Glynis Johns—the South African-born Welsh actor, singer, and dancer—known for introducing Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” in A Little Night Music, died January 4 at 100. Ms. Johns passing was confirmed by her longtime publicist Mitch Clem. Ms Johns also memorably played suffragette mother Winifred Banks in the film musical Mary Poppins.
Born October 5, 1923 in South Africa, to Welsh actor Mervyn Johns and classical concert pianist Alys Maude Steele-Payne, Ms. Johns began acting at age 12. She appeared on the London stage in the mid 1930s, with a breakout role in South Riding in 1938, when she was just 15.
She returned to the London stage in 1942 as Peter Pan, and landed her first major film role in 1948 playing a “glamorous mermaid” in the film Miranda.
She quickly established a persona in light comedy roles as a wide-eyed, slightly ditzy performer, an abundance of blonde hair, and a husky voice with a plummy accent, all of which she displayed in more than 60 films from 1938 to 1999, including State Secret and Mad About Men.
She made her Broadway debut in 1952 with Enid Bagnold’s comedy Gertie, which ran only a handful of performances. Most of her career took place in the U.K, but she made a number of distinctive film, TV, and stage appearances that established her international reputation.
She played Barbara Undershaft in a 1956 Broadway revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara that ran seven months, and appeared as the alluring Maid Jean the 1956 Danny Kaye comedy The Court Jester (also with Angela Lansbury).
Among her numerous TV appearances, she had her own short-lived sitcom series Glynis (1963) and played campy comic villain Lady Penelope Peasoup partner of Lord Marmaduke Ffogg (Rudy Vallee) in the mid 1960s Batman TV series.
However, all these paled beside her two big credits, one in the 1960s and one in the 1970s. In 1964, she played Winifred Banks, the mother of Jane and Michael Banks, who is so absorbed in the suffragist movement that she sometimes loses track of her children. She sang the Sherman Brothers’ anthem “Sister Suffragette.”
In 1973, Ms. Johns played the lead role of road-weary stage star Desiree Armfeldt in the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical A Little Night Music. She performed “The Glamorous Life” and the duet “You Must Meet My Wife.” Sondheim mentions in his various biographies that he was concerned about the narrowness of her vocal range. It was with this limitation in mind that he wrote Ms. Johns’ only solo in the musical, but one which served as the show’s 11 o’clock number and one of the composer’s most-recorded songs, “Send in the Clowns.” The performance won her the 1973 Tony Award as Best Actress in a Musical.
She continued her film career into the 1980s, appearing in The Vault of Horror (1972) and The Happy Prince (1974), and made a notable TV appearance in the inaugural season of the NBC sitcom Cheers, playing Diane Chambers’ mother, Helen.
Later in her career, she returned to the stage. She was in a London revival of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Circle, in which she played Lady Catherine Champion-Cheney opposite Stewart Granger and Rex Harrison. It transferred to New York in 1989. It turned out to be the farewell Broadway performances for all three stars.
Ms. Johns took one last stage role in a 1991 Los Angeles revival of A Little Night Music, this time portraying Madame Armfeldt, the mother of the character she had originated in the show, and this time singing “Liaisons.”
She played Sandra Bullock’s mother in the 1995 film While You Were Sleeping. Her final film appearance was in the 1999 movie comedy Superstar, playing the mother of Molly Shannon’s character (which Shannon had developed on Saturday Night Live).
Ms. Johns then retired to Los Angeles, where she lived out the remainder of her years. She was married and divorced four times. She had a son, actor Gareth Foxwood, who died in 2007.