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Glynis Johns

Glynis Johns

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Also Known As: Died:
Born: October 5, 1923 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Pretoria, , ZA Profession: actor, singer

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Fondly remembered for the breathy quality of her husky voice and her eternally upbeat persona, British actress Glynis Johns delivered a myriad of memorable roles in a varied career that spanned over 60 years. Born into a theatrical family, Johns began performing on the stage by the age of 12 and in film while still in her teens. Early films roles included her starring turn as a flirtatious mermaid in the popular fantasy-comedy "Miranda" (1948), the thriller "State Secret" (1950) and the "Miranda" sequel "Mad About Men" (1954). Following a well-regarded run on Broadway in a revival of "Major Barbara" in 1956 and a disappointing outing as the star of her own television sitcom, "Glynis" (CBS, 1963), the actress appeared in one of the most popular family musicals in film history, "Mary Poppins" (1964), as the well-intentioned suffragette, Winifred Banks. Even more memorable was her lengthy performance as Desiree Armfeldt in the 1973 premiere of the Wheeler-Sondheim musical comedy "A Little Night Music," in which she immortalized the heart-breaking ballad "Send in the Clowns." In the years after her Tony Award-winning tour with the show, Johns went on to dozens of endearing roles in films like "While You...

Fondly remembered for the breathy quality of her husky voice and her eternally upbeat persona, British actress Glynis Johns delivered a myriad of memorable roles in a varied career that spanned over 60 years. Born into a theatrical family, Johns began performing on the stage by the age of 12 and in film while still in her teens. Early films roles included her starring turn as a flirtatious mermaid in the popular fantasy-comedy "Miranda" (1948), the thriller "State Secret" (1950) and the "Miranda" sequel "Mad About Men" (1954). Following a well-regarded run on Broadway in a revival of "Major Barbara" in 1956 and a disappointing outing as the star of her own television sitcom, "Glynis" (CBS, 1963), the actress appeared in one of the most popular family musicals in film history, "Mary Poppins" (1964), as the well-intentioned suffragette, Winifred Banks. Even more memorable was her lengthy performance as Desiree Armfeldt in the 1973 premiere of the Wheeler-Sondheim musical comedy "A Little Night Music," in which she immortalized the heart-breaking ballad "Send in the Clowns." In the years after her Tony Award-winning tour with the show, Johns went on to dozens of endearing roles in films like "While You Were Sleeping" (1995) well into the late-1990s. Whether portraying a sultry sea creature, a neglectful mother or a delightfully eccentric grandmother, Johns was never anything less than an absolute joy onscreen.

Glynis Johns was born on Oct. 5, 1923 in Pretoria, South Africa while her parents, actor Mervyn Johns and pianist Alys Maude were performing on tour. Her Welsh parents had met while studying at the Royal Academy of Music and it was Johns' grandmother, violinist Elizabeth Steele, who had suggested they embark on the South African tour. Drawn to dancing by the time she learned to walk, Johns was a certified ballet instructor by the unbelievably young age of 10, and qualified as an advanced teacher by 12. Partly a matter of necessity due to her parents' profession, the young girl soon began acting and made her London stage bow as a child in a 1935 production of "Buckie's Bears" at the Garrick Theatre. She followed a year later with a turn as Mary Tilford in Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour," in addition to performing in "St. Helena" at the Old Vic. At the age of 14, Johns made her screen debut in Victor Saville's "South Riding" (1938), in which she showed promise as the headstrong daughter of local politician Ralph Richardson. After several more film appearances, she appeared with Sir Laurence Oliver - a theatrical contemporary of her father's - in the World War II spy thriller "The 49th Parallel" (1941), directed by Michael Powell.

Never one to stay away from the theater for long, Johns returned to the London stage at the age of 19 in order to take on the title role in a mounting of the family favorite "Peter Pan" in 1943. A versatile actress most often associated with comedy, Johns showed her dramatic mettle with her performance in "Frieda" (1947), playing a sister-in-law who befriends the German war bride (Mai Zetterling) of an English schoolteacher (David Farrar). It was, however, with her playful embodiment of the flirtatious, titular mermaid in the comedic fantasy "Miranda" (1948) that Johns made her first big splash at the box office. Shortly after appearing as a sympathetic actress helping a targeted doctor on the run (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) in the conspiracy-thriller "State Secret" (1950), Johns made her brief Broadway debut in 1952 as the eponymous star of the comedy "Gertie" before it closed after only five performances. Returning to the U.K., Johns reprised the role of Miranda - in addition to a dual role as a look-alike human counterpart - for the comedy sequel "Mad About Men" (1954), which found the boy-crazy mermaid causing mischief on dry land once again.

