Angela Lansbury: ‘Murder, She Wrote’ Star Still Going Strong in Amazing Career

Angela Lansbury
Courtesy Everett Collection

On Aug. 11, 1943, Variety carried a story beginning “Angela Lansbury, 17-year-old English girl, is the colony’s latest Cinderella.” The story said she had gone from an unknown to movie star in only four days.

Since then, Lansbury has forged a career that defies all logic. She received supporting-actress Oscar nominations twice in her first two years of work. At age 41, she became a musical-comedy star with “Mame.” She became a TV star with “Murder, She Wrote” at age 59, an age when most actresses can’t find work. In the show’s 12-year run, she was one of the TV industry’s most powerful women. Maybe her biggest accomplishment: Though powerful women were sometimes maligned, it was thought you needed to be heartless to survive in showbiz, Lansbury has created a 77-year career and nobody has a bad word to say about her.

Lansbury, who turns 95 Friday (she was born Oct. 16, 1925), is best known for CBS’s “Murder, She Wrote” (1984-1996), but film fans remember her wide acting range, from the venomous mother in the 1962 “The Manchurian Candidate” to the voice of the kindly Mrs. Potts in “Beauty & the Beast” (1991). Theatre lovers fondly recall her work on Broadway and the West End (“Mame,” “Gypsy,” “Sweeney Todd”).

Her awards include three Oscar nominations, and honorary Academy Award in 2014; 18 Emmy bids; 15 Golden Globe noms (winning six); lifetime achievement awards from the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA; five Tony Award wins out of seven nominations; and the 2000 Kennedy Center Honors. She was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (2014) and inducted into American Theater Hall of Fame and Emmy Hall of Fame.

Angela Landsbury Gaslight to Spotlight

Back in 1943, MGM had lined up big stars (Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten) for “Gaslight” but was having trouble casting the sullen but flirtatious maid Nancy. Co-scripter John Van Druten met Lansbury by chance; she was working at Bullock’s department store, the teenage daughter of British actress Moyna MacGill, a widow who was evacuated with her family to the U.S. during the London Blitz. Van Druten saw something in Lansbury, so arranged a screen test the next day. Two days later, the film’s director George Cukor cast her.

In the book “On Cukor,” the director said: “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.”

Her work won her an MGM contract and her first Oscar nomination. Her second nom came the following year for “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” She worked steadily, in films like “National Velvet,” “The Three Musketeers,” “The Harvey Girls,” “Samson and Delilah” and “State of the Union.” She was always good but always subsidiary to such stars as Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Hedy Lamarr, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.

In 1945, when she was 20, Variety wrote the actress “isn’t waiting until she’s older to make a name for herself as a character actress … She is currently playing a woman in her 30s in ‘The Harvey Girls,’ while in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ she also played an older person.”

Most film roles didn’t tap into her talent enough, so she found more variety in radio, television and the stage, making her Broadway debut in the French farce “Hotel Paradiso” in 1957.

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At 36, she played the mother of 26-year-old Elvis Presley in “Blue Hawaii” (1961); the following year, she played the mother of Laurence Harvey in “The Manchurian Candidate,” though she was only three years older than he was. That performance earned her a third Oscar nomination, and remains one of Hollywood’s most memorable depictions of cold ambition and scary maternal love. Vincent Canby in Variety heaped praise, describing the character as “scheming, caustic, poignant and diamond-hard.”

Another notable breakthrough occurred in 1966, when she wowed Broadway as a musical-comedy performer in “Mame,” playing the tradition-breaking and loving woman 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” for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Amid her frequent film and TV work, she always returned to the stage, most recently in a 2015 revival of “Blithe Spirit” at age 89. Her name was almost a guarantee of box office success on Broadway, the West End or regional theaters.

“Murder, She Wrote,” created by Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson and William Link, was offered to “All in the Family” star Jean Stapleton, who turned it down. With Lansbury as the mystery-solving author Jessica Fletcher, the series 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.”

Angela Landsbury Murder She Wrote

That remains the character she’s most closely identified with, and though she was Emmy-nominated every year for “Murder,” she never won — the role wasn’t flashy enough. But Jessica Fletcher became a role model, a strong older woman who remained single. The character 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.

Lansbury became one of TV’s highest-paid performers, adding the role of exec producer for the show’s last five years via Corymore Prods. with husband Peter Shaw. She quietly and peacefully increased her control over the series, which CBS and Universal TV were happy to give her; Variety outlined her clout on Dec. 10, 1993, when she agreed to yet another season of the show. The series lasted 12 years and 264 episodes, followed by several telefilms that ran through 2003.

Her brother Edgar is also in the industry, as was their late brother Bruce Lansbury. Her son Anthony Shaw works as a director.

And through it all she has always made time to work for such charities as the Actors Fund. It’s hard to imagine any other Cinderellas doing so much with their opportunities.