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Glynis Johns, a Tony Victor and Actress in ‘Mary Poppins,’ Passes Away at 100


Glynis Johns, the British performer who in a trans-Atlantic career that continued for over 60 years earned a Tony Award for her role in “A Little Night Music,” giving husky, emotion-rich voice to the show’s most unforgettable number, “Send In the Clowns,” and portrayed an exuberant Edwardian suffragist in the Disney movie classic “Mary Poppins,” passed away on Thursday in Los Angeles. She was 100.

The demise, at an assisted living facility, was validated by her manager, Mitch Clem.

Ms. Johns was 49 and on the verge of her fourth separation when the Stephen Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music” opened at the Shubert Theater in February 1973. The New York Times depicted her character, Desirée Armfeldt, as “a slightly world‐weary and extremely lovewise actress in turn‐of‐the‐century Sweden.”

The critics admired her. To Clive Barnes of The Times, “the misty-voiced and glistening-eyed Glynis Johns was all tremulous understanding.”

To Walter Kerr, also writing in The Times, she was “that cousin of bullfrogs and consort of weary gods”; she was “discreet, dangerous … and gratifyingly funny.”

When she grabbed the award for best actress in a musical at the 1973 Tony Awards presentation, she appreciated the show’s “whole company” who “have given me back a joy that I had lost in the theater.”

Preceding that, she had been best known as a very different sort of character. In “Mary Poppins,” Disney’s award-winning 1965 family musical, Ms. Johns was Mrs. Banks, an enthusiastic wife, mother and political activist in 1910 London.

While her two small children were having adventures with their supernatural nanny, memorably portrayed by Julie Andrews, Mrs. Banks was putting on a sash that said “Votes for Women” and making plans to “throw things at the prime minister.”

Ms. Johns’s easy flexibility suggested that she might have been born to act, but it had not been her only passion, as she told The Los Angeles Times in 1991. “I wanted to be a scientist,” she said. “I would’ve loved to go on and on and on at the university. But you can’t do everything in life.”

“And I didn’t have any choice at the time,” she added. World War II “broke out when I was 16.”

Glynis Margaret Payne Johns was born on Oct. 5, 1923, in Pretoria, South Africa, where her parents, both of whom were artists, were on tour.

Her father, Mervyn Johns, was a Welsh actor who went on to a prolific London theater and film career,; he was perhaps best known as Bob Cratchit in the 1951 British film “Scrooge” (released as “A Christmas Carol” in the United States). Her mother, Alice Maude (Steele-Wareham) Johns, who was Australian, was a concert pianist who played under the stage name Alyse Steele-Payne.

Glynis studied at the London Ballet School from the age of 5. When she made her stage debut in the children’s play “Buckie’s Bears” at 12, she became the fourth generation — on her mother’s side — to make a career in the theater.

And she grew up onstage. In 1936, she was the troublemaking schoolgirl who drove the plot in Lillian Hellman’s play “The Children’s Hour.” A year later she played the fairy tale heroine in “A Kiss for Cinderella”; in 1943 she played the title role in “Peter Pan.”

She made her film debut in “South Riding” (1938) as Ralph Richardson’s daughter. She acted in a war drama, “49th Parallel” (1941), starring Laurence Olivier. In “An Ideal Husband” (1947), she was Oscar Wilde’s frivolous and spirited Mabel Chiltern.

When Ms. Johns’s movies were shown in the United States, they were met with genuine, if faint, praise. Of “Miranda” (1949), a comedy about a mermaid who wanted to see London, Bosley Crowther wrote in The Times, “Glynis Johns is bewitching — one half of her is, at least — as the coyly flirtatious finny creature.” When she returned in “State Secret” (1950), with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mr. Crowther found her “very saucy and explosive as the music hall girl.”

Precisely when she made her Hollywood screen debut is a matter of opinion. “No Highway in the Sky” (1951), in which she played a soft-spoken and very military-looking flight attendant, was a 20th Century Fox picture that starred James Stewart but was filmed in England.

