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The little-known tragic real lives of the Mary Poppins cast.

Warning: This post contains mentions of alcohol abuse and suicide, and may be triggering for some readers.

Many people have happy childhood memories of the 1964 classic film, Mary Poppins.

The musical was a typically joyful Disney offering, merrily depicting how the remarkable nanny wins over the Banks children. And of course, there’s a happy ending. The film was one of Disney’s first internationally popular movies, and was a huge success.

But while many would recall the words to songs such as Spoonful of Sugar, what’s less known is that the actors behind our favourite characters had lives marred by tragedies.

Fifty-five years later, here’s what we know about what happened to the real people behind the characters of Cherry Tree Lane.

Watch Dick Van Dyke Julie Andrews, Karen Dotrice, and Matthew Garber perform the iconic song, Chim Chim Cher-ee from the film Mary Poppins. Post continues below.

Video by MMC

Julie Andrews – Mary Poppins

Iconic British actor Julie Andrews, now 83, was just 28 when she made her film debut as the world’s most effective nanny. (She appeared in The Sound of Music the year after.)

Andrews won an Academy Award for her performance as Poppins – but all was not what it seemed at the time. Actor Karen Dotrice, who played Jane Banks, revealed that the pristine nanny was in real life a heavy smoker who had a penchant for rude words.

“There was swearing,” Dotrice told she told The Sun in 2018.

“Julie Andrews was smoking on set. It was a very real 1960s set, I can tell you. They were polite around minors to begin with, but that soon ended.”

It was Andrew’s smoking habit which is thought to having contributed to her needing surgery to remove noncancerous nodules from her vocal chords in 1997.

Mary Poppins cast
Image: Walt Disney Productions.
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It should have been a straightforward procedure, but due to complications, Andrews lost her ability to sing at a professional standard.

"If it had happened earlier, it would have been really devastating. As it was, it was devastating," the actor told People magazine in 2015.

"For a while, I was in total denial... I thought at the time, my voice was what I am.

“But it seems it’s not all what I am.”

Andrews sued the doctors who had performed her procedure, settling the case for a confidential amount in 2000 – and got on with her career.

In 2001, she appeared in The Princess Diaries, her first Disney film since Mary Poppins, and in the 2004 sequel, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement – where she was able to professionally sing for the first time since her surgery seven years prior.

Dick Van Dyke - Bert

American-born Van Dyke played Bert, the chimney-sweep and musician with a thing for Mary Poppins.

Van Dyke, now 93, went on to enjoy a seven-decade, multi-award winning career, acting in The Night of the Museum films and playing Dr. Mark Sloan in Diagnosis Murder for eights years; but his success was not without a personal toll.

The actor was an alcoholic for 25 years of that time, including on the set of Mary Poppins.

He was already a star by the time of filming, being in The Dick Van Dyke show from 1961. But he was not coping with the attention.

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"I was very shy - with strangers - I couldn't talk to people," Van Dyke told Oprah’s OWN in 2016.

"And I found if I had a drink, it would loosen me up. The barriers went down and I became very social. That’s what got me started."

Mary Poppins cast
Image: Walt Disney Productions.

After achieving sobriety, Van Dyke decided to go public about his struggles in the hopes of inspiring others.

"I get a lot of letters from people, who say all of a sudden they weren't ashamed to admit they had a drinking problem and they got help," he said.

"So, I'm very proud of that."

Karen Dotrice - Jane Banks

Dotrice played little Jane Banks who needed to be whipped into shape by her nanny. She came from an acting family, and yet, after Mary Poppins, Dotrice did not go on to enjoy a major career.

Despite appearing in plays, the series Upstairs, Downstairs in 1975, and the Alfred Hitchcock film The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1978, Dotrice struggled to secure steady work.

The now 63-year-old explained in 2013 that she did not enjoy the profession, and regrets ever playing Jane Banks.

“If I’d had my way, I’d still never have done any of those films, because kids should be kids,” she said.

“It’s just not normal for a child to have that kind of focus on them and then trot off into life thinking that everyone’s going to pamper them and treat them as if they’re ‘special’.

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“The odds are you’re going to struggle in later life. I’ve seen a lot of my peers go through terrible times and have to deal with all sorts of demons.”

Mary Poppins cast
Image: Walt Disney Productions.

Matthew Garber - Michael Banks

British actor Matthew Garber played little Michael Banks – but did not pursue an acting career after the age of 10, despite being off-screen friends with Dotrice, and having parents who’d also performed in plays.

However the real tragedy was his untimely death.

Travelling to India in 1976 for a holiday, Garber contracted hepatitis, which went untreated until her returned home in 1977. By that time, the disease had spread to his pancreas.

The former child star died from haemorrhagic necrotising pancreatitis in London. He was only 21.

Dotrice said of her friend in 2004, “Matthew had a great sense of fun and danger. He was a daredevil and could have been a race car driver. And he did live a full life over his 21 years.”

Mary Poppins cast
Image: Walt Disney Productions.
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David Tomlinson - George Banks

George Banks enjoyed his position as head of the house in Mary Poppins, but British actor David Tomlinson had a very different experience by the time he came to play the character.

Marrying American Mary Lindsay Hiddingh in September 1943, Tomlinson became an instant father to her sons, Michael, eight, and John, six.

But his new wife was still struggling after the death of her son’s father, her first husband, who had been killed at war in 1941.

Mary Poppins cast
Image: Walt Disney Productions.

In December 1943, she took her sons and jumped 15 floors out of a building. At age 26, Tomlinson became a widower.

The Bedknobs and Broomsticks actor later married Audrey Freeman in May 1953. They remained a couple for 47 years until Tomlinson’s death in 2000, from a stroke, aged 83.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.
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