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Angela Lansbury: A shining star of stage and screen

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Image source, Getty Images

Her role as the genteel Jessica Fletcher made Dame Angela Lansbury one of Britain’s favourite exports.

The success of the television series Murder She Wrote was a high point in a showbusiness career lasting more than seven decades.

It took her from Broadway to Hollywood and then international fame on the small screen.

And, in her ninth decade, she returned to take the stage by storm in Driving Miss Daisy and Blithe Spirit.


Angela Brigid Lansbury was born in London, on 16 October 1925. Her father Edgar was a former mayor of Poplar and a leading light in the Communist Party of Great Britain, while her paternal grandfather, George, was a radical politician who became Labour Party leader in 1932.

Following the death of her father from cancer in 1935, her mother, the Irish actress Moyna MacGill, moved in with a former army colonel in Hampstead.

Lansbury attended the local school, where she made her very first stage appearance in a production of Mary of Scotland. She became a passionate cinemagoer and her mother also took her to the theatre. She studied music and dancing before enrolling at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in 1939.

Angela Lansbury in 1943

Image source, Rex Features

With the onset of the Blitz her mother decided to move the family to New York, where Lansbury won a scholarship to the Feagin School of Dramatic Art.

“Those of us who were 12 or 13 when the war started,” she later said, “were absolutely thrown into the mainstream. We had to grow up instantly, and take care of ourselves.”

When her mother joined a touring theatre company in Canada, Lansbury secured a job at a nightclub as an entertainer after telling the management she was 19 when, in fact, she had only just celebrated her 16th birthday.

In 1942 she joined her mother, who had moved to Hollywood and where, at a party, she was noticed by an MGM executive who cast her as the saucy maid in the 1944 film Gaslight.


She was an instant success, winning an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in her first film appearance as well as a valuable contract with MGM.

But the studio failed to make the best use of her. “I don’t think I was quite hot enough in the looks department. Quite frankly, I was all talent and no looks.””

Often cast as a character older than her own age, Lansbury enjoyed success in The Picture of Dorian Gray – securing a Golden Globe Award and a second Oscar nomination – and in State of the Union, with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

Angela Lansbury, Ingrid Bergman & Charles Boyer in Gaslight

Image source, Ronald Grant archive

By the beginning of the 1960s she was a veteran of 24 films of varying quality, including a role as the mother of a character played by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii, something she later said she did because she was desperate.

One high point was her role as Laurence Harvey’s mother in the political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, despite being only three years older than the actor.

One critic described her performance as “the strongest, the most memorable, and the best picture she ever made… she gives her finest film performance in it”. The film won her a second Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress and yet another Oscar nomination.

Despite her screen success she always kept in touch with the stage. There were well-received performances on Broadway, notably in a 1960 production of A Taste of Honey.

Gay icon

Lansbury’s first musical was an experimental Stephen Sondheim project, Anyone Can Whistle, which premiered in 1963. It was a massive flop and closed after just nine performances.

There were more minor cinema roles but, by the age of 40, she had decided that she was not going to achieve superstar success in the cinema.

Instead she accepted the part of Madame Dennis in the musical version of Mame, which launched on Broadway in 1966 to ecstatic reviews.

Angela Lansbury in Mame

Image source, Getty Images

The New York Times opined: “Miss Lansbury is a singing-dancing actress, not a singer or dancer who also acts.” Her performance won her a Tony award, and an unexpected role as a gay icon, something she came to relish.

“I loved it,” she said. “I loved playing it for almost two years but after that I decided to take a rest because it really took a lot of out of me.”

Her role as the gruesome Nellie Lovett in Sweeney Todd sealed her reputation as a grand dame of Broadway.

She didn’t abandon the cinema completely. There were Golden Globe nominations for Something for Everyone and the Disney musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks.


“Someone always came along with a suggestion and unless I had a good reason to say no, I generally said yes.”

But she turned down other roles including that of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

If she suffered from being one of Hollywood’s most often overlooked actresses, in the 1980s Lansbury became one of its richest.

Angels Lansbury in Murder She Wrote

Image source, Rex Features

In 1980 she played Miss Marple in the film version of The Mirror Crack’d although her energetic performance was not met with favour by Agatha Christie fans.

But, for 12 years from 1984, she delighted American viewers in their millions when she played another sleuth, Jessica Fletcher, in the television series Murder She Wrote.

“It was a conscious decision because TV was a form of annuity for actors.”

Described as “Miss Marple meets Mary Poppins”, Jessica Fletcher provided a comforting presence in the midst of luxurious but inevitably crime-riddled surroundings.


The series stayed at the top of the ratings for an unprecedented nine seasons and made Lansbury, also the show’s executive producer, one of the country’s wealthiest women, with a fortune estimated at nearly $100m.

She appeared in more than 20 films in the 1990s, the decade in which she reached 70, including a performance as Granny in Neil Jordan’s cult fantasy A Company of Wolves.

She seemed to garner fresh energy from her advancing years. After a break of 22 years she was back on Broadway in 2007 in a production of Deuce. She followed this up with her role as the clairvoyant Madame Arcati in the Broadway revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit in 2009, winning her fifth Tony Award.

Angela Lansbury holding her Olivier award in 2015

Image source, Getty Images

And she received an enthusiastic welcome when she returned home to the London stage after an absence of 40 years to reprise the role in a production at the Gielgud Theatre, a performance that won her an Olivier.

“I love her. She’s completely off the wall but utterly secure in her own convictions.”

In 2014 she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to the theatre and the various charities she supported.

Angela Lansbury married twice. In 1945 she eloped with the matinee idol Richard Cromwell, who was 16 years her senior but the relationship failed after less than a year after he revealed he was gay. In 1949 she married the British actor and producer Peter Shaw. It was a union that would last more than 50 years until his death in 2003.

Although Americans regarded Angela Lansbury as one of their own, she never lost touch with her British roots, maintaining her English accent and peppering her speech with old-fashioned British expressions such as “my, oh my”.

She was once asked why she kept working long after other actors might have settled for retirement.

“I’ve never been particularly aware of my age,” she said. “It’s like being on a bicycle – I just put my foot down and keep going.”

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