British film and stage star Julie Andrews, 75, will be honored at “Backstage at the Geffen,” the Geffen Playhouse’s annual fundraiser, on May 2 for cutting a swath on Broadway with leading roles in “Victor/Victoria,” “My Fair Lady” and “Camelot.” Her career has also spanned films from “Mary Poppins” to “Shrek Forever After” and numerous children’s books written with daughter Emma Walton Hamilton. She was married for 41 years to filmmaker Blake Edwards, who passed away in December.
Since the Geffen is honoring your career, I thought I’d ask you about various points along the way, starting with a very early triumph, when you were 13 and performed for King George VI at the London Palladium with Danny Kaye.
It was the Royal Command Performance that year.
You were the youngest performer ever.
It was phenomenal. I have a lovely picture of it in my office, which I found in a box 10 years ago. I suddenly realized it was like gold dust for me because it captured that moment. Royal Command Performances are an amalgam of all that has been going on that year in London, and they’re performed in front of the queen. And I had been very successful in a nightclub revue type of show at the London Hippodrome. Lo and behold, there was an invitation to appear at the Royal Command Performance that year.
The interesting thing is in those days I wasn’t allowed to open my own mail, and I put the mail from the stage door in my coat pocket. And about two weeks later, I said to my mother, “Oh, Mom. Here’s some mail from the theater.” And she glanced at it and gasped. She said, “My God, darling. You have an invitation to perform at a Royal Command Performance, and we have to reply by tonight or tomorrow.”
I read that when you auditioned for Richard Rodgers for his show “Pipe Dream,” he wanted you but he advised you to take the Lerner & Loewe musical “My Fair Lady” if you were cast. Why was that?
That was an incredibly generous thing to do. I was auditioning for him, and he asked if I’d been auditioning for anybody else. I brightly replied, “Yes, I have sung for this Lerner & Loewe, who I think are doing a musical production of ‘Pygmalion.’” And he looked at me for a very long time and said, “I think if they are going to do it, you should take that. But if they don’t, we would love to use you, but that would be phenomenal for you.” Of course I was asked, and can you imagine how grateful I was for that advice?
Was there tremendous buzz around “My Fair Lady” at the time?
No. Actually, the tale is that he and Oscar Hammerstein tried once to tackle “Pygmalion” and eventually gave up on that, so he probably had a hunch that if Lerner & Loewe were doing it, it must be interesting. He was just the most generous giant.
Which film was your favorite?
So many for different reasons. You can’t just say because one’s the most successful. Obviously “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music” were incredible good fortune for me and wonderful learning experiences, but I think of films like a little tiny one I made with my husband, Blake, “That’s Life,” which was very personal and made literally on my own property with no budget. That was a joy. There was a film we made called “S.O.B.,” and “S.O.B.” was probably the happiest collaboration for everyone concerned. Everybody talks today — not that there are that many of us left — but Robert Preston and William Holden and Loretta Swit and Shelley Winters, all coming down to the set on days they weren’t needed just to be a part of the company. It was very rare, because it was such fun. And Blake made it so. He used to say, “Just because you’re having fun doesn’t mean you’re not working your tail off.”
How did you meet?
I’d met him in passing at some reception many many years before I actually personally met him. This is the most bizarre story, and it’s very Hollywood. I was crossing Sunset Boulevard one day and I was at the middle meridian and waiting to cross. A beautiful car pulled up beside me, and I just looked over and then he drove on. A week later the same thing happened. The third time it happened, the gentleman in the car rolled down his window and said, “Hi, we seem to be doing this. Are you going where I just came from?” And we realized that we were both in therapy, and he’d just come from his analyst on Roxbury and I was just going to one in that region. Then I got a call asking if he could come talk to me about a film, and that film was “Darling Lili,” which we eventually made together. It was a huge flop, but it didn’t seem to affect our relationship in any way.
When you won a Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 2007, you were quoted as saying you wanted to produce a Broadway musical. Is that on the horizon?
If someone gave me the opportunity to produce, of course I’d do that. But I’m interested in flexing my muscles a little bit to see if what I love, which is directing, if I could get used to more of that. I loved doing it, and it felt like a way of giving back to younger talent. I directed “The Boy Friend” twice. There is one of my daughter’s and my books called “The Great American Mousical” about a troupe of theatrical mice below the boards of a very famous Broadway theater. And we are in fact adapting it for the good people of the Goodspeed Opera House [in Connecticut].
Is there something on your to-do list you haven’t managed to take a bite out of yet?
Do you have a couple of hours? If I had the chance, I’d love to go back to school. I’d love to learn languages, I’d love to direct more projects, and I have some in my vest pocket that I’m hoping will come to fruition and certainly other books. We have a book coming out the day of the Geffen evening. We do a series of books about a little girl who’s absolutely sure that she’s indeed a very fairy princess, and this is the second book that is called “The Very Fairy Princess Takes the Stage,” which is rather apt given the evening.