From Julie Andrews' beloved turns in classic films like The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins to her recent performance in The Princess Diaries series, this Oscar-winning actress has been delighting audiences for more than half a century. On screen, she exudes warmth and levity, though few people realize that her real life was often far from happy. Here are some surprising facts about Julie Andrews' jaw-dropping life.
Andrews never knew her maternal grandparents, but her grandfather was an, um, colorful character. He earned the nickname "The Pitman's Poet" for his hobby of writing poetry while working in a coal mine, but his other claims to fame are a lot less wholesome. He was an illegitimate son who drank excessively and cheated on his wife so much that he contracted syphilis. Over the years, he went insane and passed away at just 43.
Before Julie Andrews' grandpa breathed his last, he managed to give his wife one final "gift": He infected her with a brutal case of syphilis. She passed away two years later, leaving her two daughters orphaned and alone. This experience would stay with Andrews' mother and greatly impact the future star while she was growing up.
Andrews’ mother Barbara wanted to become a classical pianist, but the loss of her parents at age 18 forced her to give up those dreams and take care of her 13-year-old sister. Later in life, Barbara was extremely tight-lipped about her family, but Andrews does remember her mom's intense grief over the loss. But even if she never talked about it, Barbara's love for her mother came through in one clear way: her name had been Julia, and Barbara named her own daughter after her.
Thankfully, doom and gloom doesn't define everything in Andrews' childhood. By the time she met her great grandmother Emily, the older lady was an 80+ widow who didn't let life get her down. Andrews remembers her “sweet smile and soft voice" as well as her great grandmother's strange hobby: She kept an aviary. This is how Julie Andrews first developed her love of canaries.
Andrews' mother’s entire life changed when she met a man named Ted Wells. The young man fell head over heels in love with Barbara and even stepped in to help care for her younger sister. It didn't take long for Barbara and Ted to tie the knot and pop out a couple of kids, the future star Julie and her brother John. But Andrews' stable home life didn't last for long.
Despite her bright and sunny screen presence, Julie Andrews' upbringing was incredibly tumultuous. A few years after marrying Ted Wells, Andrews' mother took a job playing piano for the Canadian-born actor/singer Ted Andrews. They began to tour together and shortly after, Barbara stunned her friends and family by leaving her husband Wells and shacking up with Andrews in London.
Andrews initially stayed with her dad after her parents divorced, but soon joined her mother and new stepfather in London. In contrast to the happy, pastoral life that Andrews lived with Wells, London was dirty and gray. As the harsh sounds of air raid sirens filled Andrews' ears, her bedroom offered little comfort. Her basement dwelling had bars on the windows and rats crawling across exposed pipes. As if that weren’t bad enough, her mother and stepfather’s personal troubles made things even worse.
Childhood was a dark time in Andrews’ life. It turned out that her new stepfather was just like her grandfather: An abusive man who drank far too much. Unfortunately, Ted Andrews wasn't the only person who struggled with drinking: Andrews' mother Barbara also grappled with alcoholism. Though Andrews loved her, she recently revealed that her mother's substance abuse issues meant she could “never fully trust her.”
Andrews’s mother first noticed her daughter's amazing talent during WWII. When little eight-year-old Julie was hiding in a community air raid shelter, she used her voice to distract her neighbors. Initially, her stepfather Ted Andrews led the community in a sing-along, until Andrews' mom realized that her young daughter’s voice stood out in the best way possible.
When WWII forced Andrews to leave school, her stepfather decided to give her some singing lessons. Andrews doesn’t know whether he did so to keep her quiet, or as a genuine attempt to get closer to her, but her powerful four-octave voice exceeded what he could teach her. Ted Andrews quickly realized that he'd need to get his stepdaughter a teacher who could keep up with her incredible talent.
That better teacher was her stepfather’s own instructor: The British soprano Lilian Stiles-Allen, or as Andrews affectionately calls her, Madame. Stiles taught Andrews to sing classic works by great English composers, emphasizing vocal placement and diction. While Andrews didn’t become the opera singer that Stiles imagined she would be, they enjoyed a close relationship and according to Andrews, were almost like mother and daughter.
When she was just nine years old, Andrews joined her parents on stage in their vaudeville act. At the time, she was so little that she had to stand on a beer crate to reach the microphone! But as Andrews' talent grew, the weight of supporting her family and looking after her younger siblings fell mostly to her. In fact, they relied on her so heavily that at age 15, the money she earned by performing went towards paying the family mortgage. No wonder she didn’t have time for school.
