Actress Angela Lansbury, whose 75-year career encompassed triumphs on the big screen, in musical theater and on television, died on Tuesday, her family announced in a statement obtained by the New York Times. She was 96.
Nominated for three Oscars, she won seven Tony awards and holds the record for Emmy actress nods with 12 for her role as Jessica Fletcher on “Murder, She Wrote.”
As honored as she was in film and on stage, Lansbury achieved her greatest popularity on the small screen. In 1984 she stepped into a role originally offered to Jean Stapleton: the flinty crime-solving mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher on CBS’s “Murder, She Wrote.” The show became appointment TV for its fans on Sunday nights, and ran for 12 highly rated seasons. The actress captured four Golden Globe Awards for her turn; she went winless in12 Emmy nods, and still holds the record for most nominations as outstanding lead actress in a drama. Between 1997 and 2003 she reprised the role in four telepics.
Discovered while still in her teens by playwright and screenwriter John van Druten, Lansbury scored an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actress for her first role, as the scheming Cockney maid opposite Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in George Cukor’s 1944 suspense film “Gaslight.”
Director Cukor later wrote that her instant ascent to stardom was “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.”
She repeated as a supporting actress Oscar nominee with her third feature, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945), for which she scored a second supporting actress award portraying the ill-fated music hall performer Sybil Vane in the adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s horror tale.
Lansbury scored a contract at MGM and appeared in such high-profile pics as “Till the Clouds Roll By” (1946), “State of the Union” (1948) and “The Three Musketeers” (1948). She made memorable appearances in such ‘50s dramas as “The Long, Hot Summer” (1958) and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.”
Lansbury displayed a unique ability to play older than her years, specializing in iron-fisted matriarchs. In 1961, when she turned 36, she played 26-year-old Elvis Presley’s mother in “Blue Hawaii.” The following year, she took the role of the malevolent mother of brainwashed ex-serviceman Laurence Harvey (who was only three years her junior) in John Frankenheimer’s Cold War thriller “The Manchurian Candidate”; she collected her third supporting actress Oscar nomination for the performance.
Lansbury bowed on Broadway in the French comedy “Hotel Paradiso” (1957), and enjoyed strong notices in Shelagh Delaney’s drama “A Taste of Honey” (1960). In 1964, she appeared in Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’ “Anyone Can Whistle.” The tuner was a quick flop, lasting only nine performances but it would be the last time she would fail on the Great White Way.
Two years later, she took the title role in “Mame,” the musical adaptation (by Jerry Herman, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) of Patrick Dennis’ autobiographical novel about life with his wealthy madcap aunt. (It was a hit 1958 movie vehicle for Rosalind Russell.) Lansbury appeared in the long-running smash for nearly two years, taking just a two-week break, and she notched a Tony Award as best actress in a musical.
She would earn three more Tonys in the same category: in “Dear World” (1969) an adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s “The Madwoman of Chaillot” by the creators of “Mame”; as Mama Rose, a part she had originated in a London revival, in the 1974 Broadway production of “Gypsy,” the musical bio of ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee by Sondheim, Laurents and Jule Styne; and in Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “penny dreadful” musical “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” She received a fifth Tony, for best featured actress in a play, as Madame Arcati in the 2009 revival of Noel Coward’s supernatural comedy “Blithe Spirit.”
In a 2019 overview of Lansbury’s career, Variety’s Tim Gray noted of “Murder, She Wrote” that “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’s late-career kudos included an honorary Oscar in 2013 and lifetime achievement awards from SAG (1997) and BAFTA (2003). Queen Elizabeth II appointed her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2014.
She was born on Oct. 16, 1925, in London; her mother Moyna Macgill was an Irish-born actress who appeared in West End productions and appeared in more than two dozen English and American features. Her younger twin brothers Bruce and Edgar became film and TV producers. She was an avid movie fan and began studying music and acting in her teens.
After the onset of the Nazi Blitz, Lansbury’s mother moved her and her younger brothers to the U.S. They settled in New York, where Lansbury studied acting on a scholarship. She joined her mother during a touring appearance in Canada, and briefly worked as a nightclub performer. Macgill and her family ultimately moved to Los Angeles. There, Lansbury was introduced to van Druten – whose play “I Am a Camera” became the basis for the musical “Cabaret” – at a party held by her mother.
Her instant success in “Gaslight,” which won her a best supporting actress Golden Globe, led to her MGM contract. During her pact at the studio, she was loaned out to Paramount for the melodrama “The Private Affairs of Bel Ami,” which reunited her with “Dorian Gray” director Arthur Lewis, and Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical spectacle “Samson and Delilah” (1949).
Lansbury’s indelible work in “The Manchurian Candidate” bolstered her somewhat dormant rep as one of Hollywood’s most versatile performers. Though the ‘60s were dominated by her glittering stay on Broadway, she split her time during the ‘70s between the stage and film work. She frequently starred on the London boards, notably playing Queen Gertrude in a 1975 National Theatre production of “Hamlet.” Prophesying her stint as Jessica Fletcher, her movie work included whodunits like “Death on the Nile” (1978) and “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980); in the latter feature, she portrayed Agatha Christie’s sleuth Miss Jane Marple.
In 1991, Lansbury returned to work for Disney; her performance in the studio’s musical fantasy “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971) had garnered her a Golden Globe nod as best actress in a comedy or musical. She took a voice role, performing the title song, as the singing teapot Mrs. Potts in the animated smash “Beauty and the Beast,” and shared in the hit soundtrack album’s Grammy Award nomination as album of the year. She reprised the role in a direct-to-video “Beauty” sequel and a video game.
The indefatigable actress recommitted to live theater in her 80s, reaping best actress Tony nominations for her appearances in Terrence McNally’s 2007 play “Deuce” and a 2009 revival of “A Little Night Music,” Sondheim and Wheeler’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 comedy “Smiles of a Summer Night.” Over the years Lansbury served as host of the Tony Awards ceremony five times, and was nominated for two Emmys for her work on the live Tonys telecasts.
She appeared opposite James Earl Jones in a touring 2013 stage adaptation of “Driving Miss Daisy” (which became the basis of a 2014 film) and revived “Blithe Spirit” in London.
Twice married, Lansbury is survived by her children, director Anthony Shaw and writer Deidre Shaw, as well as her late husband Peter Shaw’s son David, from a previous marriage.
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