With her blonde hair and blue eyes, Karen Dotrice lit up the screen in such Disney motion pictures as The Three Lives of Thomasina in 1963, Mary Poppins in 1964, and The Gnome-Mobile in 1967. And Walt Disney, or “Uncle Walt” as Karen knew him, appreciated her English roots.
She recalled, “I think Walt really liked English kids. He was tickled pink by the accent and the etiquette. And when I was being very English and polite, he would look proudly at this little charge who had such good manners.”
Born in Guernsey, The Channel Islands, on November 9, 1955, to a family of prominent stage actors, Karen grew up knowing people of repute, including her godfather, multi-award-winning actor Charles Laughton. Laughton and Karen’s father, Roy Dotrice, first brought the four-year-old to the stage to perform in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
While performing in that production, Karen was spotted by a Disney scout and, soon after, arrived at the Disney Studio in Burbank with her family in tow, minus her father who was portraying King Lear on the London stage at the time.
She recalled, “My dad was in England the whole time I was over here with my mother and sisters. I didn’t have my Daddy figure around, so I called Walt, ‘Uncle Walt.’ He took me and my family under his wing, every weekend, flying us in his plane to Santa Barbara or to his home in Palm Springs.”
Karen first appeared in The Three Lives of Thomasina; in his book The Disney Films, critic Leonard Maltin observed her performance as Mary MacDhui. He wrote, “Young Karen Dotrice won over everyone… ” So much so, that she was cast as the juvenile lead Jane Banks in the Oscar®-winning Mary Poppins, followed by the role of Elizabeth in The Gnome-Mobile with Walter Brennan.
By 1968, she had returned to England and went on to appear in such features as Joseph Andrews in 1976 and The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1978, for which she received accolades for her lead performance as the English aristocratic love interest opposite Robert Powell. The performance won a nod from the Evening News British Film Awards as well, which named her best female newcomer.
She also played Lily in the popular English television series Upstairs, Downstairs in 1971. Other television appearances include the miniseries Napoleon and Love in 1974 and “She Fell Among Thieves” in 1978, which appeared on PBS’s Mystery!
Karen returned to the United States in 1980, and four years later, after playing Desdemona in Othello on Broadway, she retired from acting to focus on motherhood. Karen appeared in the documentary Walt Disney: The Man Behind the Myth, which debuted September 16, 2001.