Considered by many to be the greatest ever live action film from Walt Disney Pictures, Mary Poppins is a true family classic that has been enjoyed by young and old alike for generations. Released in 1964, the delightful fantasy musical won five Academy Awards from an incredible 13 nominations, and was the only one of Walt Disney’s films to receive a Best Picture nomination during the lifetime of the animation pioneer and entertainment empire founder.
Directed by Robert Stevenson (who also called the shots on Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Love Bug and Herbie Rides Again), Mary Poppins is best remembered for giving Dame Julie Andrews the title role; remarkably, it was the film debut of the then-28-year-old actress (already a seasoned veteran of stage musicals), and landed her the Best Actress Oscar – making her one of only four actresses to win the Academy Award for their very first film.
Mary Poppins also enjoys a degree of notoriety for Dick Van Dyke’s performance as Bert, with the American actor performing in a hilariously unconvincing cockney accent. The film also sports memorable turns from David Tomlinson as the stern George Banks, Glynis Johns as Winifred Banks and Hermione Baddeley as Ellen the maid.
However, the film also introduced audiences to two talented child actors of the time. Eight-year-old Karen Dotrice took the role of Jane Banks, alongside seven-year-old Matthew Garber as her younger brother Michael – the mischievous young charges of the uncanny nanny, Mary Poppins. While these are the roles that both Dotrice and Garber are best remembered for, it was neither the first nor last time they worked together on film.
While the bulk of the film’s cast (Dotrice included) continued to act extensively on stage and screen after making Mary Poppins, for Matthew Garber the role of Michael Banks proved to be his only major professional success – and it cast a large shadow over what sadly proved to be a very short life for the promising young actor.
Matthew Adam Garber was born on the 25th March 1956 in Stepney, London, and attended St. Paul’s Primary School in the London suburb of Winchmore Hill. Garber’s parents both had experience as stage actors, and it was soon recognised that their young son showed potential as a performer himself. The Garbers were friends of actor Ray Dotrice – father of Karen – and he had a key role to play in introducing young Matthew to the casting department at Disney.
The casting agents were indeed impressed by Garber, and were particularly taken by what they called his “artful dodges,” including “squinting, screwing up his nose and brushing his hair back with one hand.” The team were promptly on the lookout for roles which might be a good fit for the inexperienced youngster.
This led to Garber making his acting debut at the age of seven in Disney’s 1963 fantasy film The Three Lives of Thomasina. Directed by Don Chaffey (best known for Jason and the Argonauts and One Million Years BC), the film’s leading man was Patrick McGoohan – and it also featured Garber’s eventual Mary Poppins co-star Karen Dotrice. Shot in England and Scotland, The Three Lives of Thomasina was well received, but hardly a smash hit.
Still, Garber and Dotrice impressed Walt Disney enough for them to land the plum roles of Jane and Michael in Mary Poppins. With its then-groundbreaking mix of live action and animation, this film adaptation of the children’s book series by P.L. Travers was a big step forward for Disney. As well as winning a slew of major awards including several Oscars, it was also a massive commercial success, ultimately earning over $102.2 million at the box office (over $715 million adjusted for inflation).
Still, whilst the adult actors from Mary Poppins went on to more major roles, it would be three more years before Matthew Garber acted again, once more appearing alongside Karen Dotrice in another Disney production, 1967’s The Gnome-Mobile. It was hoped that seeing the Banks children together again would draw audiences, and a a Disney press release from the time promoted Garber as “a spirited and bright boy” who enjoyed playing practical jokes on his friends, taking part in sports and reading books.
Years later, Dotrice would recall Garber as being much the same in person as “how he looked [on screen]: an imp, and I loved being his shadow. I can’t imagine making movies would have been half as much fun without him. He loved being naughty, finding and jumping off of small buildings on the back lot. While I was Victorian proper and wouldn’t let myself get dirty or muddy, Matthew had a great sense of fun and danger. He was a daredevil and could have been a race car driver.”
While The Gnome-Mobile reunited the young actors with their Mary Poppins director Robert Stevenson, it did not come close to making the same impact on audiences as Mary Poppins had, earning only $4 million at the box office. However, whilst Dotrice would go on to act in a number of subsequent films (including a small cameo role in the 2018 Mary Poppins sequel Mary Poppins Returns), Garber would never act again after 1967.
Garber was so successful in disappearing from the limelight that details on why he abandoned show business are hard to find. It is believed he returned to full-time education, attending Highgate School in London from 1968 to 1972, and some time thereafter he would spend some time in India. It was here that his life took a dark turn, when he unwittingly contracted hepatitis.
Garber’s brother Fergus later denied rumours that Matthew had contracted the condition from drug use; instead, it has been suggested that it was a result of eating infected, perhaps uncooked meat. The illness had a debilitating impact on the former child star, who soon returned home to London – but tragically failed to get better.
Garber developed haemorrhagic necrotising pancreatitis, which would take his life at the early age of just 21. He died at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London on the 13th of June 1977, and was cremated at the St. Marylebone Crematorium in London three days later. His fame was so far behind him that his death did not become common knowledge for some time.
Karen Dotrice recalled learning of her old co-star’s death from his mother. “I remember his mum, Margot, calling… to let us know that Matthew had died. That was so unexpected.” She expressed regret over the two of them losing touch: “I wished I had picked up the phone over the years, I wished I had treated him more like a brother; but he’s indelibly printed in all of our minds, he’s eternal. An amazing little soul.”
In 2004 Matthew Garber was officially named a Disney Legend, an honour which his brother Fergus Garber collected on his behalf. While he is sadly missed, Karen Dotrice remarks that the beloved Michael Banks actor “did live a full life over his 21 years.”