Johns enjoyed far greater success with her second crack at Broadway, this time cast as playwright George Bernard Shaw's "Major Barbara" (1956) in a production directed by legendary actor Charles Laughton. By this time, the actress' spirited personality had become her signature, enlivening whatever material she chose, be it on stage or film. She proved a vivacious delight in her Oscar-nominated supporting turn as a hotelkeeper who sets her sights on a matrimonially-adverse Peter Ustinov in the Australian adventure "The Sundowners" (1960), co-starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. Other work included a starring role in the Robert Bloch scripted "The Cabinet of Caligari" (1962), a psychological thriller which bore scant resemblance to the similarly titled 1920 German expressionist classic. Johns also made inroads in the medium of television, where the actress starred in her own sitcom, "Glynis" (CBS, 1963), a short-lived effort that cast her as a novice mystery writer and amateur sleuth who solves murders, much to the chagrin of her clueless husband (Keith Andes).

Of all her numerous roles on stage and screen, Johns was best remembered as the distracted suffragette wife of the order-obsessed Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) in the Disney live-action smash hit musical "Mary Poppins" (1964), starring Julie Andrews in the title role. During the same period, she was a standout as James Stewart's practical wife in "Dear Brigitte" (1965), then had some fun with tongue-in-cheek villainy as Lady Penelope Peasoup in several 1967 episodes of the popular campy adventure series "Batman" (ABC, 1966-68). Always fiercely proud of her Welsh roots, she particularly enjoyed her work on screen opposite fellow Welshman Richard Burton in the film version of Dylan Thomas' sardonic masterpiece of modern language, "Under Milkwood" (1972). John's most indelible Broadway turn came as Desiree Armfeldt, the leading lady of the Hugh Wheeler-Stephen Sondheim hit musical "A Little Night Music" (1973). After a particular scene was staged by director Harold Prince, Sondheim, realizing a song was required for her character, quickly tossed off the contemporary standard "Send in the Clowns," which the composer tailored for Johns' particular vocal qualities - what Sondheim equated with "a rumpled bed." Her bravura performance in the role later won the actress a Tony Award as Lead Actress in a Musical.

Never shy about tackling genre material in film, she appeared in a segment of the Amicus-produced portmanteau "The Vault of Horror" (1973), followed by a similarly structured frightfest four years later, appropriately titled "Three Dangerous Ladies" (1977). After an extended period away from the camera, Johns returned to TV with several guest spots, followed by a run as a series regular in "Coming of Age" (CBS, 1989-1990), playing the perpetually perky Trudie Pepper. The actress returned to Broadway once again in a 1989 revival of the Somerset Maugham play "The Circle," starring opposite Rex Harrison and Stewart Granger, and later took part in a 1991 Los Angeles revival of "A Little Night Music," this time portraying Madame Armfeldt, the mother of the character she had originated on Broadway. As she matured, her spunky persona lent itself readily to roles as eccentric grandmothers in comedic efforts such as "The Ref" (1994) and "While You Were Sleeping" (1995). In one of her final stage performances, Johns starred in a 1998 Long Island staging of Horton Foote's play "A Coffin in Egypt," playing a 90-year-old grand dame reminiscing about her life on and off a Texas ranch. After an appearance as the grandmother of eternally nerdy and hyperactive schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) in the "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) spin-off comedy "Superstar" (1999), Johns effectively retired from acting, although a return to the screen was never out of the realm of possibility for the venerable actress.

