On the Eve of 'Sound of Music' Reunion, Julie Andrews Reveals "I Was a Very Sad Little Girl"

A half-century after winning an Oscar for her first film and starring in the biggest blockbuster to that point, the legendary actress, nearing her 80th birthday, reflects on a life that hasn't always been supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
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Julie Andrews at the 87th Academy Awards on Feb. 22

The 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music, the 1965 movie musical that smashed box-office records in its day and taught a generation of kids their do-re-mi's, has thrust Julie Andrews back into the limelight. On March 26, when the movie brings up the curtain at the TCM Classic Film Festival (which runs through March 29), Andrews and her co-star Christopher Plummer will be on hand at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood to join in the celebration. The Sound of Music — along with Mary Poppins, which was released a year before it — established Andrews' image as cheery and chipper, a practically perfect fairy godmother-like governess of sorts. And though Andrews in person exudes just that sort of warmth, in reality, her life has not always been so sunny. She's endured twists and turns even more harrowing than the Von Trapp family's Alpine escape to freedom.

During a recent lunch at a restaurant near her home in the Hamptons, Andrews, 79, was as lovely as advertised, and also incredibly down to earth, driving herself and her manager to our meeting in her SUV (can you imagine pulling up to a stoplight and seeing Mary Poppins in the car beside you?), chatting amiably with the staff (she gave the hostess a ride home afterward); gushing about her family ("I've got four children in L.A., another here and grandchildren galore"); and insisting, as any good grandmother must, that I order more food.

Read more 'Sound of Music' Stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer to Reunite at TCM Classic Film Festival

While it might be tempting to assume, after all these years, that Andrews was born to play this real-life role, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, when she began work on her first film, she was not yet 30 and had already lived a very full — and very dark — life.

"I was a very sad little girl," she confides. She started singing publicly at age 10 in her native England when her stepfather, who had a vaudeville act with her mother, recognized that she had a very special voice. She soon joined their act and before long became its main attraction, ultimately carrying on without them, working constantly in order to support herself and her impoverished parents — while also fending off her stepfather, who, she has written, made sexual advances on multiple occasions. (If that's not enough drama, she later learned that the man she had known as her birth father was, in fact, not; her mother revealed to her that she had been the product of an illicit affair.)

She escaped by joining a company of Brits who took the musical The Boy Friend to Broadway, where she debuted on the night before her 19th birthday. Toward the end of her year with the production, she was invited to audition for a proposed musical adaptation of Pygmalion, by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loew, called My Fair Lady. She landed the part of Eliza Doolittle and stayed with the show, which became a massive hit, for more than three years.

"I did all of my learning on My Fair Lady," she says, noting that at the outset of that "endurance test" — "three-and-a-half years of just shattering your vocal chords together" — she felt confident about her singing but not her acting, while her co-star Rex Harrison felt the reverse. She grew into it, though, and attained such acclaim and popularity that the public was outraged when Jack Warner, who acquired the film rights to the show, cast Audrey Hepburn in the part instead of her — a business calculation that Andrews learned about after moving on to a starring role in another Lerner & Loew Broadway production, Camelot. Lerner broke the news to her: "I so wanted you to do it, Julie, but they wanted a name."

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Andrews' only enduring disappointment about that episode, she says, is that she has no record of her Eliza to show her grandchildren. "I would love to have put something from My Fair Lady down definitively," she says, pointing out that "in those days they didn't archive things." Still, she says of Warner's decision, "I completely understood it. I really didn't expect it. Like so many Broadway productions in those days, they used somebody else to do the movie." Moreover, she never imagined that she could have a film career at all. "I was always told I was not pretty enough," she says matter-of-factly, recalling that she had done a screen test for the producer Joe Pasternak, who had discovered Deanna Durbin, when she was 13 and he was visiting London. "They made me look like Shirley Temple," she recalls, "but it was an absolute disaster."

You can imagine, then, how surprised Andrews was when Walt Disney showed up backstage after a performance of Camelot not to see her mega-famous co-star Richard Burton, like most people, but rather to see her, on the advice of his employee Bill Walsh, about his planned adaptation of P.L. Travers' book Mary Poppins. "He told me about Poppins and then and there asked if I would like to come out to Hollywood to see the drawings that he'd storyboarded and to hear the songs that had been written for the movie," she recalls. "My heart leapt, but I said, 'I can't, Mr. Disney, because I'm afraid I'm three months' pregnant.' At which point he said, 'That's OK, we'll wait!'" (Disney also asked Tony Walton, the set and costume designer Andrews had recently married, what he did, and upon seeing his portfolio "hired him on the spot" to work on the film.)

