Glynis Johns, Mary Poppins star and Send in the Clowns singer, dies at 100

Who is Glynis Johns?

Glynis Johns as Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins

The world dims a little today with the passing of Glynis Johns, a radiant talent best known for her iconic role as Winifred Banks in the beloved Mary Poppins movie and her soul-stirring rendition of the song Send in the Clowns. Johns’ career spanned over seven decades, leaving an indelible mark both on stage and screen. As a tribute to her undeniable contributions to the entertainment industry, let’s step back in time and journey through the chapters of her illustrious career that left an enduring legacy in the hearts of audiences worldwide.

Glynis Johns’ death

On Thursday, January 4, 2024, Glynis Johns passed away of natural causes at an assisted living home in Los Angeles. She was 100.

Her manager and publicist Mitch Clem announced her death. “Today’s a sad day for Hollywood,” Clem said in a statement. “She is the last of the last of old Hollywood.”

With the 2020 passing of Olivia de Havilland, Johns became the oldest living Oscar nominee in any acting category. In 2021, with Betty White’s death, she became the oldest living Disney Legend.

Glynis Johns’ storied career in stage, film, and television

Broadway Brilliance

Glynis Johns made her West End debut in 1931 at age 8 in Elmer Rice’s Judgment Day, but wouldn’t make her first Broadway appearance until 1952 when she played the title role in Enid Bagnold’s play Gertie. She went on to star in two other Broadway productions: 1956’s Major Barbara and 1963’s Too Good To Be True. However, it was Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 masterpiece, A Little Night Music, that truly etched Johns’ name in Broadway history.

The role of Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, written specifically for her, became her crowning achievement. Her nuanced portrayal of the aging actress, culminating in the heart-wrenching Send in the Clowns, earned her a Tony Award in 1973, a moment that solidified her place in theatre legend.

Sondheim wrote the song Send in the Clowns specifically for her. The tune then went on to become a popular standard, with versions by Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, and Barbra Streisand, among many others.

A scene from Mary Poppins featuring Glynis Johns
A scene from Mary Poppins featuring Glynis Johns

Silver Screen Magic

Johns’ charm and talent soon captivated audiences on the silver screen. Her most iconic role arguably remains the eccentric Winifred Banks, a liberated, if harried, mother in desperate need of a nanny in the hit 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins starring Julie Andrews in the titular role. As Mrs. Banks, Johns performed one of the more memorable tunes in the movie, Sister Suffragette. However, her range extended far beyond musicals.

In 1960, her poignant performance as Mrs. McPhee in The Sundowners earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, showcasing her dramatic depth. She also shone in the 1955 movie The Court Jester, where her comedic timing and chemistry with Danny Kaye were a recipe for laughter, and in the 1972 film Under Milk Wood, where she brought tenderness and wit to Dylan Thomas’ poetic masterpiece. Her role as the mischievous mermaid in 1948’s Miranda also highlighted her ability to infuse humor into her characters, earning her acclaim.

Small Screen Stint

Johns seamlessly transitioned to the small screen where she showcased her adaptability and ability to endear her audiences whatever the medium is. She appeared in the early 1950s drama series Studio One and Lux Video Theatre, and went on to grace 1960s episodic shows like Naked City, Dr. Kildare, The Lloyd Bridges Show, Burke’s Law, and The Defenders. In 1963, she starred in her own sitcom Glynis, in which she portrayed a daffy mystery writer. One of Johns’ most popular latter-day TV roles is Helen Chambers, the dowager mother of Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers in Cheers.

Glynis Johns in The Court Jester
Glynis Johns in The Court Jester

Glynis Johns’ personal life

Glynis Johns was born on October 5, 1923, in Pretoria, South Africa, while her parents were on tour. Her father Mervyn Johns, was a Welsh actor, and her mother, Alys Steele, was a concert pianist.

Johns attended South Hampstead High School, Clifton High School, and Tring Park School for the Performing Arts.

Johns was married four times:

  • Anthony Forwood (1942-1948) – Son: Gareth Forwood, actor.
  • David Ramsey Foster (1952-1956) – No children.
  • Cecil Peter L. Henderson (1960-1962) – No children.
  • Elliott Arnold (1983-1988) – No children.

All her four husbands passed away before her. The first to die was Henderson, in 1978, followed by Arnold, in 1980, Forwood, in 1988, and Foster, in 2010. Her son, Gareth, died in 2007 from cancer and a heart attack.

Johns was survived by her grandson Thomas Forwood and three great-grandchildren. Forwood is a French writer and film director.

Source: Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter
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