Singing with her parents was fun, but Andrews felt destined for greater things. Around the time of her 12th birthday, her stepfather introduced her to the British television director Val Parnell. Seeing Andrews' talent, Parnell immediately cast her in the West End revue Starlight Roof. Her performing career really took off from there, and when she was 13, she found herself performing for royalty.
When MGM studios opened a London division in 1947, they invited then 12-year-old Julie to do a screen test. With a voice like hers, you'd think that they'd snap her up as fast as possible. Bizarrely, they did the exact opposite. MGM turned Andrews down and cruelly called her “unfilmable.” Clearly, they had no idea that they'd just missed out on signing an incredible talent.
Andrews made history at the young age of 13. In 1948, she became the youngest solo artist to perform at the Royal Variety Command Performance for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Andrews remembers being amazed by the whole experience. Little did she know, it was just the beginning of her legendary career in show business.
As a kid, Andrews was so busy supporting her family that she didn’t have time to get an education. The most she could do was read as she travelled from gig to gig on planes and trains. For most kids, not going to school would be a dream come true. But Andrews always stood out from the crowd. Even though her mother told her she'd get "a much better education from life,” Andrews regrets not going to college to this day.
Andrews was 18 when the director of the London production of The Boyfriend saw her on stage and cast her in the lead role in the American version of the play. Leaving her family and moving to America was no small step, but the gamble paid off. It led to an even bigger opportunity, with Andrews becoming the youngest actress ever to play Eliza Doolittle in a professional production of My Fair Lady. Unfortunately, her co-star had little faith in her capabilities...
In her memoir, Andrews describes Rex Harrison as being “profoundly unimpressed” by her. The stage actor was so angry about her casting that he even tried to get Andrews replaced. Thankfully, rather than give into Harrison's hissy fit, director Moss Hart took Andrews in and helped her get up to snuff. When Moss was through, he told his wife that Andrews would be fine because “she has that terrible British strength that makes you wonder how they ever lost India.”
Tony Walton and Julie Andrews were childhood sweethearts with a truly adorable meet-cute. When Andrews was 12, she played an egg in the Christmas pantomime of Humpty Dumpty. Walton sat in the front row, transfixed by Andrews. After becoming fast friends on the train ride home, Walton turned up at Andrews' doorstep two days later. From that moment on, Andrews and Walton were inseparable. They married in 1959.
Walton was absolutely smitten with his new bride. He even designed the couple's wedding rings to match a gold brooch that he gave to Andrews. The happy pair welcomed a daughter named Emma in 1962, and Walton worked with his wife by designing the sets for Mary Poppins in 1964. All seemed to be going well for Walton and Andrews, but Hollywood would soon take its toll on their relationship.
You’d think that if you were the person who played Eliza Doolittle on Broadway and the London stage, you'd be shoo-in for the movie adaptation. If you were Julie Andrews, however, you'd be wrong. When My Fair Lady became a film, studio boss Jack Warner snubbed Julie Andrews in favor of Audrey Hepburn. It was a major scandal at the time, but looking back, Andrews got the last laugh.
Few people know that Walt Disney hand-picked Julie Andrews to play her most famous role, the magical nanny Mary Poppins. He saw Andrews play Queen Guinevere on Broadway and the second the show was over, he rushed backstage to offer her the part. At this time, Andrews was four months pregnant with her first child and worried that she'd have to turn down the role. In a touching gesture, Disney agreed to delay filming just so that Andrews could have the part.
As it turned out, name recognition didn’t matter to moviegoers. Mary Poppins beat out My Fair Lady and topped the box office that year. As the cherry on top of her victory, Andrews also won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the flying nanny. While this kind of rivalry could have made for a huge Hollywood feud, through it all, Andrews and Hepburn remained good friends.
In between the releases of Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, Andrews made only one film, The Americanization of Emily co-starring the hunky James Garner. The movie featured Andrews’ first love scene, and as she told Diane Sawyer, she had absolutely no idea what she was supposed to do “with a kiss and all of that.” When they shot the scene, Andrews was so nervous that her legs buckled!
Andrews never imagined herself playing the role of Maria in The Sound of Music for a surprising reason. She recalls thinking that while she loved the music, the show itself was a bit too “saccharine.” So much so that she and Carol Burnett parodied it in a bit called “The Pratt Family Singers” in their 1962 television special. Little did Andrews know, she'd be playing Maria in 1965!
Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews are great friends today, but when Plummer first met Andrews, he didn’t like her at all. He admitted to finding her “insufferable and annoying” when they filmed The Sound of Music, and even peevishly called her “Ms. Disney.” He later took it back and said that his feelings were “immature” and that Andrews was a professional.
