By far one of the most adorable and classic faces to ever grace our TV screens is that of Matthew Garber, the actor who played Michael Banks in Mary Poppins. Garber was named a Disney Legend in 2004, “[winning the hearts of Disney audiences with his fresh, uninhibited, and infectious personality.” But many do not know that Garber passed away at the mere age of 21, after starring in only three Disney movies.
Matthew Garber’s Life
Matthew Adam Garber was born on March 25, 1956, in Stepney, London, England. He attended St Paul’s School and Highgate school is his Alma mater. Both of his parents were stage performers, which gave him early exposure to the art of acting. He had one younger brother, Fergus Garber, who was eight years younger.
Matthew Garber retired from acting at the young age of 10, although no one will ever know if he ever would have returned to the screen. In 1976, he contracted hepatitis while in India. He dealt with the disease for several months, eventually treated for it at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London. The hepatitis spread to his pancreas, and on June 13, 1977, he passed away from hemorrhagic necrotizing pancreatitis. He was only 21 years old. His body was cremated at St. Marylebone Crematorium three days later.
Matthew Garber’s Career
All three movies in which Garber starred were with Disney. Karen Dotrice, the actress who plays his sister in Mary Poppins, co-starred alongside Garber in all three movies, always as his sister.
It was Dotrice’s father, Shakespearean actor Roy Dotrice, who introduced her to-be onscreen brother to Walt Disney casting. What struck Roy as unique were young Garber’s “artful dodges, like squinting, screwing up his nose, and brushing his hair back with one hand.”
Garber and Dotrice were both cast in The Three Lives of Thomasina in 1963. Garber was only seven at the time. He starred as Michael Banks alongside Dotrice the following year in Mary Poppins. In 1967, both children once again played siblings in Disney’s The Gnome Mobile.
A 1967 Disney press release described Garber as a “spirited and bright boy, who enjoyed pulling practical jokes on friends, competing in sports, and reading books rich with adventure, mythology, and even poetry.” Disney coined him “the youngest method actor in movies.” One funny moment is recalled from an article when Garber interrupted filming to say that one of his front teeth was coming out. The director tried not to laugh and told Garber to go ahead and pull his tooth out, which he did.
Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins was a musical film version of P.L. Travers’ book series, originally published between 1934 and 1988. The film was released in 1964 and starred Julie Andrews as the mischievous, magical nanny, Dick Van Dyke as Bert the chimney sweep, Matthew Garber as Michael Banks, and Karen Dotrice as Michael’s sister, Jane.
Mary Poppins and its cast and crew collectively received 13 Academy Award nominations in 1965, winning five of those. Walt Disney considered the film to be his “crowning achievement,” as it was the only Disney film to earn a Best Picture Academy Award nomination during his lifetime.
According to Insider, Mary Poppins was the highest-grossing film of 1964. It earned a staggering $102.27 million at the box office, according to IMDb. In 2022, that would equate to nearly a billion dollars at $974,756,084.42.
Of course, Mary Poppins as we know it would never be the same without sweet Matthew Garber, rest in peace. The 2018 sequel, Mary Poppins Returns (starring Emily Blunt) featured Dick Van Dyke and a cameo by Karen Dotrice.
Dotrice once said of her on-stage brother, that she wished she had spent more time with him.
“I can’t imagine making movies would have been half as much fun without him,” Dotrice said of Garber. “He was how he looked – an imp – and I loved being his shadow… He loved being naughty, finding and jumping off small buildings on the back lot.”
She added that “Matthew had a great sense of fun and danger. He was a daredevil and could have been a race car driver. And he did live a full life over his 21 years.”