She also made two Disney films abroad that were British co-productions. In “The Sword and the Rose” (1953), she played Henry VIII’s little sister; in “Rob Roy” (1953), the Scottish freedom fighter’s wife.

She appeared in more than a dozen Hollywood movies, displaying aristocratic restraint as frequently as rowdy working-class enthusiasm.

Ms. Johns was a proper turn-of-the-20th-century Southern belle fed up with her exasperating husband (Jackie Gleason) in the comedy “Papa’s Delicate Condition” (1963) and a loquacious Australian innkeeper in “The Sundowners” (1960), which starred Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, and for which she received an Academy Award nomination.

In addition to playing the London suffragist in “Mary Poppins” (1965), she was the comic relief in “The Chapman Report” (1962), a 19th-century Scottish immigrant in the drama “All Mine to Give” (1957), James Stewart’s wife in “Dear Brigitte” (1965), a comedy about a math prodigy, and an author having too much fun to finish her book in “Don’t Just Stand There” (1968).

Proud of her Welsh heritage, she appeared in “Under Milk Wood” (1971), a British film version of the poet Dylan Thomas’s radio play that starred and was partly narrated by Richard Burton. As Myfanwy Price, a Welsh fishing village’s dressmaker and sweet-shop owner, sheyearned fervently about the draper across town.

In “The Ref” (1994), she portrayed Kevin Spacey’s difficult mother. In “While You Were Sleeping” (1995), she portrayed the unconscious hero’s delicate grandmother. Her final film role was in “Superstar” (1999), a comedy in which she portrayed Molly Shannon’s assertive grandmother who accidentally hit a priest with her motorized wheelchair.

On American television, she starred as a detective novelist in a short-lived series called “Glynis” (1963), and played the elegantly dressed mother of Diane Chambers in an episode of “Cheers.” In the 1982 mini-series “Little Gloria … Happy at Last,” she played Gloria Vanderbilt’s grandmother, a lively and fashionable older woman.

But Ms. Johns’ career began on the stage, where she frequently returned. Her Broadway debut was in “Gertie” (1952), and despite receiving positive reviews — The Times said, “Quietly humorous in everything she does” — the play closed after just five performances.

She captivated Broadway audiences as the lead character in George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” (1956), a wealthy heiress working in a Salvation Army shelter, appearing alongside Charles Laughton. The production was described by The Times’s Brooks Atkinson as “a standoff” between Laughton and Shaw, while The Daily News hailed the comedy as “one of the best in many seasons.”

On Broadway, she also appeared in a second Shaw play, “Too True to Be Good” (1963), alongside Lillian Gish.

In London, her stage roles included portraying Anne of Cleves in “The King’s Mare” (1966) and Alma Rattenbury, a notorious 1930s murderer, in “Cause Célèbre” (1977). She embarked on an international tour in the early 1970s, performing in England, the United States, and Australia in Noël Coward’s romantic comedy “The Marquise.”

Her final appearance on Broadway was opposite Rex Harrison in his last stage production, in W. Somerset Maugham’s comedy “The Circle” (1989).

Ms. Johns was married and divorced four times. Her first husband, from 1942 to 1948, was Anthony Forwood, a British actor. She then married David R. Foster (1952-56) and Cecil Henderson (1960-62), both businessmen, and finally Elliott Arnold (1964-73), an American feature writer and novelist.

Her only child, a son, Gareth Forwood, passed away in 2007. She is survived by a grandson and three great-grandchildren. She was a long-time resident of Los Angeles.

Perhaps it was fortunate that destiny led her into the entertainment industry. In her younger years, as reported in a 1973 article in The Times, she said, “I longed for what I perceived as a ‘typical’ life, but I quickly realized that I felt more normal within the theater than outside of it.”

She concluded, “Acting is the most intelligent form of expression for me, the time when I engage the most active part of my mind.”

Reporting by Alex Traub.



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