It was 1965 when America fell in love with The Sound of Music. The film, which starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, captured the real life Von Trapp family's escape from Nazi-occupied Austria and won five Oscars®, including one for Best Picture. Forty-five years later, it remains one of the most popular movie musicals ever.
Julie portrayed Maria von Trapp, the nun-turned-governess who made clothes from curtains and won over her hard-to-please charges with music. "It made my career," Julie says. "It was that big a movie, and we had no idea really at the beginning that it was going to be that huge."
The opening of The Sound of Music is one of the most iconic scenes in film history, and Julie says she can vividly remember filming it. "I walked across the field from one end, and the helicopter came across from the other end down through the trees, and we met, almost," she says. "What I didn't know was that the downdraft from that helicopter was fierce. It was a jet helicopter, so every time we got the shot, I made my turn, and then the helicopter went around me to start again. Every time it went around it me, it just leveled me to the grass ... so I was spitting mud and hay and everything else."
Julie was 28 and a new mom when she headed to Austria to take on Fraulein Maria, the role that would make her an international star. By then, Julie had been singing for decades. She says she discovered her vocal ability when she was only 7 years old.
"I was a real child prodigy. I had like four octaves, and I could sing cadenzas like crazy. When I went up really high, the dogs from miles around would howl," she says. "I was very quickly taken to a specialist to be sure I wasn't doing any harm to my chords, and he said, 'You do have an adult larynx, so you're going to be okay, but go to a good teacher.'"
By the time she was 13, Julie realized her voice was really something special, she says.
Prior to The Sound of Music, Julie performed on Broadway and even won a Best Actress Oscar® for her performance as the practically perfect nanny, Mary Poppins.
After filming Mary Poppins, Julie says she hesitated when she was first offered the role of Maria von Trapp. "I questioned having played one nanny [Mary Poppins] whether another nanny would be a good idea," she says. "But it was such a delicious role, and the music is so beautiful."
Over the next three decades, Julie lit up the stage and screen in shows like Thoroughly Modern Millie, Victor/Victoria, 10 and S.O.B.. She even hosted her own television variety series, The Julie Andrews Hour.
By the mid-1990s, a lifetime of singing had taken a toll on Julie's voice. She had throat surgery in 1997, an operation that left her legendary voice permanently damaged. "It was not a successful operation, and tissue was removed. I didn't have cancer, I didn't have nodules, I didn't have anything," she says. "When you work on Broadway eight shows a week for a very long time ... a certain kind of muscular striation happens on the vocal cords. A lot of Broadway singers get it. So, sadly, I had to work to deal with the loss of a voice because it just didn't come back."
The specific problem with her vocal cords is that they don't meet, Julie says. "Wind just whistled through the vocal cords that would not come together because tissue was missing," she says. "I have a about six good low, low notes, and I can sing the hell out of 'Old Man River.'"
Julie says she was in denial that her voice was gone for about a year. "I just thought I was taking a long time to heal, but the voice sounds like it's chalk on a blackboard when I sing certain notes," she says.
Though the loss of her singing voice was a tough blow, Julie's career persevered. She voiced the queen of Far, Far Awayin the Shrek movies, portrayed the Queen of Genovia in The Princess Diaries and is a best-selling author and publisher of 30 children's books. Her latest, Little Bo in Italy, was co-written with her daughter Emma.
"As Maria says in the movie, 'When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window,'" Julie says. "I began to write with my daughter and we began a small publishing collection, called the Julie Andrews Collection. And one day I said to my Emma, 'You know, I am missing so much,' and she said the most wonderful thing. She said, 'Mom, you've just found a different way of using your voice.'"
Julie's co-star Christopher Plummer was a teenager when he first fell in love with acting in his hometown of Montreal. After years of stage and screen work, he signed on to do The Sound of Music, and Julie says she was nervous about meeting him at first. "I was in awe of this gentlemen," she says. "[He was] a very, very famous dramatic actor, and here I was just a musical songstress."
Christopher says he didn't exactly see it that way. "I'd fallen in love with her in My Fair Lady on Broadway, so I had a crush on her forever," he says.
Still, Christopher wasn't thrilled with the role of Captain von Trapp at first. "I wanted to do a musical, and that was what attracted it to me," he says. "But the part as written was not exactly Hamlet. ... There was not enough humor in it."
