English actor Glynis Johns, who played the daffy suffragette mother Mrs. Banks in the classic film “Mary Poppins,” died Thursday at an assisted living home in Los Angeles, her manager Mitch Clem confirmed to Variety. She was 100.
“Glynis powered her way through life with intelligence, wit, and a love for performance, affecting millions of lives,” Clem said in a statement. “She entered my life early in my career and set a very high bar on how to navigate this industry with grace, class, and truth. Your own truth. Her light shined very brightly for 100 years. She had a wit that could stop you in your tracks powered by a heart that loved deeply and purely. Today is a somber day for Hollywood. Not only do we mourn the passing of our dear Glynis, but we mourn the end of the golden age of Hollywood.”
Johns won a Tony for her role as Desiree Armfeldt in the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” introducing the song “Send in the Clowns” — written for her by Sondheim. In addition she was Oscar-nominated for her supporting role in 1960’s “The Sundowners.”
The actor was known for a delightfully husky, breathy voice, a buoyant persona and, when she was young, a charming flirtatiousness.
Johns had been an actor in England for more than 20 years when she was cast in Disney’s adaptation of P.L. Travers’ “Mary Poppins” novels. The trouble was that Johns thought she had been cast as Mary Poppins. To help the medicine go down when he told her the news that she had, in fact, been cast as Mrs. Banks, Walt Disney ordered his legendary musical team, the Sherman Brothers, to write a big number for the character. They made Mrs. Banks a suffragette, which explained why she was away from the house and a nanny was needed, and Johns performed “Sister Suffragette” in the final film. (Over the years many have been bothered by the fact that this proto-feminist is so subservient to Mr. Banks whenever they are at home together, but this was certainly not a decision made by Johns.)
Johns had a long career in English films, but more recently she had appeared in American movies including 1994’s “The Ref,” starring Denis Leary, in which she played the mother of Kevin Spacey’s squabbling character.
Critic James Berardinelli said, “Glynis Johns is also excellent as Spacey’s mother. She takes command of her scenes even when star Dennis Leary can’t. For her age she looks fantastic and it is nice to see an older actress playing a character that isn’t just used as a throwaway device for senile jokes and aging.”
Johns played the grandmother of the temporarily comatose Peter Gallagher in 1995 romantic comedy “While You Were Sleeping,” which paired Sandra Bullock and Bill Pullman. Alas, her function was to appear weak and easily startled — so much so that her character might stroke out if the film’s central deception was revealed.
Johns’ final screen appearance came in Molly Shannon vehicle “Superstar” (1999), in which she played Grandma.
In “The Sundowners” (1960), for which Johns drew a supporting actress Oscar nom, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr played a couple who, with their son, wander the Australian countryside, he content with the life, she wanting to settle down. Describing the others in the film, the New York Times highlighted “the bright, bouncy barmaid-inn keeper, played richly by Glynis Johns.”
Johns had made her film debut in 1938, while still a teen, but she didn’t break through until 10 years later, when she played a mermaid in “Miranda.” The role and the sensibility of the film were perfect for her (Peter Blackmore adapted his own stage play), and she had a hit — so much so that a sequel, “Mad About Men,” was released in 1954.
In “Miranda” she played off David Tomlinson, who would later portray Mr. Banks in “Mary Poppins.”
Johns had a long stage career that saw her make her London debut in 1935. Eight years later she was starring in “Peter Pan.” She made her Broadway debut in “Gertie” in 1952 and returned for the title role in “Major Barbara,” directed by Charles Laughton, four years later.
On film, Johns often gave memorable performances even in supporting roles. A fine example was 1959’s “Shake Hands With the Devil,” a pro-IRA film in which Johns had scenes opposite James Cagney in which she, playing a barmaid, is thrashed by his violent IRA leader. The actor also made an impression in the Danny Kaye vehicle “The Court Jester,” playing a beautiful forest maiden who assists his character.
Johns, who had occasionally guested on U.S. TV series since 1952, took a stab at American series television twice in the early 1960s. She and James Coburn starred in NBC adventure pilot “Safari,” based on “The African Queen,” and then in 1963 she had her own sitcom, “Glynis,” which ran briefly on CBS. After her next project —”Mary Poppins”— increased her visibility in the U.S., CBS ran reruns of “Glynis.” She returned to U.S. TV a couple of years later for several episodes of “Batman” as Lady Penelope Peasoup. She starred with Jimmy Stewart in the 1965 family comedy “Dear Brigitte,” and Variety described her as a “standout.” In 1971 Johns starred with Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole in the film “Under Milk Wood,” an adaptation of a Dylan Thomas radio play that was released in 1973.
A highlight of Johns’ career came in 1973 when she starred as Desiree Armfeldt in the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” introducing the song “Send in the Clowns” and earning a Tony for her performance. Reviewing the songs in the musical, the New York Times said, “There is that opening waltz and the climatic “Send in the Clowns,” sung with haunting effect by Glynis Johns in her sensuously musical croak.” (Eighteen years later the actor appeared in a Los Angeles revival of the musical, this time playing Madame Armfeldt, the mother of the character she played in the original.)
In 1982 Johns was part of the stunningly impressive cast (Angela Lansbury, Christopher Plummer and Bette Davis, among others) of miniseries “Little Gloria… Happy at Last,” about Gloria Vanderbilt.
The next year she guested on “Cheers” as the mother of Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers. She did TV work over the next seven or eight years, including the inevitable “Murder, She Wrote” and another short-lived series in which she was a regular, “Coming of Age.”
In 1989-90 Johns made her final appearance on Broadway, starring with Stewart Granger and Rex Harrison in the W. Somerset Maugham play “The Circle.”
Johns was the daughter of actor Mervyn Johns, and she was accidentally born in Pretoria, South Africa, while the family was on a performance tour there. She would later appear with her father in three films, “The Halfway House,” “The Magic Box” and “The Sundowners.”
The actor was married and divorced four times, to Anthony Forwood, David Ramsey Foster, Cecil Henderson and Elliot Arnold. She is survived by a son, Gareth, by Forwood.