Column: Julie Andrews, star of stage, screen and the pandemic, finally gets her AFI Life Achievement Award

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Julie Andrews, star of the Broadway musical, “The Boy Friend,” in 1954.
(Bob Wands / Associated Press)
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In what may or may not be a sign that life is almost, kind of back to normal, the American Film Institute is finally giving Julie Andrews that Life Achievement Award it promised her way back in 2019.

She was supposed to be officially honored in 2020, then again in 2021; in both years, the AFI was foiled by COVID-19. On June 9, however, the gala tribute at the Dolby Theatre will at last take place (TNT will televise the ceremony a week later), and Dame Andrews will be on site to remind everyone what achievement in cinema looks like.

For one thing: an 86-year-old star who didn’t let a global pandemic get in the way of a still extremely vital career — who managed to write three books, launch a podcast and voice the narrator of Shonda Rhimes’ smash hit “Bridgerton” without much leaving her home in Sag Harbor, N.Y.


“I’m enormously honored that AFI chose me,” she told me during a phone interview. “It is a little bit stunning. It makes me hugely aware that there was a large volume of work. When you’re in it, you’re so busy doing the work that you don’t take stock of what you’ve done. And when someone else does, you marvel: ‘Wow, that’s a lot.’”

black-and-white photo of a bride and a groom
Julie Andrews marries her childhood sweetheart, stage designer Tony Walton, in Surrey, England, May 10, 1959.
(Eddie Worth / Associated Press)

Andrews is such a fixed and beloved figure in the entertainment industry that it’s easy to forget how remarkable and prolific her body of work is. The 29-year-old British stage star didn’t just come to Hollywood in the early 1960s, she swept in and conquered it, starring in two of the industry’s most enduring films: “Mary Poppins,” which won five Oscars including for lead actress; and then, a year later, “The Sound of Music,” which also won five, including best picture.

The career that followed spanned drama, comedy, musicals and more than a few franchises, including “Victor/Victoria,” which Andrews took to Broadway and television, “The Princess Diaries” films, “Shrek,” “Despicable Me” and Marvel (via “Aquaman”). That’s not to mention the innumerable television movies and series, right up to “Bridgerton,” which she narrates as the haughty, witty and enigmatic Lady Whistledown.

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The AFI honor was overdue even before the pandemic. Andrews is certainly relieved that it is finally happening. “It is a big fundraiser and it’s lovely to be part of that,” she said. “I have no idea what they have planned, but I do know a few people who will be there. My great chum Carol Burnett will be doing something so I’m looking forward to that. I’m a bit worried because COVID is surging again, but I know AFI is taking all the precautions.”

black-and-white photo of a woman tuning a guitar
Andrews tunes her guitar on the set of “The Sound of Music” in 1965.
(Associated Press)

As is she. Although she was in Los Angeles at the time of our conversation, visiting family and preparing for the gala, she was not doing much in-person press. “I’m still pretty much isolated, my dear,” she said. “My age, my preference.”

That does not mean she has spent the past two years surrendering to binge-watching or banana bread. Over the years, she and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton, have built an impressive literary career, which includes many children’s books and two memoirs. “Home Work,” the second of these, debuted in the fall 2019.

A third memoir is in the works, but, Andrews confesses, she has fallen a bit behind on that project, mostly because so many others presented themselves in the meantime.

Early in the pandemic, she and Hamilton began a podcast called “Julie’s Library.” Well, not so much “began” as “rushed to produce.” Worried about the millions of families living through lockdown, the two decided to fast-track a long-planned podcast in which they would read and discuss a variety of children’s books — despite the lack of anything resembling a studio. Padding a closet with blankets and pillows, Andrews’ grandson Sam jerry-rigged a recording space.

Black-and-white photo of a mother nuzzling her child
Julie Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton, pictured during a 30-minute stopover at London Airport in 1964.
(Associated Press)

So yes, Julie Andrews, star of stage, screen and television, winner of the AFI Life Achievement Award, spent much of the pandemic wedged in a DIY workspace just like the rest of us.


