Tony Walton, set and costume designer who won an Oscar, an Emmy and three Tonys and kitted out his wife Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins – obituary
Tony Walton, who has died aged 87, was a British-born award-winning set and costume designer much sought after by leading theatre and film directors including Bob Fosse, Jerry Zaks, Mike Nichols and Sidney Lumet.
In the US he became famous for his work on Broadway over five decades, making his debut as a costume designer on Once There Was a Russian in 1961. He received 16 Tony nominations and won three – for Bob Fosse’s Pippin (1972 – he also did the designs for the director’s original production of Chicago); The House of Blue Leaves (1986) and a revival of Guys and Dolls (1992).
On the big screen he won an Oscar for his work as production designer on Fosse’s musical All That Jazz. He did the production design for Ken Russell’s 1971 camp classic, The Boy Friend, starring Twiggy, and earned Oscar nominations for Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and The Wiz (1978), starring Diana Ross.
In 1985 he won an Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction for his work on an acclaimed television version of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich.
In Britain he was probably best known for kitting out Julie Andrews for her Oscar-winning role in the Disney musical Mary Poppins (1964), for which he received another Oscar nomination – and for being the actress’s first husband.
They had met when she was 11 and he was 12 after Walton and his brother went see her playing the egg in Humpty Dumpty in the West End. They were surprised to find her on the same train home and even more surprised when she got out at the same station – Walton-on Thames in Surrey.
“I asked where she lived and she said, ‘Where do you live?’ ” Walton recalled. “I told her. She said: ‘Well, I live on the other side of the track.’ ”
They became friends, and when the young Julie showed him some stories she had written about musical instruments, “in an effort to make an impression I illustrated them. One of them was published in a newspaper.”
They began going out together, married at St Mary Oatlands Church, Weybridge, in 1959, and had a daughter in 1962.
Initially Walton, who had trained in art and design at the Slade, tried not to work with his wife, though he designed The Julie Andrews Show for the BBC in 1959.
During their courtship, however, he travelled to New York to see her award-winning performance as Eliza Doolittle in the original 1956 Broadway production of My Fair Lady.
The musical provided him with his first theatre job in the US when Playbill hired him to draw caricatures of the cast. His first design commission in the US was for a 1957 off-Broadway revival of Noël Coward’s Conversation Piece.
But he could not resist Walt Disney’s invitation to do the costume and set designs for his wife’s film debut as the perfect nanny in the film adaptation of P L Travers’s Mary Poppins, which Disney had decided should be set in Edwardian London rather than the 1930s of Travers’s story because the costuming would be more interesting.
The drawings Walton produced included depictions of Julie Andrews’s character with a long flowing skirt, holding her parrot-head umbrella in one hand and her carpet bag in the other. Other sketches showed how she would appear in the chalk painting “Jolly Holiday” scenes, dressed in a gown and bonnet and holding a parasol.
Julie Andrews herself would insist that her husband had deliberately intruded hits of sauciness in her starchy nanny’s uniform: “While supervising my fittings, Tony pointed out hidden touches like the primrose or coral linings of Mary’s jackets, or her brightly coloured petticoats,” she recalled in her memoir Home Work. “He said, ‘I fancy that Mary Poppins has a secret life, a kind of quiet pleasure at being a little wicked and naughty’.”
But their marriage did not survive her rise to superstardom. Finding himself increasingly neglected, Walton once told her: “I’ll tell you what, love. I’ll check into another hotel. At least we’ll be able to phone each other.”
The marriage was dissolved in 1968, though they remained good friends and worked together on other projects, including Julie (now Dame Julie) Andrews’s 2003 revival of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend. He also illustrated several children’s books written by her with their daughter Emma about Dumpy the Dump Truck.
“We had too much growing up to do and I was making him unhappy,” Julie Andrews reflected later.
The son of a surgeon, Anthony John Walton was born in Walton-on-Thames on October 24 1934 and educated at Radley, where he acted in school productions, and at the City of Oxford School of Technology, Art and Commerce (now Oxford Brookes University), where he drifted into stage design through producing marionette shows.
The artist John Piper saw one of his productions and suggested that he attend the Slade School of Fine Art in London. He did his National Service in the RAF, training as a pilot in Canada.
Early on in his career Walton worked in the English theatre, including designing inventive costumes and scenery for Sandy Wilsons’s musical Valmouth (Lyric, Hammersmith, 1959) and Frank Loesser’s musical The Most Happy Fella (Coliseum, 1960), and he would return to London from time to time, working on, among others, Tippett’s A Midsummer Marriage (Royal Opera House, 1970) and a revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (Prince Edward, 1989).
In the US Walton was given unofficial credit for helping Hollywood to convert the Winnie the Pooh stories into animated films with appeal to American audiences. Dick and Bob Sherman, the brothers who had been commissioned to write songs for Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966), were left cold by AA Milne’s books, so they asked Walton, with whom they were working on Mary Poppins, to explain the appeal of the bear of very little brain.
As they recalled in their joint autobiography, Walt’s Time: “His eyes lit up. ‘Winnie the Pooh?’, he said. ‘I love Winnie the Pooh! ... Three hours later, he was still talking about Pooh, inspiring us no end. He explained how he had been a chubby little boy, and had felt very insecure. But Winnie the Pooh was his buddy, because Pooh was pudgy and proud of it... Pooh was a wonderful, lovable friend who would never let you down or turn his back on you. Soon, we started to fall in love with Pooh ourselves.”
In 1989 the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York put on a year-long retrospective of Walton’s designs covering three decades of work, including his “evocation of a London street” for Mary Poppins.
Tony Walton is survived by his second wife, Gen, whom he married in 1991, by his daughter from his marriage to Julie Andrews, and by a stepdaughter.
Tony Walton, born October 24 1934, died March 2 2022