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Glynis Johns, Tony Winner for ‘A Little Night Music,’ Dies at 100

Glynis Johns, the British actress who in a trans-Atlantic career that endured for more than 60 years won a Tony Award for her role in “A Little Night Music,” giving husky, emotion-rich voice to the show’s most memorable number, “Send In the Clowns,” and played an exuberant Edwardian suffragist in the Disney movie classic “Mary Poppins,” died on Thursday in Los Angeles. She was 100.

The death, at an assisted living facility, was confirmed by her manager, Mitch Clem.

Ms. Johns was 49 and on the brink of her fourth divorce when Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” opened at the Shubert Theater in February 1973. The New York Times described her character, Desirée Armfeldt, as “a slightly world‐weary and extremely lovewise actress in turn‐of‐the‐century Sweden.”

The critics adored her. To Clive Barnes of The New York Times, “the misty-voiced and glistening-eyed Glynis Johns was all tremulous understanding.”

To Walter Kerr, also writing in The Times, she was “that cousin of bullfrogs and consort of weary gods,” described as “discreet, dangerous … and gratifyingly funny.”

Ms. Johns, center, in 1973 in a scene from “A Little Night Music” with Judith Kahan, left, and Hermione Gingold.Credit…Everett Collection

When she received the award for best actress in a musical at the 1973 Tony Awards presentation, she thanked the show’s “whole company” who “have given me back a joy that I had lost in the theater.”

She had been best known as a very different sort of character. In “Mary Poppins,” Disney’s award-winning 1965 family musical, Ms. Johns was Mrs. Banks, an enthusiastic wife, mother and political activist in 1910 London.

While her two small children were having adventures with their supernatural nanny (Julie Andrews), Mrs. Banks was putting on a sash that said “Votes for Women” and making plans to “throw things at the prime minister.”

Ms. Johns in 1964 as a suffragist in “Mary Poppins,” with Hermione Baddeley, left, and Elsa Lanchester.Credit…Walt Disney Pictures, via Everett Collection

Ms. Johns’s easy versatility suggested that she might have been born to act, but it had not been her only passion, as she told The Los Angeles Times in 1991. “I wanted to be a scientist,” Ms. Johns said. “I would’ve loved to go on and on and on at the university. But you can’t do everything in life.”

“And I didn’t have any choice at the time,” she added. World War II “broke out when I was 16.”

Glynis Margaret Payne Johns was born on Oct. 5, 1923, in Pretoria, South Africa, where her parents, both of whom were artists, were on tour.

Her father, Mervyn Johns, was a Welsh actor who went on to a prolific London theater and film career, and was perhaps best known as Bob Cratchit in the 1951 British film “Scrooge” (released as “A Christmas Carol” in the United States). Her mother, Alice Maude (Steele-Wareham) Johns, who was Australian, was a concert pianist who played under the stage name Alyse Steele-Payne.

Glynis studied at the London Ballet School from the age of 5. When she made her debut in “Buckie’s Bears” at 12, she became the fourth generation — on her mother’s side — to make a career in the theater.

And she grew up onstage. In 1936, she was the troublemaking schoolgirl who drove the plot in Lillian Hellman’s play “The Children’s Hour.” A year later she played the fairy tale heroine in “A Kiss for Cinderella” and in 1943 the title role in “Peter Pan.”

Ms. Johns in 1944 playing the title role in a production of “Peter Pan” in London.Credit…Associated Press/Associated Press

She made her film debut in “South Riding” (1938) as Ralph Richardson’s daughter. She made a war drama, “49th Parallel” (1941), starring Laurence Olivier. In “An Ideal Husband” (1947), she was Oscar Wilde’s frivolous and spirited Mabel Chiltern.

When Ms. Johns’s movies were shown in the United States, they were met with genuine, if faint, praise. Of “Miranda” (1949), a comedy about a mermaid who wanted to see London, Bosley Crowther wrote in The Times, “Glynis Johns is bewitching — one half of her is, at least — as the coyly flirtatious finny creature.” When she returned in “State Secret” (1950), with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Crowther found her “very saucy and explosive as the music hall girl.”

Exactly when she made her Hollywood screen debut is a matter of opinion. “No Highway in the Sky” (1951), in which she played a soft-spoken and very military-looking flight attendant, was a 20th Century Fox picture that starred James Stewart but was filmed in England.