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Six months later, Andrews gave birth to her first child — and received a call in the hospital from the acerbic Travers. (Travers' story was recently chronicled in Saving Mr. Banks — which Andrews describes as "pretty much the way it was. … She was that much of a tartar!") "She said, 'You're much too pretty [for the part], of course, but you've got the nose for it!'" Andrews, who has always been self-conscious about her nose, chortles, "The first time my nose came through for me!"

She and Walton headed west shortly thereafter. "I was working at Disney and I would pass Warners sometimes," she remarks, "and I would say something very caustic like, 'Thank you very much, Mr. Warner!'"

Interestingly, Andrews would shoot three films before any were seen by the general public. After completing Poppins, she landed the female lead in Arthur Hiller's anti-war drama The Americanization of Emily. ("I still don't think I was right for it, but I'm so pleased they asked me to do it," she says. "I remember thinking to myself, 'I'm glad it's different.'") And then, after Robert Wise, the hottest musical director in the world coming off of West Side Story, asked Disney to show him footage of Poppins, and Disney consented, she was cast in The Sound of Music. ("He never showed his films to anybody when they were still in the cutting process," Andrews says of Disney, marveling at his graciousness, which may have made the difference between her being a legend rather than a one-hit wonder.)

The first of Andrews' films to be released in theaters was Poppins, which became the biggest hit of 1964. At the Golden Globes, she was chosen as the year's best actress in a musical or comedy and, egged on by another person at the Disney table, ended her speech by saying sarcastically, "There is one other person I would like to thank tonight, and that is Mr. Jack Warner" — the mogul was sitting right there — "who made this all possible." She immediately worried she'd made a mistake: "When I said it, I thought, 'This is the end of my career,'" she recalls. "It seemed like there was an endless silence and I thought, 'That's it, I've blown it!' And then the room went, 'Bow! [bursting into applause],'" and even Warner smiled. "He couldn't not with the way the audience reacted," she chuckles.

A further show of how the industry felt about her came when Oscar nominations were announced. Hepburn wasn't nominated for best actress for My Fair Lady, but Andrews was for Poppins. A few weeks later, on the night of the ceremony — by which time The Sound of Music had begun rolling out to the public in a road-show format — the TV cameras repeatedly cut back and forth between Hepburn (who was in attendance as the star of a best picture nominee) and Andrews (accompanied by Walton, who was also nominated), playing up their supposed rivalry. Andrews — donning "the most beautiful, primrose yellow, wonderful, flowing, simple, elegant gown" designed by the legendary Fox costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, whom she had gotten to know on Sound of Music — expected Anne Bancroft to win for The Pumpkin Eater.

"I didn't know a soul [in Hollywood]," she recalls, also noting that she'd "seen that [film] and thought [Bancroft] was superb in it, … and I always felt that dramatic movies won more than musicals." So when Sidney Poitier called her name, she insists it was a surprise. After an unusually long ovation subsided, she said from the podium, "This is lovely. I know you Americans are famous for your hospitality, but this is really ridiculous!" (Andrews confides, "For many a year, I secretly sort of felt that the award that I did get for Poppins was like a token — it was a welcome, I felt, but also maybe because I didn't do My Fair Lady." She has only recently come to accept that she earned it.) Harrison, meanwhile, won best actor for My Fair Lady — and offered his "deep love to two fair ladies."

•••

Between scenes on the 'Sound of Music' set with Christopher Plummer, who, she says, "was a little embarrassed to be in a musical that was light and fluffy when he was a Shakespearean actor." She adds, "He has come to embrace it. He's such a sweet patsy — we're great friends."

