One of the most respected and versatile actresses of the 20th century, Angela Lansbury was a star in three mediums – film, television, and stage – and maintained her status over the course of a 60-year-career. Her film career began with an Oscar nomination for 1944’s “Gaslight” and encompassed everything from thrillers like “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) to the voice of Mrs. Potts in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (1992). On television, she was a veteran of live broadcasts in the 1950s and enjoyed a 12-year run as sleuth Jessica Fletcher on “Murder, She Wrote” (CBS, 1984-1996). And on Broadway, she won four Tony Awards for her work in musicals like “Mame” and “Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
Born Angela Brigid Lansbury on Oct. 16, 1925, in London, England, Lansbury’s mother was Irish actress Moyna MacGill, while her father, Edgar Lansbury, was the leader of the Labour Party. Lansbury developed an interest in performing at an early age, attending dancing and drama schools at her mother’s behest. After Lansbury’s father died from cancer in 1934, MacGill took charge of the siblings – two twin brothers, Edgar and Bruce, who later became successful Broadway and television producers, respectively, and a half-sister from a previous marriage – as best as she could, but with the outbreak of World War II looming on the horizon, she booked passage to New York. There, Angela studied drama until MacGill, who had been supporting the family by appearing in a touring production of a Noel Coward play, sent for her daughter to join her in Los Angeles.
Lansbury and her mother worked at Bullocks department store, while MacGill hosted parties for British performers making their first visits to California. At one of these soirees, Lansbury was introduced to an MGM casting agent, who was assembling actors for a film version of the Broadway play “Gaslight.” The 19-year-old Lansbury was offered the role of Nancy, the malicious maid to Ingrid Bergman’s Paula, who is being driven mad by her husband (Charles Boyer). Lansbury’s conniving turn earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, a feat she would accomplish again just one year later with 1945’s “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” in which she appeared as the title character’s doomed love.
In 1945, Lansbury married actor Richard Cromwell; the union lasted less than a year after she discovered that he was gay. Undaunted, she concentrated solely on her film career until meeting actor Peter Shaw in 1949, who served as her escort to a party at the house of her “Dorian Gray” co-star and friend, Hurd Hatfield. The couple soon fell in love and was married in 1949; later having two children – son Anthony and daughter Deirdre – as well as David, a son from Shaw’s previous marriage. In later years, Shaw shifted from acting to agenting and producing, and oversaw a number of American and English features in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as managed Lansbury’s career. In 1987, he and Anthony and David formed Corymore Productions, which produced Lansbury’s “Murder She Wrote” and several of her TV movies in the early ‘90s.
Unfortunately, most of Lansbury’s subsequent films in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s under her MGM contract did not match the quality of character or material as her debut films. She filled out generic supporting parts with charm in “National Velvet” (1944) and “The Harvey Girls” (1946) – for which her singing voice was dubbed – but did her best work in character roles like the predatory heiress in “State of the Union” (1948) with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and Orson Welles’ mistress in “The Long Hot Summer” (1958). She adapted well to all genres, from comedy with Danny Kaye in “The Court Jester” (1956) to Westerns in “A Lawless Street” (1955) and thrillers with “Kind Lady” (1951). And unlike many major film stars, did not shy from making numerous appearances on live television dramas throughout the 1950s. Live performance was Lansbury’s bread and butter, and she soon made a name for herself as a capable dramatic actress on Broadway, starting in 1957 with “Hotel Paradiso” opposite the legendary Bert Lahr. Three years later, she scored her first substantial hit on the Great White Way with “A Taste of Honey” in 1960. She would go on to host, co-host, or perform on the Tony Awards 12 times between 1967 and 2007.
Film continued to yield steady work for her, though the quality of the parts often varied greatly: “The Dark at the Top of the Stars” (1960), as the alleged town floozy whose friendship with married Robert Preston threatens to destroy his reputation, and “All Fall Down” (1962) as Warren Beatty’s mother for John Frankenheimer were highlights, while “Blue Hawaii” (1962), as Elvis Presley’s mother, and the tabloid biopic “Harlow” (1965), as 1930s platinum blonde star Jean Harlow’s mother, was engaging fluff. Lansbury’s willingness to play older women – in many cases, she was less than five years older than her on-screen sons – led to her casting as the malevolent mother of brainwashed ex-G.I. Laurence Harvey – who was just three years Lansbury’s junior – in Frankenheimer’s gripping “The Manchurian Candidate,” which earned her a third Oscar nomination.
Lansbury made her Broadway musical debut in 1964 in the short-lived “Anyone Can Whistle,” but two years later, she scored her first major musical success with “Mame” (1969) as the eccentric and beloved Auntie Mame. The show ran for 1,500 performances and earned her a Tony for her memorable turn. For the next four years, Lansbury kept away from film and television to concentrate on her stage career, which by 1969, included “Dear World,” a musical version of “The Madwoman of Chaillot” which, despite savage reviews from critics and an abbreviated Broadway run, won Lansbury her second Tony.