So Christopher got together with screenwriter Ernie Lehman to get "some meat off the bones." "And it turned out to be quite all right," he says.
One of the main concerns Christopher says he had with The Sound of Music was that it had the potential to be too sappy. "It was pretty delicate stuff because it could have run overboard and become very mawkish and sentimental," he says. "So one day I called it, well, 'The Sound of Mucus.'"
Captain von Trapp didn't tolerate much mischief on screen, but when the cameras weren't rolling, Christopher says he wasn't exactly on his best behavior.
"I wasn't working a lot in Austria, so I had time to make friends and go through all the bars," he says. "At one point, I came back to work about three weeks later having gone on sort of long binges with my friends, and [director] Robert Wise said 'You know we're going to have to redo your costume because you're fatter than Orson Wells."
After seeing the final product and Julie's performance, Christopher says he changed his mind about the film. "I think [it was] almost the most natural performance she's given in her career," he says. "Her whole face was just radiant with reality and sureness and unself-consciousness, and she gave such an extraordinary, immortal performance. I couldn't help but turn around and start respecting the movie, which was beautifully made, of course."
In the years since filming The Sound of Music, Christopher has appeared in more than 100 films, including The Insider, The Inside Man, Up and, most recently, The Last Station, which earned him an Oscar® nomination for his portrayal of the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. A few years ago, he also published his memoir, In Spite of Myself.
At 80 years old, Christopher's acting career is still going strong. "[I'm getting] more work now than I've had all my life," he says. He's currently balancing work on both the stage and screen, though he says his heart belongs to theater.
"There's no excitement that can top the sound of laughter and the real-life reaction of an audience," he says. "There's nothing like it."
Five months before shooting began in Salzburg, The Sound of Music director Robert Wise set out to find seven perfect children to play the Von Trapp children. He interviewed more than 200 hopefuls, including a young Richard Dreyfuss, Kurt Russell and Mia Farrow.
In the hours before shooting, Robert cast the final members of the most popular family in cinematic history: Charmian Carr as Liesl; Nicholas Hammond as Friedrich; Heather Menzies-Urich as Louisa; Duane Chase as Kurt; Angela Cartwright as Brigitta; Debbie Turner as Marta; and Kym Karath as youngest daughter, Gretl.
Forty-five years later, some of the actors have families of their own and say they love watching the film with their children. "I think this movie is the world's best babysitter," Nicholas says. "Everybody I know has parked the kids in front of it. Three hours of dead silence."
The actors all say they knew then how lucky they were to be working with stars like Julie and Christopher. "There was a time when Chris and I had a chance to sit down together for maybe 10 or 15 minutes and we shared a joke, and it was an absolutely wonderful time," Duane says.
Charmian, who was 21 when she played a 16-going-on-17-year-old, says she had a bit of a crush on Christopher. "He was so perfect, and he spoke with this perfect British accent," she says.
During filming, Charmian stayed in the same hotel as Christopher. There, she says, the famed actor taught her a thing or two. "I learned how to drink," she says. "And I learned what a great pianist he was, and [what a] great voice that he had. He sang and played the piano every night."
The actors spent about nine months together while shooting, so they say they really forged a family. "We keep in touch at Christmas and the holidays," Julie says.
When Heather lost her husband, actor Robert Urich, to cancer, her Sound of Music siblings were there for her. "They all showed up," she says. "There's no DNA here, but they're a special kind of family. I'm okay, and part of the reason I'm okay is because of these guys right here."
When the cast got to Chicago for their Oprah Show taping, they all went out beforehand for a Thanksgiving dinner of sorts. "Everybody tried to catch up so fast because we knew we didn't have that long, and questions were coming from all over the place," Julie says.
"Suddenly you just revert the 45 years," Nicholas says. "We always seem to pick up the conversation where we left off, no matter what the time has been."
The "kids" are so close, they're currently working on a new project together. "We realized that we've got this treasure trove of memorabilia that we've kept—our home movies and photos and all of the stuff—and we're doing a book, the seven kids, and answering all the questions that everybody has asked," Nicholas says. "We thought now was our chance to kind of give that back to all the wonderful fans around the world."