Catching Up With…Heather Menzies From ‘The Sound of Music’

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The Canadian actress talks childhood fame, the Robert Urich Foundation and her role in The Sound of Music

Strolling around New York City…


Spending time with her three kids…

These are a few of Heather Menzies’ favourite things.

Much like the characters who sing the famous song in the 1965 musical, The Sound of Music, Menzies always finds comfort in the little things life has to offer.

“Spring in New York City is a particular favourite of mine,” she says. “And planting flowers at my cottage in Canada. Just being there, in Picton, Ont., is a favourite thing of mine.”

Audiences familiar with the Oscar-winning musical extravaganza will immediately recognize Menzies from her role as the flaxen-haired Louisa von Trapp, the second-eldest daughter of the gruff Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). Loosely based on the hardships suffered by the Von Trapp Family singers, one of most famous concert groups in the years leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War, The Sound of Music featured the star power of songbird Julia Andrews and an eclectic cast of child performers, including Menzies who was tackling her first major movie role.

Now 67, the Toronto-born Menzies has only fond memories of her days working on the film that thrust her into the limelight at the tender age of 14. And, like any teenager, memorable moments often include meeting personal idols.

“There was a one time a screen test [for The Sound of Music] fell on a Friday, so I had to miss school and take classes on the set,” Menzies recalls. “There was a trailer out back that acted as our schoolroom for the day. When I got there I saw all of these child actors I’d grown up watching, like Johnny Provost [from the Lassie TV series] and Kurt Russell. I’d grown up worshipping these people and there I was in this schoolroom with them—only now they were peers of mine!”

After her breakout role, Menzies went on to guest star in countless TV shows (including The Love Boat and The Bob Newhart Show) before landing the lead role as Jessica 6 in the successful, albeit short-lived, 1977 series, Logan’s Run, and starring in Roger Corman’s cult classic Piranha (1978).

But it was while filming a commercial spot for Libby’s Corned Beef Hash in the mid-70s that Menzies met the love of her life. Her late husband, actor Robert Urich, was also signed on to appear in the TV spot and the two formed a close bond on set. “We always joked that, if our relationship didn’t work out, we could say that Libby’s made hash out of our lives,” she joked in Parade. “But it did work—we were very happily married.”

Sadly, Urich (who starred in Vega$, Spenser: For Hire and the critically-acclaimed Lonesome Dove miniseries) died in 2002 at age 55 of a rare form of sarcoma, leaving behind Menzies and their three adopted children. Since his death, Menzies has devoted herself to The Robert Urich Foundation, which she created in 2007.

“It makes me feel good to be a part of finding funds to put towards much-needed research,” she says. “It takes up a big part of my life, but it’s not work to me.”

We caught up with Heather Menzies to talk childhood fame, the Robert Urich Foundation and her role in The Sound of Music. Click through to read the full Q&A. 

Heather Menzies, centre, with her onscreen family.

On her fondest memory from the set of The Sound of Music
“Gosh, there are so many. However, there is one moment, in particular, that really stands out in my mind. It was when we were singing ‘So Long, Farewell’ on the staircase. I think word had gotten out that we were doing something special on Stage 15, so all these people [from different movie lots] showed up that day to watch us film. My dad, who is sadly no longer with us, came to pick me up that day, and I remember he was standing by the main camera with [director] Robert Wise. There was this look of pride on his face, like ‘Look at my little girl!’ I never forgot that; I immediately filed it away in my mind. It sends chills up my spine every time I think about it. I can’t remember if I ever told my dad that I noticed him watching me that day, but I sure hope that I did.”

On auditioning for the role of Louisa von Trapp…
“Oh, it was an endless process! (laughs) Anybody who had anything to do with show business at the time was auditioning for a part in The Sound of Music. They held auditions in London, New York, Canada, everywhere! I auditioned in Los Angeles, which is where I was living at the time. The walls were always lined with kids and their parents—it was just a sea of faces up and down the hallway. I remember that [director] Robert Wise and [associate producer] Saul Chaplin were always there for the auditions. They had this knack for making you feel comfortable.

Eventually, after a few months had gone by, they us narrowed down to two sets of von Trapp kids, so 14 of us in total. The casting directors told us they’d let us know which group got the parts on the following Monday. So, on that Monday I went to school and assumed my mother would send me a message if I’d gotten the part. But 3 p.m. came and went and I hadn’t heard anything. I remember walking home with a heavy heart. I got home and heard my mom upstairs taking a bath, so I knocked on the bathroom door. ‘Mom, did I get it?’ And she says back to me, ‘Heather, your sister is outside and she still needs to get dressed for a commercial audition; her dress is on the bed and we’re running late. Can you please go get her and help her get dressed?’ But I tried again, ‘But Mom, did I get it?’ And she said, ‘Well, yes! Now will you please go get your sister?!’ (laughs) My mother had been sitting on this news all day! By the time she told me, it was old news to her. Meanwhile, I’m standing in the hallway outside the bathroom and my entire life changed in that moment!”

On her favourite musical number to perform in the film…
“Probably ‘So Long, Farewell’ because of my father. But the song ‘Do Re Mi’ was so fun to film around Salzburg. It was great because the townspeople had no idea what we were doing. (laughs) It was a lot of loud speakers pumping out music while we danced around. It was a genius way to perform that number, though, with different locations and wardrobe changes.”

