WALT DISNEY first noticed David Tomlinson in 1958, starring in ‘The Ring of Truth’ in London’s West End, and invited him for supper at a little restaurant in Soho.
“The evening went very well,” Tomlinson recalled. “Walt was charming. We had drinks back at his hotel. I literally had my pen ready expecting to sign a film contract, but nothing happened…I didn’t hear another word from him for five years!”
However, when the call finally came, Walt offered a life-changing role: the curmudgeonly George Banks in Mary Poppins. “It was a truly magical moment… I was enchanted by it”.
By this point, Tomlinson had enjoyed a distinguished career in British pictures playing permanently perplexed characters in Hotel Sahara, Three Men in a Boat, and Up the Creek, with Peter Sellers.
Well into his forties and by no means a matinee idol, his face had developed more folds and creases, leading Noel Coward to quip that he “resembled a very old baby”.
Tomlinson never forgot the warm welcome at the Disney studios in California. “It was an exhilarating, joyful experience,” he marveled. “Julie Andrews, who played Mary Poppins, was equally delightful”.
Firing up a Lucky Strike, ‘Uncle Walt’ pledged that Poppins would be a visual banquet. The plot was simple: Mary Poppins – a no-nonsense, fun-loving nanny who could work miracles – takes charge of two kiddies, turns their dad (David) from a rather pompous stuffed shirt into quite a lad, and then with her mission accomplished, disappears on the next wind.
“My parents were beguiled by Julie,” says David’s son Jamie. “They became great friends. She often entertained and they shared a lot of time together – playing board games was a favorite pastime during the shoot.”
Although no singer, Disney spent lavishly on staging Tomlinson’s performance of ‘Let’s Go Fly a Kite’ which he joyfully sang with Dick Van Dyke, playing Bert the chimney sweep. The late critic Sheridan Morley opined that David had an even better ‘sing-speak voice’ than Rex Harrison.
Along the way, Tomlinson was asked to help Van Dyke improve his shaky cockney accent. “It doesn’t matter too much if his cockney isn’t too good,” Walt insisted, “because I am not making the film just for East London.”
During rehearsals, Jamie says, “Dad thought Dick was marvelous, but if he had arrived there earlier, he could have helped him a lot!” As it happened, the accent failed to pass muster with the public and Van Dyke later apologized for the “most atrocious cockney accent in the history of cinema”.
Walt Disney, David thought, was a very clever man. “Of course, he was an autocrat, he ran the studio and was totally in charge, and if he said he was going to do something nobody could really stop him. Very little of what he did was a failure, he had the common touch”.
What’s astonishing is at a private preview of Poppins, Tomlinson was left reeling at “the most sentimental rubbish I had ever seen…And I practically said to dear Walt, ‘Well, you can’t win them all, can you?’”
As it turned out, Poppins became Disney’s biggest money-maker, scooped five Academy Awards, two Baftas, a Grammy and a Golden Globe. “I was wrong about that one,” David noted proudly.
Looking back, Tomlinson’s widow Audrey remembered rollicking times. “Disney’s people were so impressed with the work he’d done on Mary Poppins. They were bowled over by him,” she recalled with a hoot. “That’s why he was offered the role of Peter Thorndyke in ‘The Love Bug,’ a few years later”.
That film – about ‘Herbie,’ a Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own – again revealed Tomlinson’s ability to not take himself or his profession too seriously. “I loved that,” David gushed. “It was an extraordinary story because that film – which was modest in comparison with Poppins – became the most successful film in America at the time”. Alongside all this fun, David was exasperated by a debilitating hernia and privately complained of “getting so terribly, terribly tired,” in a letter to Audrey. “I have to kick Herbie the car quite a bit as part of my characterization which makes my hernia play up.”
After a successful hernia operation and a few years on the provincial stage, Tomlinson’s final venture into Hollywood for the cult classic ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks,’ completed a hat-trick of box-office blockbusters.
However, working with co-star Angela Lansbury – who later found fame as Jessica Fletcher in ‘Murder She Wrote’ – turned out to be a sobering experience.
“She was terrified of him and made it very tough,” Audrey recalled. “David found it very awkward.” For whatever reason – which Audrey has never understood – Lansbury appeared to be intimidated or nervous. “She was so tricky to work with. It’s terrible; it’s like an actor on stage that is so frightened that they will upstage you, unconsciously. Because they’re frightened of what you’re doing, they want to see what you’re doing all the time – so they step back, and it’s called upstaging,” she said candidly. “David found it very awkward.”
However, looking back, actor Roy Snart, who played evacuee Paul Rawlins – whose possession of the bedknob led to the film’s adventures – was under no illusion about who was the star. “The anecdote my mother always tells about David,” Roy says, “was that he was definitely the big shot on the set; very popular, very professional but a bit scary. He was always nice to me and naturally, as a small boy, I was oblivious to all the politics”:
When I learnt my lines, I learnt everyone’s lines so when David, on one occasion, couldn’t recall his lines I had no difficulty reminding him of what they were to help him out. My mother said that the set went deathly quiet and there were looks of horror on the crew’s faces – a small boy telling a big star his lines – but he just smiled, thanked me and we shot the scene again. I was completely oblivious to my fauxpas until my mother suggested that I didn’t ‘help out’ in future, when we got home.
While nothing ever replicated the magnitude of those Disney classics, David continued to work sporadically throughout the seventies, appearing on radio, TV, and tirelessly fundraising for autism charities.
His final film, with an ailing Peter Sellers, was the slapstick flop ”The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu.” (It proved to be Sellers’ last film too).
From then on, his greatest pleasure was motoring around England in a vintage Bentley sniffing out antique shop bargains. Asked if he had enjoyed his career, he told an interviewer, “What could have been more wonderful than to have made some sort of success in your chosen profession? It’s been a ball all the way”.
His final wish – made tongue firmly in cheek – was to have the epitaph: “David Tomlinson, an actor of genius, irresistible to women,” chiseled on his headstone. “Obviously, our mum had her own thoughts about that, and it didn’t quite happen,” his son Henry said with wry amusement.
‘Disney’s British Gentleman: The Life and Career of David Tomlinson’ by Nathan Morley is published by The History Press.