarily showcased Julie Andrews as the singing English nursemaid, Ms. Johns left an indelible mark with her delightful eccentricity and commendable singing as Mrs. Banks, the children's mother.

On the television front, Ms. Johns starred alongside Keith Andes in the short-lived CBS sitcom "Glynis" (1963), portraying a husband-and-wife team of amateur sleuths. She also took on the role of the henchwoman Lady Penelope Peasoup in the 1960s series "Batman" and made various guest appearances. Simultaneously, she participated in low-grade horror movies, maintaining a robust theatrical career.

A significant chapter in her career was marked by Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “A Little Night Music” (1973), inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s droll romantic roundelay “Smiles of a Summer Night” (1955). Ms. Johns secured the role of the world-weary courtesan and actress Desiree Armfeldt, chosen for her acting prowess rather than her singing voice.

Director and producer Harold Prince shared an anecdote about Sondheim's dedication during a preview for a VIP audience. Sondheim, after an all-night session composing a song, arrived bleary-eyed on the day of the preview. The song in question was "Send In the Clowns," a poignant ballad reflecting on life's missed opportunities. Both Sondheim and Ms. Johns were enamored with it. Prince recounted the moment to Sondheim biographer Meryle Secrest, mentioning that, impressed by Glynis Johns' audacity, she said, 'If you’ll put the lyrics on a piece of paper I’ll sing it in front of the audience today.

Sondheim revealed to Secrest that he crafted the song to complement what Ms. Johns described as her "small, silvery voice," asserting that "nobody can sing it as well as she." The deliberate word choices, notably the famous opening line, "Isn't it rich?" maximized the impact by necessitating a breath after the "ch" sound.

According to Sondheim, professional singers who subsequently recorded the song, such as Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins, were, in essence, too adept at smooth phrasing to capture its bitter essence.

The production, with a run of 601 performances, secured five additional Tony Awards alongside Ms. Johns's win for Best Actress in a Musical, including Best Musical. Reflecting on it, she expressed to the Associated Press that "Send In the Clowns" was "the greatest gift I’ve ever been given in the theater.

Glynis Margaret Johns was born in Pretoria, South Africa, on Oct. 5, 1923. Her father was the Welsh-born actor Mervyn Johns. Her mother, Australian-born concert pianist Alys Steele-Payne, hailed from a family of entertainers.

After various stage performances in London, including a notable role as a cruel student in Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour,” Ms. Johns secured a film contract and excelled as Ralph Richardson’s high-strung adolescent daughter in “South Riding” (1938). Her career received a significant boost when she starred alongside Laurence Olivier in “49th Parallel” (1941), portraying a young Canadian Hutterite villager encountering stranded German U-boat crew members.

Ms. Johns collaborated with her father in “The Halfway House” (1944), a ghost story where she played the daughter of a mysterious innkeeper. She brought a worldly zest to the role of a friend liberating Kerr from the routine of married life in “Vacation From Marriage” (1945).

In later supporting roles, she infused much-needed energy into “The Chapman Report” (1962), portraying a poetry-spouting housewife who propositions a football-playing Adonis only to find him a boorish lover. She also enlivened the lackluster comedy “Lock Up Your Daughters!” (1969) as the gleefully lecherous Mrs. Squeezum.

In some of her concluding screen appearances, she portrayed the callous mother of Kevin Spacey in “The Ref” (1994) and took on the role of a grandmother in the Sandra Bullock romantic comedy “While You Were Sleeping” (1995).

Onstage, Ms. Johns left a lasting impact in a 1956 Broadway revival of George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” embodying the idealistic title character alongside Charles Laughton as her munitions-maker father. She also gained acclaim for her roles as four long-suffering women in John Mortimer’s sex comedy “Come As You Are,” a London hit in 1970.

Her performance with Rex Harrison and Stewart Granger in a 1989 Broadway revival of W. Somerset Maugham’s romantic comedy “The Circle” was viewed by critics as an opportunity to witness the three seasoned performers — “sly old foxes at play,” as noted by New York Times reviewer Frank Rich.

Ms. Johns, who retired in her late 70s, acknowledged not feeling like a “whole person” offstage, and colleagues described her as insecure and even frightened when not performing. Andes, her sitcom co-star, once told TV Guide: “Glynis is a whole crowd of people. You’re never sure which one you’ll meet from hour to hour.”

Her marriages were brief. Her initial union with actor Anthony Forwood took a surprising turn when he left her for movie star Dirk Bogarde. Subsequent marriages to business executives David Foster and Cecil Henderson, as well as author Elliott Arnold, concluded in divorce. Gareth Forwood, her son from her first marriage, passed away in 2007.

She is survived by a grandson and three great-grandchildren, as confirmed by her manager.

Reflecting on her career as an actress, Ms. Johns once shared with the Times, “I became a professional at 12, so it’s always been my life. Later on, I wanted to lead what I thought of as a ‘normal’ existence, but I soon found I wasn’t as normal away from the theater as in it. Acting is my highest form of intelligence, the time when I use the best part of my brain. I was always told, by my married friends, for example, that I could apply that intelligence to something else, some other aspect of living, but I can’t. I don’t have the same flair in other things.”


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