By Bryce Coleman

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Superstar (1999) Grandma
2.
 While You Were Sleeping (1995) Elsie
3.
 Secret Garden, The (1994) Voice Of Darjeeling
4.
 Ref, The (1994) Rose
5.
 Nukie (1988) Sister Anne
6.
 Zelly And Me (1988) Coco
7.
 Spraggue (1984) Aunt Mary
8.
 Vault Of Horror, The (1973) Eleanor ("The Neat Job")
9.
 Under Milk Wood (1971) Myfanwy Price
10.
 Lock Up Your Daughters (1969) Mrs. Squeezum
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1923:
Born in South Africa and carried onstage by her violinist-impresario grandmother while the family's performing company was touring there
1935:
London stage debut, as Ursula in "Buckie's Bears"
1938:
Made feature film debut in the Victor Saville directed drama "South Riding"
1943:
Starred on the London stage at age 19 in the title role of "Peter Pan"
1947:
Delivered warm turn as the sister-in-law of German war bride "Frieda," adapted from the stage play
1948:
Scored a hit as a mermaid in "Miranda," adapted by playwright Peter Blackmore from his stage play; initial screen work with David Tomlinson
1951:
First film with father Mervyn Johns, "The Magic Box"; Tomlinson was also in the cast
1952:
Broadway debut in title role of "Gertie"
1954:
Reprised her mermaid role for the "Miranda" sequel "Mad About Men"
1956:
Returned to Broadway in title role of "Major Barbara," directed by Charles Laughton
1960:
Received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her role as a hotelkeeper in "The Sundowners"; second film with her father
1962:
Acted opposite James Coburn in NBC adventure pilot "Safari," based on "The African Queen"
1963:
Starred as Glynis Granville on the CBS sitcom "Glynis"; network aired reruns during the summer of 1965
1964:
Played nutty suffragette wife of Tomlinson in "Mary Poppins"
1965:
Offered a standout turn as James Stewart's practical wife in "Dear Brigette"
1967:
Portrayed villainess Lady Penelope Peasoup on three episodes of the campy series "Batman" (ABC)
1968:
Had brief bit as screwball author in "Don't Just Stand There"
1971:
Joined the likes of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole in film version of Dylan Thomas' "Under Milkwood"
1973:
Had a major hit on Broadway in the leading role of Desiree Armfeldt in the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical, "A Little Night Music"; introduced the contemporary standard "Send in the Clowns"; received a Tony Award for her performance
1982:
U.S. TV miniseries debut, "Little Gloria...Happy at Last" (NBC)
1983:
Appeared as the mother of Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) on an episode of the NBC sitcom "Cheers"
1988:
Played featured role of Trudie Pepper on the CBS sitcom "Coming of Age"
:
Returned to Broadway in a revival of the Somerset Maugham play "The Circle," starring opposite Rex Harrison and Stewart Granger
1991:
In Los Angeles revival of "A Little Night Music," undertook role of Madame Armfeldt (originated by Hermione Gingold), the mother of the character she created in the original; Lee Remick was to have played Desiree but withdrew because of illness and was replaced by Lois Nettleton
1994:
Essayed the 'Mom from Hell' in Ted Demme's "The Ref," starring Judy Davis, Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary
1995:
Portrayed Peter Gallagher's grandmother in the romantic comedy "While You Were Sleeping," starring Sandra Bullock
1998:
Starred in Horton Foote's play "A Coffin in Egypt" as a 90-year-old grand dame reminiscing about her life on and off a Texas ranch
1999:
Played grandmother to Mary Katherine Gallagher (Molly Shannon) in "Superstar"
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Hampstead School: -

Notes

On her star-making turn as a mermaid in "Miranda": "I was quite an athlete, my muscles were strong from dancing, so the tail was just fine. I swam like a porpoise."

As for her taking on the role of Madame Armfeldt for the 1991 revival of "A Little Night Music" after having played her daughter 18 years before: "To tell you the truth, I hadn't liked that part (originally Hermione Gingold's), and I wasn't sure if I could listen to someone else singing 'Send in the Clowns', the song Stephen Sondheim wrote for me." --Glynis Johns quoted in the Daily News, June 14, 1998.

Companions close complete companion listing

husband:
Anthony Forwood. Manager, former actor. Divorced; father of Johns' son Gareth; later had long relationship with actor Dirk Bogarde.
companion:
Antony Darnborough. Producer. Born on October 16, 1913; became engaged in 1951; produced "Encore" (1951) in which Johns starred; separated; died on September 24, 2000.
husband:
David Ramsey Foster. Was WWII hero; married on February 1, 1952; divorced.
husband:
Cecil Peter L Henderson. Married in 1960; divorced c. 1961.
husband:
Elliot Arnold. Writer. Married on October 4, 1964.
VIEW COMPLETE COMPANION LISTING

Family close complete family listing

father:
Mervyn Johns. Actor. Born in 1899; died in 1992; acted together in "The Magic Box" (1951) and "The Sundowners" (1960).
mother:
Alys Maude Johns. Concert pianist.
son:
Gareth Forwood. Actor. Father, Anthony Forwood.

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