While Plummer would later grumble about his involvement in Sound of Music, referring to it as "S&M" and "The Sound of Mucus," Andrews has nothing but happy memories of the project, which took her from the Fox soundstages to the Austrian Alps. She even laughs about the frustrations of filming the movie's famous mountaintop opening. "You've got these huge speakers out in the pines somewhere out on a mountain, and there's a helicopter coming at you from the other end of the field, through the trees, and walk, walk, walk, walk, walk, turn around, cut," she recalls. "They did many takes, and every time the helicopter went around me — it was a jet-engine helicopter — it just leveled me into the ground! So I got angrier and angrier. I kept thinking, 'Doesn't [the pilot] see what he's doing to me? I'm spitting mud and grass and hay!'"

It all proved worth it: When Sound of Music was released in a road-show format, playing single theaters with reserved seating — the '60s equivalent of today's slow platform releases — it helped save Fox, which was reeling from costly flops like Cleopatra. Music eventually landed Andrews a second consecutive best actress Oscar nom, won the best picture Oscar and outgrossed Gone With the Wind to become the highest-grossing film of all time until Jaws came along in 1975. Even today, once its domestic take of $159 million is adjusted for inflation, its $1.2 billion makes it the third-highest domestic grosser behind only Wind and Star Wars. In gratitude, theater owners surveyed by the annual Quigley poll named Andrews the biggest star in the world. "Everything came together," she says. "I just think it was so joy-filled and filled with love, rattling good adventure, scenery, children, nuns — it made for a nice feeling in the pit of your stomach when you came out of the theater."

Andrews was nominated as best actress — for the second year in a row — for 'The Sound of Music.'

But for Andrews, being world famous took some adjusting to. "It did feel like an assault because there wasn't a day when someone didn't want something," she says. And Sound of Music, right on the heels of Poppins, meant she had to fight harder for more provocative roles — though she did manage to land films like George Roy Hill's historical epic Hawaii and Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Torn Curtain, both released in 1966.

The one and only time she ever regretted her association with Sound of Music was several decades ago when she was at her home in Gstaad, Switzerland, getting her voice and body "in shape" for major performances at the London Palladium and in Las Vegas. She had gone for a walk through the hills, where "there was never a soul around" and began singing "The Sound of Music" when "up over the crest of the hill came a whole bunch of Japanese tourists with cameras around their necks." She howls, "You should have seen their faces!"

In 1967, Andrews and Walton divorced (they're still close), and shortly thereafter she began seeing Blake Edwards, a director 13 years her senior with whom she had crossed paths while one was going to and the other was coming from a therapy session. In 1970, Andrews — right on the heels of Star!, a reunion with Wise that flopped badly — agreed to star in Edwards' next project, Darling Lili, which proved to be an even bigger bomb. She didn't work again until four years later. Still, she took it in stride: "I knew that you couldn't do hit after hit after hit," she says, adding of Edwards, "We had bonded so much that it didn't matter." They married in 1969 and went on to make six other films together, including several of her best: 10 (1979), with "darling" Dudley Moore; S.O.B. (1981), in which she famously bared her breasts; Victor/Victoria (1982), a comedy in which she portrayed a woman playing a man playing a woman; and That's Life! (1986). "They were all great," she says wistfully.

Ironically, Andrews soon "became great friends" with Hepburn, whom Edwards had directed in Breakfast at Tiffany's. "We often would meet at the house in Switzerland when she'd be in town — she lived just outside, a little bit down the hill from us," Andrews says. One day, she recalls, Hepburn addressed the elephant in the room. "She said to me, 'You should have done My Fair Lady, Julie — but I didn't have the guts to turn it down.' Which was very sweet. Classy dame."

•••

In more recent years, Andrews' unhappy childhood and lost role-of-a-lifetime have haunted her far less than a June 1997 medical procedure that has had devastating implications: It robbed her of her singing voice. "I won't go into it because I can't," she says, referring to the legal settlement that she reached with the surgeon responsible for her troubles — but she then shed more light than ever before on what happened and how it has affected her.

In 1995, Andrews had agreed to star on Broadway in Edwards' stage adaptation of Victor/Victoria. Her initial commitment was to do it for nine months to a year, but at the end of that period the show still hadn't recouped its investment, so she was asked to stay on — and did so, ending her run after a total of 20 months. "After I came out of Victor/Victoria," she says, "Blake and our producer asked me if I would go on the road with it to 'finish the job,' and I said, 'I can't.' Then they asked me again. Then they asked me again. And finally, with great regret, I thought, 'Well, I guess we are a team,' and I said I would."

