By Terrance Turner
Oct. 11, 2022
Legendary stage and acreen actress Angela Lansbury has died. She was 96.
“The Children of Dame Angela Lansbury are sad to announce that their mother died peacefully in her sleep at home in Los Angeles at 1:30 AM today, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 0222, just five days shy of her 97th birthday,” the family said in a statement.
Born on Oct. 16, 1925, Angela Lansbury was the daughter of Irish actress Moyna Macgill and British politicians Edgar Lansbury. She grew up in London; the family moved to North London after her twin brothers Bruce and Edgar were born.
When she was nine, her father died of stomach cancer. The death had a major effect on young Angela, who withdrew into the world of film. She became a “movie maniac,” visiting the cinema often, even imagining herself playing the characters. She began studying music and acting in her teens, per Variety.
In 1940, war broke out. The Nazis started “the Blitz”, bombing Great Britain. The family fled to the United States. At 14, Angela joined her mother and brothers as they fled London. “We were evacuated from Britian in 1940, and we came to America without a penny in our pockets, really,” she told Larry King decades later. She added that the ship they were on got bombed (and lost at sea!) after they got off.
They settled in New York. Lansbury attended the Feagin School of Dramatic Art in New York City and graduated in 1942. Although still in her mid-teens, she auditioned for nightclub appearances, and her songs and imitations of comic actress Beatrice Lillie won her an offer from the Samovar Club in Montreal.
The 16-year-old lied about being 19 and performed characters from Coward’s “I Went to a Marvelous Party” for a whopping $60 a week — Lansbury thought that was a small fortune then, according to NBC News. After that three-week gig ended, Lansbury’s mother was in Canada with the touring company of “Tonight at 8:30.” Macgill had the bright idea of sending for her daughter and having them both go to Los Angeles, capital of the young motion picture industry.
They became part of an ex-pat British community in L.A., and those connections helped Angela land a contract with famed movie studio MGM. At just 17, she nabbed a supporting role in George Cukor’s film Gaslight (1944), about a husband who slowly drives his new wife insane. Lansbury played a young Cockney maid named Nancy. And she made a major impression on her director boss.
According to Variety, Cukor later wrote that Lansbury’s work was “a Cinderella story. On the first day of shooting, even though she was only 17 and had no experience, she was immediately professional. She became this little housemaid — even her face seemed to change. Suddenly, I was watching real movie acting.”
For her work in Gaslight, Lansbury earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress and won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress in a drama. After co-starring with Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet (1944), she portrayed a glamorous dance-hall singer named Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). She won a second straight Golden Globe and another nomination for best supporting actress.
Marriage and Family
As her film career took off, Lansbury ventured into marriage and motherhood. In 1945, she married artist Richard Cromwell. But she filed for divorce just a year later and only afterward did she realize he was gay. He’d only married her in order to appear straight!
“It was a terrible shock. I was devastated,” she told the Telegraph years later. “But once I got over the shock, I said, ‘All right then, I’m going to take charge of my life and see that I never hurt like this again.”
Lansbury kept working, appearing in films including “Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) and State of the Union (1948), with stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. A year later, Lansbury took the plunge again. In 1949, she married agent and producer Peter Shaw. They wed in London, settled in LA, and had two children, Anthony (born 1952) and Deirdre (born 1953).
The year Anthony was born, she ended her contract with MGM. But she continued to work, acting in films like The Long Hot Summer (1958) and The Reluctant Debutante (also 1958). Meanwhile, she settled into a new blended family: Shaw had a son from a previous marriage and brought him to California to live with the family. They later moved to Malibu.
Lansbury scored one of her most plum parts as the manipulative mother of soldier Raymond Shaw in the political Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962). John Frankenheimer’s film about a brainwashed Korean War veteran was based on the book, which Lansbury called “one of the most exciting political books I’d ever read.” She agreed to take on the role after reading the book.
Even though she was only three years older than Laurence Harvey (the actor who played her son), Lansbury wowed critics with her performance. (Variety called it “indelible”; The Washington Post called her “wonderfully malignant.) She earned yet another Oscar nomination — and her third Golden Globe for best supporting actress.
In 1964 she was cast as a corrupt mayor in the Arthur Laurents-Stephen Sondheim musical “Anyone Can Whistle.” The play was a failure. It closed after only nine performances, according to the New York Times. But one of the people who saw her was Jerry Herman. He was working on a new show.
Mame was a musical adaptation of author Patrick Dennis’ autobiographical novel about life with his wealthy madcap aunt. The film adaptation (starring Rosalind Russell) had been a hit in 1958. But Russell didn’t want to play the part again. So producers had considered a dozen other actresses, including Mary Martin, Doris Day and Judy Garland.
Lansbury auditioned for the part. In a Life magazine cover article about the show and her part in it, she recalled that there had been many distracting interruptions by men in dark glasses, compelling her to sing the songs over again. “Then they said, ‘Goodbye, thank you.’ That was all,” she said. She waited for over a month for a callback. Finally, she phoned the producers herself.
“I am going back to California,” she recalled telling them, “and unless you tell me — let’s face it, I have prostrated myself — now, yes or no, that’s the end of it.” That afternoon, she got an official yes. At 41, she had her first starring role. “I was ready for it. It was everything that I had envisioned for myself — accomplishing,” she recalled in an interview with the Television Academy.
The show opened in New York on May 24, 1966, and the columnist Rex Reed reported in The New York Times that on the night he attended, “when the people got tired of whistling and clapping like thunder, they stood up in the newly refurbished seats in the Winter Garden and screamed.” He likened Ms. Lansbury to “a happy caterpillar turning, after years of being thumb-nosed by Hollywood in endless roles as baggy-faced frumps, into a gilt-edged butterfly.”
The play ran at the Winter Garden Theatre for three years before coming to the Broadway Theatre. It lasted for over 1,500 performances. Lansbury played the role for two years with only a two-week break (per Variety). And she won a Tony Award for best actress in a musical.
She won again for her role in Dear World (1969), based on the satirical play The Madwoman of Chaillot. It was a “pretty depressing” experience, she said. And it ended after 132 performances. But Lansbury won her second Tony Award. (She would win her third for playing Rose in Gypsy in 1975 and her fourth for playing Nellie Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in 1980.)
In 1984, Lansbury was approached by show creators for a starring role in an upcoming TV show. She wasn’t sold on the idea at first. “I couldn’t imagine I would ever want to do television,” Lansbury said in a 1985 interview with The New York Times. “But the year 1983 rolled around and Broadway was not forthcoming, so I took a part in a miniseries, Gertrude Whitney in Little Gloria, Happy at Last [a dramatization of Gloria Vanderbilt‘s childhood].
“And then [there was] a slew of roles in miniseries, and I began to sense that the television audience was very receptive to me, and I decided I should stop flirting and shut the door or say to my agents, ‘I’m ready to think series.’” And series she got. She was cast as Jessica Fletcher — widow, English teacher, novelist and detective — on “Murder, She Wrote.”
Nobody really expected the show to be successful. “We were getting condolences even before we went on the air,” Richard Levinson, one of the show’s creators, recalled. “At best, we hoped that it would be a marginal success.” But the show became a huge hit, climbing as high as No. 4 in the ratings. and ran for 12 seasons (!). Lansbury was nominated for a best actress Emmy every year of the show’s 12-year run — but never won. She did, however, win four Golden Globes.
In between filming “Murder, She Wrote”, Lansbury took on one of her most memorable roles. She voiced the teapot Mrs. Potts in the animated film Beauty and the Beast (1991). She sang the title song, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
This story will be updated.