Fans have often wondered how Andrews ended up with that super short orange hair in The Sound of Music, and the answer is by mistake. Andrews had cut her hair short to fit under the wigs in Mary Poppins, and decided to keep it that way. The orange was the result of a hair-coloring mistake that was meant to lighten up her naturally dark hair on camera. However it happened, she wears it well!
As Andrews' career was expanding, her marriage was crumbling. Over the last few years, Andrews and Walton found themselves drifting emotionally and physically apart as Andrews worked on film after film in various locations. They tried hard to save their marriage, but sadly divorced in 1967. On the bright side, they managed to stay friends. And for her part, Andrews wasn't heartbroken for long...
Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews were married for 41 years until his death in 2010, and their first meeting was something straight out of a romantic movie. In 1959, Andrews pulled into her therapist’s office just as Edwards drove out. Edwards recalled seeing Andrews a few more times before mustering up the courage to say hello. He smiled, rolled down his window, and said, “Are you going where I just came from?” How could she resist?
Andrews and Edwards took slightly different views of their first meeting. Andrews called it "corny" while Edwards said it was “wonderfully Hollywood.” Either way, although Edwards was 13 years older than Andrews they started dating and fell in love. They’d only been seeing each other for a year when Edwards proposed, but unfortunately for him, Andrews wasn’t quite ready to commit.
Edwards’ proposal completely surprised Andrews. She hesitated to accept because Edwards' moods could be unpredictable—oh, and because both of them were technically still married to their last spouses! Edwards had proposed so quickly that the paperwork hadn't gone through for either of their divorces! Because of all this, Andrews politely declined Edwards' offer with the couple decided to wait a little longer before walking down the aisle. Evidently, things went well: Andrews and Edwards got marred in 1969.
After four years of marriage, it appeared that having their own child wasn’t in the cards, so Andrews and Edwards decided to adopt two infant girls from Vietnam. Amy Leigh, then two months old came first, and a few months later, just as Saigon fell, they adopted five-month-old Joanna Lynne from the same orphanage. They knew that growing up in America would be challenging for the girls, but according to Andrews, love got them through.
Being there for all her children was so important for Andrews that she made the ultimate sacrifice: She slowed down her film career so that she could be an involved mother. While Andrews greatly admires women who can juggle motherhood and careers, she confessed in an interview that she found it extremely difficult. Sadly, right as she returned to full-time work, she would experience an enormous personal tragedy.
Years later, Andrews described her relationship with Edwards as a “love story,” but their romance wasn’t always easy. According to Andrews, Edwards was “charismatic and hilariously funny” but he also suffered from intense bouts of depression. Despite these challenges, the couple stayed devoted to each other and made it work by “taking it one day at a time."
In 1981, the normally wholesome Andrews shocked moviegoers with her risqué performance in S.O.B., a movie written and directed by her husband Blake Edwards. What was all the fuss about? In order to play the jaded wife of a Hollywood executive, Andrews bared her chest on film! When talk show host Graham Norton asked her about the daring flick, Andrews joked that since the film took ten years to make it to the silver screen, she had a decade to get comfortable with her decision.
In 1996, Andrews was widely considered a shoo-in for a Tony Award for her first stage role in 35 years. Even though she received rave reviews for her turn as Victoria Grant in the stage adaptation of Victor/Victoria, Andrews shocked the world by withdrawing her name from consideration. She did so in solidarity with the rest of the cast who, in a jaw-dropping twist, had been shut out of the Tony nominations.
As a special surprise for Andrews, during her final curtain call for Victor/Victoria, the entire cast, along with guest Christopher Plummer, serenaded her with a rendition of “Edelweiss,” Andrews’ favorite song from The Sound of Music. The tribute brought tears to her eyes, and she parted with a thank you to the cast, and a hope to work with them again. Sadly, that never came to pass for a truly terrible reason.
Andrews first started having trouble with her vocal cords while appearing in Victor/Victoria on Broadway. After seeing a doctor, Andrews was relieved to hear that she had a non-cancerous growth. Even though Andrews planned to take some time to rest her voice, her husband Blake Edwards wanted her to join a touring production of the show, and that wouldn’t be possible if Andrews didn't have surgery. In the end, Andrews agreed to the procedure. She'd regret that decision for the rest of her life.
The procedure to remove the growth wasn’t supposed to present any risk to her voice, so in 1997, Andrews opted for the procedure with the understanding that after a few weeks of recovery, she’d be able to sing again. Unfortunately, instead of fixing the problem, the procedure scarred her vocal cords and left her unable to sing. When she learned about the terrible consequences of the surgery, Andrews felt like she’d “lost her identity.”
Not ready to accept her diagnosis, Andrews hoped that doctors could somehow reverse the damage to her vocal chords. She went through multiple surgeries and tried different vocal exercises, but with limited results. One doctor was able to remove some of the scar tissue and improve Andrews' speaking voice, but fully restoring her singing voice was simply impossible.