But she first had to address an issue with her vocal cords. "I had gotten a small weak spot — I never got a nodule or anything like that, but it would occasionally swell up with a little fluid and things," she says quietly. "Toward the end of that 20 months, I was vocally tired, and [my throat specialist at the time] said, 'You've got something there.' He said it was a cyst, like a blister on your heel that's filled with liquid. It wasn't painful. He said, 'If I don't make you right, you will not survive on the road.' And I knew it was wrong to do it — I didn't respect my own voice enough — and I said yes. And then it went downhill from there, believe me."

It was supposed to be a simple procedure. "I thought in two weeks I'd be strong and safe and could do what I was asked to do," Andrews says. "'In two weeks you'll be singing better than you've ever sung in your life,' [she was told]. And about a year to 18 months later I thought, 'Hello, I'm in big trouble.'" She had lost almost all of her vocal range — and it wasn't coming back. Edwards said at the time, "If you heard it, you'd weep." Andrews says now, "It was like chalk on a blackboard. That's the way it sounded. It still would today — although, by a miracle, I have about six deep bass notes that are still intact." She clarifies, though, "I certainly can't sing. It's still chalk on a blackboard if I use my range. No way."

Some time passed before Andrews accepted what had happened. "I was in denial for a while," she says, and when reality finally began to sink in, "It was devastating. A loss of myself. And I had to finally come to the conclusion that it wasn't only that that I was made of. I mean, I thought my voice was my stock-in-trade, my talent, my soul." Over the ensuing 18 years, though, she has come to realize that is not the case. "I'm over it, really. I always will regret the operation. I wish I'd been strong enough to say no. But I have to forgive myself for doing it because I felt such an obligation to have it done." These days, she says, she even gets "rueful pleasure" out of singing to herself at home.

(She hastens to add, "There is one thing I should say and it's important: Young Broadway singers and anybody who is an orator of any kind — lawyers who have to speak in court or pastors or anyone who has a lot of stress on their vocal cords: You should do the maintenance. You should do whatever it takes to feel fresh and good. What I'm talking about shouldn't turn people away from being vigilant about their voices. They're precious and they should be maintained and cared for by good doctors. I believe that now completely.")

If there is one lesson in Andrews' life that has always held true, it is that you can throw troubles at her, but you can't keep her down. "I can't not work," she says, "so we [she and her firstborn, Emma Walton Hamilton] started our little publishing company, quite by accident, and it gave me something to do. I was bemoaning my fate to her one day and saying, 'You have no idea what [losing my voice] is like.' And she said, 'Oh, Mom, I know it must be terrible — but now you've found a different way of using your voice.' What she said hit true right when it mattered, and I felt this great sort of weight drop away, and then I was able to begin recovery."

She and Emma began churning out children's books, one of which — The Great American Mousical, about a mouse that lives underneath a Broadway theater — she is now working to bring to Broadway. She also appeared in a number of non-singing roles that endeared her to a whole new generation, especially the Princess Diaries and Shrek films. And other appealing offers kept coming in. Regrettably, she had to turn down several plum parts because of Edwards' failing health and/or her own sporadic ankle troubles, including one in a film that ended up receiving a best picture Oscar nomination in 2014.

In 2010, after 41 years of marriage, Edwards — "the man who made me laugh the most in my life" — died of pneumonia at the age of 88. It was a painful but not unexpected loss, and she has done her best to carry on, as she knows he wanted her to do. "Grief is strange," she remarks. "It occasionally comes up and catches you unawares and hits you in the solar plexus or whatever." Retirement, however, has never crossed her mind. "I've been working all my life," she says, adding, "I wouldn't know how not to."

•••

A half-century after the moviegoing public fell in love with Andrews, the affair continues. That was clear at the Feb. 22 Academy Awards when Lady Gaga performed a three-song tribute to Sound of Music. At its conclusion, a radiant Andrews emerged from the wings to the loudest and longest standing ovation of the night.

Why does she engender such a response? Perhaps it's because she represents a connection to a different and, many would argue, better time in Hollywood's history — and in our own. On top of her tremendous talent, she seems to be as good as we once were and as good as we wish we could still be. And, though she's been bruised, she's still standing.

"With luck, if I do my job well enough, I can make people forget for three hours, in a movie or a show, that there's a tax man or that the kids have the measles or whatever it is," she says. "I'm a very, very lucky lady. Really."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

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