Though it’s been nearly half a century since she played the winsome Jane Banks in the 1964 classic “Mary Poppins,” Karen Dotrice still refers to Walt Disney as Uncle Walt.
“He went out of his way to be solicitous,” Dotrice, 58, said at her Brentwood home. “He brought my mother and my sisters over from England for the duration of the shoot and put us up in a beautiful house somewhere in the canyons that had an indoor heated swimming pool, which was a kick in the pants.”
But it wasn’t until she saw “Saving Mr. Banks,” which opens Friday, that she understood why Disney was so kind to her. The film revolves around the efforts of Disney (Tom Hanks) to obtain the rights to “Mary Poppins” from its obstinate author, P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson).
“I didn’t know P.L. Travers’ history,” said Dotrice, who possesses an outgoing personality and a cheeky sense of humor.
“She was 8 when her father died. And Walt Disney was put out to work by his father when he was 8. I was 8 when I did the film. I think P.L. Travers was trying to fix families by writing about ‘Mary Poppins.’ I think Walt Disney was a bit of a Mary Poppins himself and wanted to heal people through his movies. Here I am 50 years later looking at this — I was crying when I was watching the film.”
Dotrice, named a Disney Legend in 2004, admitted, “I certainly wouldn’t have chosen to be an actress,” but it was the family business. Her father, Roy, is an actor best known for the CBS series “Beauty and the Beast.” Her two older sisters are actresses, as was her late mother.
However, she stepped away from acting nearly 30 years ago — “I had been an actress for 500 years,” she said, laughing. “I came to the denouement [that] I don’t actually have to do this.”
Dotrice is married to TV producer Ned Nalle and has two sons and a daughter ranging from 17 to 23. She also dotes on the family’s menagerie of animals, including a chicken named Beyonce.
Dotrice was all of 4 when she made her acting debut on the London stage in “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” which starred her godfather, Oscar-winning actor Charles Laughton.
“They needed a little boy who was not going to be terrified of being onstage. So Daddy said, ‘I got a little girl and we could put a wig on her.’ I had to run around the stage with a sword.”
A British casting director looking for a child actress to star in the heartwarming 1964 Disney film “The Three Lives of Thomasina” caught Dotrice’s performance. And she soon found herself making her film debut in the movie with Patrick McGoohan, Susan Hampshire and the late Matthew Garber, who would play her brother Michael in “Mary Poppins” and her sibling once again in Disney’s 1967 “The Gnome-Mobile.”
Shortly after “Thomasina,” Dotrice and Garber came out to Hollywood to do “Mary Poppins,” which won five Academy Awards, including lead actress for Julie Andrews as the perfect nanny and best song for Robert and Richard Sherman’s “Chim Chim Cher-ee.”
(The 50th anniversary Blu-ray of “Mary Poppins” arrives Tuesday.)
“The joy that you see on the screen is the joy we felt,” Dotrice said of working on “Mary Poppins,” which also starred Glynis Johns, David Tomlinson and Dick Van Dyke as Mary’s friend Bert the chimney sweep.
Disney would visit Dotrice at her house — they both discovered they hated to fly — and invite her family to his home in Palm Springs and his ranch in Santa Barbara, which, she enthused “was so cool. They had real cowboys.” And of course, there were visits to Disneyland during the long production.
Andrews took Dotrice under her wing after she heard the young actress sing “The Perfect Nanny” during a rehearsal. Dotrice had been coached by an opera singer in England who didn’t understand how to train a child.
“On her day off, she worked with me all to get my voice into a kid’s voice,” said Dotrice. “She taught me to sing the song. She was fantastic.”
Though she’s remained in contact with Andrews and Van Dyke, Dotrice is closest with Richard Sherman and his wife.
“As young as she was, she had an understanding of what she was playing,” said Sherman. “She was playing a sweet, innocent, doe-like child. She knew what to do. We are real pals. Every time we see each other it is like old-home week.”