It’s hard to imagine MARY POPPINS, which premiered in L.A. on August 27, 1964, with anyone but Julie Andrews as the magical English nanny.
Had things gone as Andrews hoped, she’d have been cast instead in Jack Warner’s production of MY FAIR LADY as Eliza Doolittle, the role she originated on Broadway, opposite Rex Harrison, that made her a star. Andrews starred in MFL for two years after its March 1956 premiere at Broadway’s Mark Hellinger Theatre. She then played Eliza opposite Harrison for 18 months starting in April 1958 at London’s Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
Warner’s MFL movie would have overlapped with MARY in production in the summer of ’63. Walt Disney was so keen to cast Andrews that he offered to delay filming MARY until the following summer if Warner hired her for MFL.
Warner, however, cast Harrison but passed on Andrews. Warner wanted a superstar movie actress and Andrews wasn’t one yet. He turned, instead, to Audrey Hepburn. By 1963, Hepburn had knock-out movie credits like FUNNY FACE (1957), BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) & CHARADE (1963). Hepburn, however, didn’t sing. She took voice lessons and recorded the film’s songs, but Warner quietly brought in Marni Nixon to dub Hepburn’s singing.
Originally, Disney had Mary Martin, Bette Davis & Angela Lansbury in mind for Poppins because of how coldly she was portrayed in P.L. Travers’ books. He changed his mind after songwriters Robert & Richard Sherman saw Andrews on Ed Sullivan’s TV show in January 1961, singing songs from her new Broadway musical CAMELOT. A month later, Disney saw the show and met backstage with Andrews and her then-husband, costume and set designer Tony Walton. Disney invited them to come to the studio and asked Walton to bring his portfolio. He made Walton a Design Consultant for the film. Disney offered Andrews the starring role, but she didn’t say yes until the day after Warner Bros. announced Hepburn would play Eliza.
MFL wound up grossing $72.6M domestically and was quickly forgotten. MARY, which co-starred Dick Van Dyke, did $102.3M domestically and remains a much-loved Disney classic. A sequel, MARY POPPINS RETURNS, was produced in 2018 with Emily Blunt as Poppins.
Andrews, whose next movie was Fox’s blockbuster THE SOUND OF MUSIC, won the lead actress Oscar for MARY in 1965. Hepburn wasn’t nominated. But earlier that awards season, Andrews won the Golden Globe for best actress in a comedy or musical and had the satisfaction of beating Hepburn in that race. In her tongue-in-cheek Globes acceptance, Andrews thanked Jack Warner for being, as she put it, “the one man who made it all possible.”