Matthew Garber made three movies in his life, all for Disney. That career, his second movie in particular, made him more memorable for a lot of people than actors with literally hundreds of credits. He died at age twenty-one, ten years after “retiring.” It’s amazing to think about, amazing to think how different his life could’ve been, especially since his brother claimed that one of the reasons for his death was drug use. I don’t know if that’s true, of course, but imagine a world wherein Matthew Garber became an affable British character actor or comedian and be wistful with me.
In fact, his short career stemmed from being a family friend of the Dotrice family. Roy Dotrice was a Shakespearean actor whose daughter Karen was being cast by Disney in the obscure-but-worth-it Three Lives of Thomasina. Garber was seven at the time, and Roy admired his—well, let’s be real, his mugging. Disney acting in children gets criticized for this a lot, that supposedly it’s mostly just kids being broad for the camera, but Roy Dotrice believed that Garber’s particular style of it was well suited for Disney sensibilities. So Garber was cast as one of the young friends of Karen’s Mary McDhui.
In part because of how well the children interacted, they were then cast, unforgettably, as Jane and Michael Banks in Mary Poppins. Karen Dotrice would later say that the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as fun for her without him. And maybe the children’s acting isn’t the best part of the movie, but the movie is, let’s face it, such an embarrassment of riches that it’s easy to notice how beautifully the children are cast. Even if, okay, Garber could’ve toned down the mugging a bit.
Alas, the best thing I have to say about Garber’s final movie, The Gnome-Mobile, is that he was perfectly fine in it. It’s a terrible movie that I’ve only seen once and that remains one of the worst Disney movies I’ve ever seen. That isn’t Garber’s fault; the fault is far deeper than any one person, and he’s perfectly acceptable in the terrible, terrible role he was cast in. One hopes dearly it wasn’t why he gave up acting, because I like to imagine there could have been better roles for him afterward.
He contracted hepatitis at age twenty-one in India, and by the time he got treatment, he had acquired pancreatitis. It killed him. Karen Dotrice would later say she regretted not staying closer to him after they were no longer acting together, but she also believed he lived a full life for such a short one. It’s not often that we have such a perfect image of someone like Garber, someone who remains forever lost potential. But he’s the exact sort of person this column is really for, someone to think about who you might not have otherwise.