Her death was confirmed by her nephew, Toby Howes, who tweeted: “I can also confirm the passing of my beloved Aunty Sally Ann Howes who died peacefully in her sleep yesterday. My brother & I thought Sally Ann might hold on until the Christmas screening of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ as this would have greatly appealed to her mischievous side.”
“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” is often broadcast on Christmas Day in the U.K.
In a career that spanned five decades, Howes racked up 40 film and television credits, having spent the latter half of her career focusing on the theater, including a part in Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” at the New York City Opera in 1990.
Born in London to actors Bobby Howes and Patricia Malone, Howes spent much of her childhood at the family’s home in Hertfordshire when London was evacuated during World War II.
At the age of 12 she made her screen debut in 1943 film “Thursday’s Child,” after being recommended by a casting agent friend of her father’s.
The film, about a schoolgirl who becomes a successful child actor, was in many ways prophetic, launching Howes’ film career.
She was soon contracted by Ealing Studios, where she starred in films including “Dead of Night” opposite Michael Redgrave.
Howes went on to land parts alongside Derek Bond and Cedric Hardwicke in the screen adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby,” and in “The History of Mr Polly,” where she played John Mills’s love interest.
In the 1950s Howes, a soprano, traded the big screen for the boards and focused on the theatre, which she once described as a “drug.” She was particularly enamored with musical theater, although she would continue to make the occasional television show and film appearance, including in “The Fifth Column” with Richard Burton.
In London’s West End she starred alongside her father in Lerner and Loewe musical “Paint Your Wagon” for an 18-month run before making her Broadway debut in 1958 as Eliza Doolitle in “My Fair Lady,” which earned her a Life magazine cover profile and turned her into a household name.
Howes was taking the role over from Julie Andrews, not an easy task given Andrews’ star-power at the time, and “The Sound of Music” actor would go on to have a distant hand in shaping Howes’ career.
After Howes was nominated for a Tony award for her performance in Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon” at the New York City Opera in 1962 (becoming in the process the first artist to be nominated for starring in a revival), the show was made into a television series, with Howes reprising her role as Fiona.
That’s where legendary producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, the man behind the big-screen adaptation of Bond, reportedly first noticed her. He was apparently hoping to emulate Disney’s “Mary Poppins,” which had come out in 1964 and starred Andrews, by making a musical adaptation of Bond writer Ian Fleming’s children’s novel “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
After Andrews turned down the part of Truly Scrumptious, Howes stepped in, playing opposite Dick Van Dyke in the film, which was directed by Ken Hughes from a screenplay he co-wrote with Roald Dahl.
While Howes could sing, she was apparently less comfortable dancing and required a “crash course” of lessons before taking on the part in the Edwardian-set movie about a magical car.
Although it has now achieved cult status, the film was not an instant success, and Howes spent the remainder of her career focusing on the theater, with occasional forays into film and television. Her last on-screen appearance was in the limited series “Secrets” in 1992.
Howes is survived by one son.