Angela Lansbury, star of film and stage and TV’s favorite sleuth, dies at 96
By Daniel Lewis
Angela Lansbury, a formidable actor who captivated Hollywood in her youth, became a Broadway musical sensation in middle age and then drew millions of fans as a widowed mystery writer on the long-running television series “Murder, She Wrote,” died Tuesday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 96.
Her death was announced in a statement by her family.
Lansbury was the winner of five Tony Awards for her starring performances on the New York stage, from “Mame” in 1966 to “Blithe Spirit” in 2009, when she was 83, a testament to her extraordinary stamina. Yet she appeared on Broadway only from time to time over a seven-decade career in film, theater and television in which there were also years when nothing seemed to be coming up roses.
The English-born daughter of an Irish actor, she was 18 when she landed her first movie role, as Charles Boyer’s cheeky Cockney servant in the thriller “Gaslight” (1944), a precocious debut that brought her a contract with MGM and an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. She received a second Oscar nomination in 1946, for her supporting performance as a dance hall girl in “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
It was a giddy start for a young woman who at 14 had fled wartime London with her mother and had only recently graduated from New York’s Feagin School of Dramatic Art. Lansbury imagined she might have a future as a leading lady, but, she said in a New York Times interview in 2009, she was not comfortable trying to climb that ladder.
“I wasn’t very good at being a starlet,” she said. “I didn’t want to pose for cheesecake photos and that kind of thing.”
It might also have been a matter of bones. Her full, round face was not well suited for the dramatic lighting of the time, which favored the more angular looks of stars like Lauren Bacall and Katharine Hepburn. In any event, she appeared in many a forgettable film before breaking out as the glamorous, madcap aunt in “Mame” on Broadway.
MGM regularly cast her as an older woman, or a nasty one. Of the 11 movies she made after “Dorian Gray,” perhaps her most notable role was in “State of the Union” (1948), with Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, in which she played a newspaper magnate trying to get her married lover elected president.
On to Broadway
Lansbury made her Broadway debut in 1957 in “Hotel Paradiso,” a translation of a 19th-century French farce. Good reviews encouraged her to try more theater work. She returned to Broadway in 1960 as the alcoholic single mother of a pregnant teenager in “A Taste of Honey.”
In 1964, she was cast as a corrupt mayor in the Arthur Laurents-Stephen Sondheim musical “Anyone Can Whistle.” A notorious failure, it closed after 12 previews and nine performances, but it showed she could summon the right stuff for live musical performance. “I had a little, high soprano, and they wanted a belter,” she said in 2009. “So I learned how to belt.”
Lansbury was anything but a shoo-in for the coveted lead in “Mame,” the Jerry Herman musical adaptation of Patrick Dennis’ novel “Auntie Mame,” which had already been adapted into a stage play and a movie, both starring Rosalind Russell and both great successes.
Russell did not want to play Mame again. Mary Martin was cast but opted out. More than a dozen other actors, including Judy Garland, Doris Day and Hepburn, were said to be under consideration. But Lansbury was one of the few willing to audition for the role in front of the show’s creative and financial principals.
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.
Back home in Malibu, California, with her husband, Peter Shaw, an MGM executive, and their teenage children, Anthony and Deirdre, she waited for months for a call from the East. Finally, she flew to New York and confronted the producers.
“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.
Lansbury won her second Tony for best actress as the 75-year-old Countess Aurelia in “Dear World,” a 1969 musical adaptation of “The Madwoman of Chaillot.” The production itself was not well received and closed after 132 performances. For a while, though, it held the distinction of charging the highest ticket prices on Broadway: $12.50 for the best seats (the equivalent of about $105 today).
She then returned to Hollywood, where she played an aging German aristocrat in “Something for Everyone” (1970), a rare cinematic effort from Broadway producer and director Harold Prince, and a witch in the Disney movie “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971).
Over the next decade, Lansbury worked mostly on the stage, in London and New York. She starred as Mama Rose in a revival of “Gypsy,” which opened in London and won her a third Tony when it reached Broadway in 1974. She won yet another for her performance as Mrs. Lovett, the baker with a grisly source of meat for her pies, in Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “Sweeney Todd,” with Len Cariou in the title role, which opened in March 1979 and ran for 557 performances.
Success on the London stage closed a circle for Lansbury.
Angela Brigid Lansbury was born in London on Oct. 16, 1925, and grew up there in upper-middle-class comfort, the daughter of Moyna MacGill, an Irish actor, and Edgar Lansbury, a timber merchant and politician who was the son of a Labour Party leader, George Lansbury. Her father died of stomach cancer when she was 9; her grandfather died five years later, and that loss, together with the Blitz, prompted her mother to move to the United States with Angela, her half sister and her twin younger brothers.
“We left everything behind,” Lansbury recalled. “Suddenly, we just weren’t there anymore.”
A surprise hit
For all her stage success, Lansbury would capture the biggest audience of her career in 1984, when she was cast as mystery writer and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher on the CBS series “Murder, She Wrote.”
It was widely believed that the series, whose protagonist was a bicycle-riding widow living in a small town in Maine, had little chance against sexier competition like the action crime drama “Knight Rider” on NBC. The conventional wisdom was that advertisers would not go after the older audience the show was likely to attract.
“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.”
Instead, the show became a huge hit. In its second season it outdrew Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated anthology series, “Amazing Stories,” by more than 2 million viewers a week, and it went on to run until 1996.
“What appealed to me about Jessica Fletcher,” Lansbury said in an interview with the Times early in the show’s second season, “is that I could do what I do best and have little chance to play — a sincere, down-to-earth woman.”
She received 12 successive Emmy nominations for her portrayal of Jessica Fletcher, but she never won.
Lansbury remained active on television (she returned to her signature role in four made-for-television “Murder, She Wrote” films) and in movies, notably the Disney animated hit “Beauty and the Beast” (1991), in which she was the voice of the talking teapot Mrs. Potts. And there were more Broadway performances to come. Neither arthritis nor hip and knee replacements could keep her off the stage for very long.
She starred with Marian Seldes in the Terrence McNally comedy “Deuce” in 2007, and played eccentric medium Madame Arcati in the 2009 revival of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” earning Tony No. 5 — a total exceeded only by Audra McDonald and Julie Harris with six each (including Harris’ lifetime achievement award). Lansbury received another nomination for her performance later that year as Madame Armfeldt in a revival of the Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music.”
Although she never won an Oscar or an Emmy, Lansbury received an honorary award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2013 for creating “some of cinema’s most memorable characters” and “inspiring generations of actors.” A year later, she was made a dame by Queen Elizabeth II.
Shaw, her husband, died in 2003. An earlier marriage to Richard Cromwell, an American actor, ended in divorce after less than a year. Lansbury is survived by her sons, Anthony and David; her daughter, Deirdre; a brother, Edgar; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.