“It really is amazing how much work we can do from home now,” she said. She was even able to do “Bridgerton” from her home. “Who knew it would become such a big hit? I just knew I found the script intriguing and it really was such a comfort during the pandemic.”

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As the narrating voice of a pamphlet devoted to gossip about Britain’s upper crust during the Regency period, Andrews was privy to Season One’s big mystery: which of the series’ characters was writing under the name Lady Whistledown.

But Andrews had to help invent the character of the pseudonym. Deliciously witty, often lethal and occasionally kind, Lady Whistledown frames each episode and helps to set the show’s tone. “First of all, I thought, ‘What would Maggie [Smith] do?’ because she’s a great chum and the best of the best. I decided to go upper class, mature and a tad caustic.”

As the voice of “Bridgerton,” Andrews will be part of the upcoming spin-off about Queen Charlotte as well as subsequent seasons of the original show. “I want to see what happens to everyone too.”

A woman holds up a statuette
Andrews poses upon arrival at the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement Award presentation at the Venice Film Festival in 2019.
(Arthur Mola / Invision via AP)

She and Hamilton have also been hard at work on three more children’s books. The first, which arrives in September, tells the story of the Guido of Arezzo, the 11th century Benedictine monk who invented staff notation, which enabled music to be written down for the first time.


He also developed the do-re-mi mnemonic that created a base for teaching scales, leading centuries later to one of Andrews’ most iconic film scenes. “It’s an historical book, but for children,” Andrews said. “He really was a sweet guy. He loved to sing but was frustrated because there was no way of writing down the music. People just passed it on vocally but that wasn’t always accurate. What he did really was important.”

Mum and daughter are also working on “The Great American Mousical,” a musical adaptation of their book of the same name, which debuted locally before the pandemic hit. The story follows a group of mice living in a New York theater who are putting on their own show; it’s based on Andrews’ own experience while starring in “Victor/Victoria” on Broadway. “There was a mouse in my dressing room and they were putting out traps. I begged them for humane traps, so the mouse could be set free. ‘He probably just wants to see the stars,’ I said, and a lightbulb went off.”

With any luck, she said, the show could get an off-Broadway run for Christmas 2023.

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Nov. 19, 2019

Earlier this year, Andrews and Hamilton also suffered a tremendous loss: The Oscar-winning set designer Tony Walton, Andrews’ ex-husband and Hamilton’s father, died in March. Walton and Andrews married in 1959, had Emma in 1962 and worked together on “Mary Poppins” before divorcing in 1968. “He was a dear friend,” said Andrews, “and we’ve remained great friends throughout my life. It was a great blow, particularly for Emma.”

An older woman, left, and an older man in formalwear
“Sound of Music” co-stars Andrews, left, and Christopher Plummer at a 50th anniversary L.A. screening of the film in 2015.
(Chris Pizzello / Invision via AP)

Andrews says she’s not quite ready to go back onto a set or into a studio, but there are “murmurings.” And she’s always up for voice work. At the time of our conversation, however, she was more concerned about her dress — “It was hard to find something that would look good while I am walking with a neckline that would work in close-ups” — and her speech. “I really want to focus on the art of film and the importance of collaboration,” she said. “It’s hard to say thank you for such a grand evening because it’s so overwhelming.”

As for the state of the industry that is honoring her, Andrews is very happy that “Top Gun: Maverick” is reviving the box office, and though she hasn’t seen it yet, she will. “I haven’t been to too many movies. We have a lovely theater in Sag Harbor, with good spacious seating, and I did catch ‘Belfast’ and ‘West Side Story,’ which I loved. I will catch up with ‘Maverick’ some time.”


Though not on this trip. Almost immediately after the AFI gala, Andrews will be flying home to celebrate another family honor: her grand-daughter’s high school graduation. “She‘s going to college to study theater, film and writing,” Andrews said. “In the grand family tradition.”

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