In 1999, Andrews sued the doctors and the hospital where she had her initial surgery. She claimed that they hadn’t properly explained the risks and alleged that the results of the surgery now prevented her from practicing her profession. They settled the suit a year later for a rumored $30 million, but Andrews has never officially confirmed the amount. A small consolation for sure
When she learned that she couldn’t sing anymore, Andrews went through the stages of grief, including denial and depression. Eventually she realized that singing wasn’t her entire identity and she found a new way to be creative. Already the author of several books for older children, Andrews decided to write books for younger children with her own daughter Emma.
When Andrews asked Emma what kind of books her toddler grandson would like, she realized that they didn’t exist. So she decided to make them herself! Andrews enlisted Emma and her dad, Andrews' ex-husband Tony Walton, to get the ball rolling on a new series of children's books. Since then, Julie, Tony, and Emma have co-written and illustrated more than 30 children’s books.As Emma once told her mother, it’s a whole new way for Andrews to use her voice.
While Andrews may not have been able to sing in the impressive four-octave range that she had before the surgery, she did learn how to “speak-sing” less demanding songs. In 2004, she even performed a duet with Raven-Symoné in The Princess Diaries 2. As the director Gary Marshall said, it had been so long since anyone heard Andrews sing, that “even the guys with tattoos got a little teary.” Wouldn’t you?
In 2010, after over 40 years together, Julie Andrews and her beloved husband Blake Edwards were forced to part. Edwards contracted a fatal case of pneumonia and breathed his last at a hospital in California. Though it's now been nearly 10 years since Andrews lost Edwards, she still struggles to believe he's gone. As she told Good Morning Britain in 2015, she would have days where she felt fine, and then “it's suddenly—sock you in the middle of your gut and you think 'ah God I wish he were here.'”
Turning down an appearance in the recent Mary Poppins sequel was a huge disappointment to her fans, but Andrews had a good reason for saying no. She was concerned that appearing in the movie would take away from Emily Blunt’s performance as Mary, and the last thing she wanted was to overshadow Blunt. Talk about gracious!
Understanding what kind of impact major world issues were having on children, Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton came up with a creative way to bring them comfort. In May 2020, they introduced a new podcast called “Julie’s Library” where she and her daughter read their favorite children’s books. Their hope is that the podcast will “bring families together,” and “encourage reading and literacy.” And let’s face it- who wouldn’t love having Andrews read them a story?
Could we be lucky enough to see Julie Andrews on stage again? Though she's now in her 80s, Andrews is still keeping her options open. She could see herself appearing in a limited run play and potentially with a reduced schedule where she’d have a stand-in at least once a week. While she didn’t specifically name any roles that she’d be interested in, producers would jump at the chance to have Andrews in one of their productions, and audiences would surely flock to see her.
Everybody hopes to leave behind a legacy, and when asked what she’d like hers to be, Andrews’ answer was twofold. Firstly, she hoped “a certain joy or delight in music and all things,” and secondly that what she does “gives joy and makes people curious”, which she thinks is “one of the best qualities a person can have in life. So true!
It’s only fitting that after playing an English flower seller in the stage production of My Fair Lady that someone would name a rose after Andrews at the 1992 Chelsea Flower Show in London. Like its namesake, the salmon rose is elegant, beautiful, and practically perfect in every way.
In 1949, Andrews learned something that changed her entire life. She was always close to her father Ted Wells, so it came as an absolute shock her mother let slip that Ted wasn’t her biological father. The revelation came when Andrews drove her mother home from a party and she drunkenly revealed that Julie's real father was the man who'd hosted the soiree. Andrews turned down the man's offer to reconnect, but that wasn’t the last time she’d see him.
When Andrews turned down her biological father’s offer to get to know him, she assumed that she wouldn’t hear from him anymore. Much to her surprise and displeasure, he turned up at an after-party for My Fair Lady. Andrews felt unimpressed by his cavalier attitude and his attempt to butt into her special moment. After that, Andrews never saw her biological father again, but he did send the occasional Christmas card.
Andrews' early career sounds like a fairy tale—but behind the scenes, it was darker than anyone imagined. Her stepfather's drinking made him do unforgivable things. He twice tried to get in bed with his stepdaughter Julie, and disturbingly, the first time occurred when she was only nine. After checking into a hotel with her stepfather, Andrews asked little Julie to come into bed with him to keep warm. She did so with reservation, and that’s when he told her he’d show her how he “cuddled with Mommy.” After he tried this the second time, Andrews put a lock on her door to keep him out.
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