By 1970, Lansbury, now in her forties, began an audience-pleasing run of film roles that tapped her boundless energy and flair for eccentric comedy. She earned a Golden Globe nomination as a European noblewoman who runs afoul of a scheming butler in the cult comedy “Something For Everyone” and charmed children as a benevolent witch who tries to use magic to aid the Allies in World War II in Disney’s “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971). She also began her long association with mysteries with a flamboyant turn as a besotted romance novelist who becomes involved in a murder on board an Egyptian boat cruise in “Death on the Nile” (1979), which brought her a National Board of Review award and a BAFTA nomination. Back on Broadway, she landed a third Tony for her performance as the determined Mama Rose in the revival of “Gypsy” (1974) and as Mrs. Lovett, daffy co-conspirator to a ghoulish plan of revenge in Stephen Sondheim’s gory blockbuster “Sweeney Todd” (1979). Lansbury recreated the role for a 1982 PBS broadcast of the production, which brought her a Cable ACE award and an Emmy nomination.
Off-screen, however, Lansbury’s personal life had taken on a darker tone. Both of her children with Shaw had become involved with hard drugs, and Deidre became briefly involved with the Manson Family. A fire in 1970 destroyed the Lansbury’s home in Malibu, CA which prompted a move to Country Cork, Ireland. In interviews, Lansbury credited the disaster for helping to put her children on a healthier path.
Lansbury returned to features and television with a vengeance in the TV miniseries-friendly 1980s, starting with a turn as Agatha Christie’s elderly sleuth Mrs. Marple in the garish, campy 1980 film version of “The Mirror Crack’d,” starring aging Hollywood icons Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, and Elizabeth Taylor. She was perhaps better served as the domineering aunt of Gloria Vanderbilt in “Little Gloria…Happy at Last” (1982), which brought her an Emmy nomination, and “A Talent for Murder” (1983), in which she appeared opposite Sir Laurence Olivier. Her vocal talents received a glossy showcase in the 1983 film version of “The Pirates of Penzance,” which featured much of the successful Broadway cast but failed to find an audience due to its simultaneous release on cable television and in theaters. Lansbury also portrayed the quintessential Granny in Neil Jordan’s “The Company of Wolves” (1984), his suggestive and grown-up take on werewolves and Little Red Riding Hood.
Lansbury’s savvy portrayals in the Christie adaptations helped lay the groundwork for “Murder, She Wrote,” an endearing television whodunit from producers William Levinson and Richard Link of “Colombo” fame (NBC, 1968-2003), in which she starred (and later executive produced) as Jessica Fletcher, a mystery novelist with an unerring knack for finding herself in the middle of a murder – and the ability to solve it without the help of police. Lansbury appeared in all 256 episodes of the series, as well as four television movies (aired between 1997 and 2003), and earned a record 12 Emmy nominations for her performance – one for every season the series was on the air – as well as four Golden Globe Awards.
The series kept her exceptionally busy for the better part of the decade, but she did manage to appear in several television movies, including the Emmy-nominated adaptation of “The Shell Seekers” (1989) and the charming “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris” (1992), all of which played heavily on her inherent charm and popularity with older viewers. In 1992, her vocal abilities endeared her to a generation of children as the voice of Mrs. Potts, the enchanted teapot who narrates Disney’s Oscar-nominated “Beauty and the Beast’ (1991) as well as sings its enchanting title song. She also lent her voice to the Dowager Empress in 1997’s “Anastasia.”
After “Murder, She Wrote” left the airwaves, Lansbury busied herself with a score of television projects; she starred in “Mrs. Santa Claus” (1997), a likable TV-movie musical with songs by Jerry Herman of “Mame” fame, and starred as Emily Pollifax, amateur spy in “The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax” (1999). She also reaped the rewards of a lifetime of solid performances with a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award and an American National Medal of the Arts in 1997, a Kennedy Center Honor in 2000, and was bestowed the title of Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994.
Sadly, the accolades were dimmed by the passing of her husband in 2003. Lansbury handled the tragedy with typical grace, and made occasional screen appearances, most notably in “The Blackwater Lightship” (2004), a moving drama about a family caring for a son with AIDS which earned her another Emmy nomination. This was soon followed by a nod for a two-part turn as the controlling matriarch of a wealthy family on “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” (NBC, 1999- ) and “Law and Order: Trial By Jury” (NBC, 2005). She also made her first screen appearance in over two decades in Emma Thompson’s sweetly funny “Nanny MacPhee” (2005), for which she gamely took a dessert to the face.
In 2007, Lansbury returned to Broadway for “Deuce,” Terrence McNally’s drama about bickering former doubles tennis partners. The limited run engagement yielded another Tony nomination for Lansbury, but the play broke her unbroken streak when she failed to take home the award that year.