On what made her costars such a tight-knit group…
“Through the years there was always a reissue of the latest VHS or DVD or BluRay and, each time, we were asked to get together to promote the movie. We were brought together more so than any other project I’ve done over the years because The Sound of Music has never really gone away—it keeps finding new fans. Angela Cartwright [who plays Brigitta] and I lived close together both during and after filming, so we saw each other all the time. A lot of the moms became friends, too. Despite the age difference between Kym Karath [who plays little Gretl] and I, our moms became best friends. I’m even the godmother to Kym’s son. We’ve all had our ins and outs over the years and disagreed on things, like any real family—we’ve even hung up on each other, only to make up again later. Angela and I were particularly close because we were almost the same age and we both loved, loved, loved The Beatles. We drove everyone on set crazy with that. We were Beatles maniacs and we’d play their music in our trailers. We even had the same favourite Beatle in common—Paul, of course!” (laughs)

Heather Menzies (second from left) and her castmates prepare to fall off the boat.

On the question fans ask her the most…
“Oh, they always want to hear about when Kimmy [Kym Karath] almost drowned. We laugh about it now, but at the time it was not funny. It was during the famous boat scene [where we’re all waving at our father] before it tips over. But Kym didn’t know how to swim and she sank to the bottom of the lake. [When we got her out] she threw up all over me because she’d ingested so much of that horrible, murky water. I’d been holding on to her while balancing on this boat when Robert Wise called ‘Action!’—and then I’m suddenly in the lake and I hear yells for ‘Cut!’ I hadn’t noticed that Kym had thrown up all over me. Her mother was standing on the edge of the lake, screaming and crying while I had to go and get cleaned up.”

On her favourite memories of Julie Andrews…
“Right after The Sound of Music, I played her younger sister in [the 1966 film] Hawaii, so I’ve worked with her twice. I’ve always found her to be so down to earth. And I think both Julie and Christopher Plummer made definite choices to mirror the relationships they had with us kids onscreen as they did in real life. Therefore, Julie was really hands-on and would get down on the floor and play with us. She’d join in when we’d share personal escapades and she’d say, ‘Oh, I can top that!’ (laughs) We had a lot of bad weather in Austria while filming the ‘Do Re Mi’ sequence, so in between breaks in filming because of weather delays she’d whip out her guitar and we’d sing together while wrapped up under blankets. So, those are the kinds of memories I have of her. Although she does have a salty side and can bust out a naughty joke every now and then.”

On working with Canadian icon Christopher Plummer…
“He was a little standoffish during filming, so it wasn’t warm and fuzzy. It’s interesting because whenever he does a Broadway show I always make a point of going to see it and then heading back stage to say hi to him. I was a little afraid of him as a kid, but knowing him now as an adult, well he’s just lovely.”

On the success of The Sound of Music
“Not in a million years did I think this film would become what it is to this day. Twentieth Century Fox took a gamble in making it because [1963’s] Cleopatra had practically bankrupt them. So they had to make a choice: they could make this one expensive film which, believe it or not, would cost them $20 million, or they could make a series of edgy indie films that were en vogue at the time. But they decided to put all their eggs in one basket. For us, as a cast, we just didn’t want it to suck. Every generation, even now, loves it and it holds up so well! When I watched it again recently I was blown away by the quality, not just technically, but in how timely this film is—it has this clear ‘do the right thing’ message that is still so important today. It’s not antiquated.”

On her time living in Toronto…
“I was there until I was about five. My parents are from Scotland and we moved around a lot: Florida, England, California. I love Toronto and I still go there quite often because I have a cottage about two hours east of the city in Picton, Ont. When I was still a kid, my dad worked for Eaton’s and would design quite a few of the floats they used in the annual Santa Claus Parade. I have this strong memory of sitting on my dad’s shoulders watching the parade go by.”

On her stint on Broadway…
“[In 1966, I did] We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I’d done stage before in school, but never professionally. I’d never even seen a Broadway play before and then I was suddenly in one. Shirley Knight and I played sisters, but the play didn’t do very well because it was quite dark. I played this psycho murderer, which was unexpected because I had this sweet and innocent look and had just finished The Sound of Music. It was the era of musicals and comedies on Broadway, and I remember Woody Allen was in a show right across the street from us. So, our play wasn’t quite the genre that was popular at that time, but it was a lot of fun to do. I love playing evil characters.”

On spearheading the Robert Urich Foundation for Cancer Research and Patient Care…
“It was an unimaginable grieving process [to lose my husband], and it still is—that never goes away. It makes me feel good to be a part of finding funds to put towards much-needed research. And the research is what it’s all about. I’m actually holding a carnival-esque fundraiser at my cottage on August 27 in Picton, Ont. My son-in-law rents out games equipment, so we’ll have stuff like that at the event. Bob had started a fundraiser with the University of Michigan and we raised a ton of money through golf tournaments, but I wanted to segue away from there. I wanted to do a California-based foundation and have more control over it because before we’d been under the umbrella of the university. It takes up a big part of my life now, but it’s not work to me.”