An old bromide says powerful women are always threatening. Disproving that: Angela Lansbury, who in a 75-year career has earned only admiration and affection. During the 1984-96 run of “Murder, She Wrote,” she quietly and peacefully increased her control over the series, which CBS and Universal TV were happy to give her; Variety pointed out her clout on Dec. 10, 1993, when she agreed to yet another season of the show. She was first mentioned in Variety on Aug. 11, 1943, as an unknown cast member in MGM’s high-profile “Gaslight.” In the book “On Cukor,” director George Cukor said: “This is 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.” Lansbury turns 94 on Oct. 16, and 2019 marks her 75th year of artistry and power.
“Gaslight” stars Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten, but during pre-production, MGM was having trouble casting the role of the sullen but flirtatious maid Nancy. Co-scripter John Van Druten met Lansbury by chance; she was the teenage daughter of British theater actress Moyna MacGill, a widow who was evacuated with her family to the U.S. during the London Blitz. Lansbury was working at Bullock’s department store, and Van Druten saw something in her, so arranged a screen test. Four days later, she was cast in her first film role, which gained her an MGM contract and her first Oscar nomination.
Her second nom came the following year for “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” After that, she worked steadily, in films like “The Three Musketeers,” “The Harvey Girls,” “Samson and Delilah” and “State of the Union,” always good but always subsidiary to such stars as Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
By the time Lansbury was in her 20s, she was already a character actress, often portraying middle-aged women. At 36, she played the mother of 26-year-old Elvis Presley’s Chad Gates in “Blue Hawaii” (1961); the following year, she played the mother of Laurence Harvey’s Raymond Shaw in “The Manchurian Candidate,” though only three years older than he was. That performance earned her a third Oscar nomination, and remains one of Hollywood’s all-time chilling (and witty) depictions of cold ambition and scary mother love.
The second phase of her career began in 1966, when she wowed Broadway as a musical-comedy performer in “Mame,” the screwy but loving life-force who raises her orphaned nephew. Theater offered Lansbury a greater range of starring roles over the next 50 years, including Mama Rose in “Gypsy” (first on the West End in 1973, followed by Broadway), the killer Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” Gertrude to Albert Finney’s “Hamlet,” and starring with Peggy Ashcroft in Edward Albee’s “All Over.” Amid her frequent film and TV work, she always returned to the stage, most recently in a 2015 West End revival of “Blithe Spirit,” at age 89.
In all, she has earned seven Tony Award nominations, winning five. Equally important, her name was almost a guarantee of box office success on Broadway, the West End or regional theaters.
Her widest acclaim came from TV. “Murder, She Wrote” was written for Jean Stapleton, who bowed out. It debuted in September 1984 to nice ratings, and two months later Lansbury cautiously told People magazine, “It looks good, but we’ll see if it lasts for the year.”
Actually, it lasted 12 years and 264 episodes, followed by several telefilms that ran through 2003.
Jessica Fletcher remains the character she’s most closely identified with, though the role tapped into only a fraction of her talent. But the show relied on Lansbury’s intelligence, integrity and warmth, which no actress can fake. That’s what audiences responded to; even though there were clever mystery plots, with a slew of guest stars every week, the series rested squarely on Lansbury’s shoulders.
It’s a major feat for any actor, but especially for an actress who was 59 when the series began, in a time when network executives focused on younger demographics. When it ended, the show was the longest-running American primetime scripted series, and Lansbury became one of TV’s highest-paid performers, adding the role of exec producer for its last five years.
Lansbury is also known as the voice of Mrs. Potts in the animated “Beauty and the Beast,” singing the title song.
In addition to her three Oscar nominations, she was given an honorary Academy Award in 2014. She has a staggering 17 Emmy nominations and is a 1996 Emmy Hall of Fame honoree. She has chalked up 15 Golden Globe noms, winning six, and earned lifetime achievement kudos from the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA, among many others. And through it all she has always made time to work for such charities as the Actors Fund.