She made two Disney films abroad that were British co-productions. In “The Sword and the Rose” (1953), she played Henry VIII’s little sister; in “Rob Roy” (1953), the Scottish freedom fighter’s wife.

“The Court Jester” (1956) with Danny Kaye was definitely American, albeit set in a medieval European castle. Ms. Johns was an alluring but determined spy who needed to know whether “the pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle.” And when push came to shove, she confidently operated the castle catapult.

Ms. Johns, right, in 1955 in “The Court Jester” with Angela Lansbury and Danny Kaye.Credit…Everett Collection

She appeared in more than a dozen Hollywood movies, showing aristocratic restraint as often as rowdy working-class enthusiasm.

Ms. Johns was a proper turn-of-the-20th-century Southern belle fed up with her exasperating husband (Jackie Gleason) in the comedy “Papa’s Delicate Condition” (1963) and a loquacious Australian innkeeper in “The Sundowners” (1960), which starred Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr.

In addition to playing the London suffragist in “Mary Poppins” (1965), she was the comic relief in “The Chapman Report” (1962), a 19th-century Scottish immigrant in the drama “All Mine to Give” (1957), Jimmy Stewart’s wife in “Dear Brigitte” (1965), a comedy about a math prodigy, and an author having too much fun to finish her book in “Don’t Just Stand There” (1968).

Proud of her Welsh heritage, she appeared in “Under Milk Wood” (1971), a British film version of the poet Dylan Thomas’s radio play that starred and was partly narrated by Richard Burton. As Myfanwy Price, a Welsh fishing village’s dressmaker and sweet-shop owner, she fantasized passionately about the draper on the other side of town.

In “The Ref” (1994), she was Kevin Spacey’s disagreeable mother. In “While You Were Sleeping” (1995), she was the comatose hero’s fragile grandmother. Her last film was “Superstar” (1999), a comedy in which she played Molly Shannon’s take-charge grandmother, who ran over a priest in her motorized wheelchair.

“Acting is my highest form of intelligence,” Ms. Johns once said, “the time when I use the best part of my brain.”Credit…SGranitz/WireImage, via Getty Images

On American television, she was a mystery writer in a brief series of her own, “Glynis” (1963), and once played the well-dressed, chauffeur-driven mother of Diane Chambers on “Cheers.” In the 1982 mini-series “Little Gloria … Happy at Last,” she was Gloria Vanderbilt’s mother’s mother, a vibrant flapper of a certain age.

But Ms. Johns had begun her career on the stage, and she returned to it often. She made her Broadway debut in “Gertie” (1952), earning favorable reviews — “quietly humorous in everything she does,” said The Times — but the play closed after five performances.

She won over Broadway audiences as the title character of George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” (1956), a munitions heiress working in a Salvation Army shelter, starring with Charles Laughton. The Times’s Brooks Atkinson declared the production “a standoff” between Laughton and Shaw, but The Daily News called the comedy “one of the best in many seasons.”

On Broadway, she did a second Shaw play, “Too True to Be Good” (1963), with Lillian Gish.

In London, her stage roles included Anne of Cleves in “The King’s Mare” (1966) and Alma Rattenbury, a notorious 1930s murderer, in “Cause Célèbre” (1977). In the early 1970s she did an international tour — playing England, the United States and Australia — in Noël Coward’s romantic comedy “The Marquise.”

Her final appearance on Broadway, opposite Rex Harrison in his last stage production, was in W. Somerset Maugham’s comedy “The Circle” (1989).

Ms. Johns was married and divorced four times. Her first husband, from 1942 to 1948, was Anthony Forwood, a British actor. Then she was married to David R. Foster (1952-56) and Cecil Henderson (1960-62), both businessmen, and finally to Elliott Arnold (1964-73), an American feature writer and novelist.

Her only child, a son, Gareth Forwood, died in 2007.She is survived by a grandson and three great-grandchildren. She was a longtime resident of Los Angeles.

Maybe it was just as well that fate had pushed her into show business. In her youth, she said in a 1973 article in The Times, she had “wanted to lead what I thought of as a ‘normal’ existence, but I soon found I wasn’t as normal away from the theater as in it.”

She concluded, “Acting is my highest form of intelligence, the time when I use the best part of my brain.”

Alex Traub contributed reporting.

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