Angela Lansbury, Broadway luminary and ‘Murder, She Wrote’ star, has died aged 96

Angela Lansbury, the English-born actress who starred as the baddest mother alive in The Manchurian Candidate, became a luminary of Broadway musical theater and spent 12 years starring as the warm-hearted crime writer and detective on the television series Murder, She Wrote,” died October 11 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 96.

Her family announced the death in a statement, but did not give a cause.

“Murder, She Wrote” – with its opening montage of Ms. Lansbury pecking a typewriter and facing danger in a coastal Maine town – was one of the most popular television shows of the 1980s and 1990s. To tens of millions of viewers, the veteran actress with a hint of a British accent portrayed Jessica Fletcher, the widow-turned-detective whose gentle demeanor cloaked her wits.

To a younger generation, Ms. Lansbury was best as the voice of Mrs. Potts, the soft-hearted teapot who sings the Oscar-winning theme song in the Disney animated feature Beauty and the Beast (1991).

Such cherished performances may indicate that Ms. Lansbury was a specialist in bold, non-threatening roles. Yet spanning seven decades in show business, she had two earlier and distinct phases in her career – on screen and then Broadway – in which she revealed herself as an artist of immense reach and power.

“Hardly anyone can match her career in terms of success, longevity and diversity,” says film scholar Jeanine Basinger.

As a teenager, Ms. Lansbury received Oscar nominations for supporting roles in her first two film appearances: as the sassy and seductive cockney maid in Gaslight (1944) and as the cloyingly innocent vaudeville singer in The Picture of Dorian Gray. (1945). In the latter, her high and light voice was used in the ditty “Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird,” which foretold her own doom.

Ms. Lansbury had photogenic features: peachy skin, blue eyes, and a blond mane. To her dismay, she never made the leap into leading roles, partly because she lacked the ethereal and glamorous presence of a 1940s star.

She was able to act years, even decades, beyond her age and adapted to a long string of scolding and ruthless character roles opposite much older leads like Walter Pidgeon (1947’s “If Winter Comes”) and Spencer Tracy (“State of the Union” in 1947). year 1948).

Later, Ms. Lansbury was the screen mother of slightly younger cast members: Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii (1961), Warren Beatty in All Fall Down (1962), and Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Presley, she later said, “used to send me Mother’s Day cards.”

In The Manchurian Candidate, based on Richard Condon’s novel about Cold War paranoia, she played a domineering political wife and mother who helps carry out a communist plot to take over the White House, in part by manipulating her son into acting as to serve assassin.

“Lansbury creates a modern day Lady Macbeth with the skills of a sorceress,” wrote critic Peter Travers in People magazine on the occasion of the film’s 1988 re-release. “It’s an amazing, stirring performance.”

The film, in which Frank Sinatra also plays, is now considered a tight classic. But when it was first released it flopped at the box office and did little to advance Ms. Lansbury’s career, despite earning the actress her third and final Oscar nomination.

“Everyone kept telling me: ‘You’re an eye-catcher’, and I sat there with a prepared speech,” she told her biographer Martin Gottfried. When Patty Duke won for her role as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, Ms. Lansbury continued, “It was like your stomach fell out of your body. It kept me very busy.”

Tired of playing unlikable or over-the-top women — “I’ve played so many old witches, most people think I’m 65,” she quipped at 41 — she turned to theater work.

On Broadway, Ms. Lansbury received six Tony Awards, including four for Best Actress in a Musical and one for Lifetime Achievement. Her first win recognized her performance as the unconventional socialite caring for her orphaned nephew in Jerry Herman’s musical comedy Mame (1966). Packed to the brim with choirboys and extravagant costumes, the show delivered Ms. Lansbury’s showstopper, “It’s Today.”

In Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (1979), a brooding and dissonant “musical thriller,” Ms. Lansbury earned a Tony as a London cake-maker who becomes an accomplice to murder and cannibalism.

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She received a Tony for her leading role in Herman’s 1969 musical and anti-capitalist satire Dear World. As the powerful stage mother, Mama Rose, she won again for Gypsy, a revival of the 1974 Sondheim-Jule Styne-Arthur Laurents musical, that allowed her to reinvent with nuance and subtlety aside from what had for years been all but defined by Broadway beltter Ethel Merman.

Ms. Lansbury’s last win in the competition — for Best Actress in a Play — was for Blithe Spirit, a revival of the 2009 Noel Coward comedy, in which she played a shrewd psychic.

Despite all her film and stage work, Ms. Lansbury, who is nearly 60, became a household name on television with CBS’ “Murder, She Wrote.” Her character was smart but reserved, optimistic but not Pollyannaish, amused but not cynical.

“She embraced the concept of being a middle-aged woman who was a widow and lived in a small town,” Basinger said, noting the show’s range from scary to funny to sentimental. “She wasn’t trying to glorify it or deviate from it. The show would not have been a success with anyone else.”

Originally rejected by All in the Family star Jean Stapleton, the role of Jessica Fletcher earned Ms. Lansbury 12 Emmy nominations. Murder, She Wrote primarily attracted older viewers, who tuned in to see long-gone movie stars like June Allyson, Kathryn Grayson and Hurd Hatfield as murder suspects in the weekly story arcs. Ms. Lansbury knew many of the actors from her formative years at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—only this time she was the headliner.

After 11 seasons, ratings plummeted as CBS switched programming from its long-running Sunday night spot to Thursdays to attract younger viewers. Forced to compete with shows like Friends on NBC, Murder, She Wrote was cancelled.

“It really was an accidental hit and came at a time when this kind of family entertainment seemed necessary,” Ms. Lansbury told the New York Times. “The character was very soothing.”

Angela Brigid Lansbury was born in London on October 16, 1925. Her paternal grandfather, George Lansbury, became leader of the English Labor Party in the 1930s. Her father, Edgar, was a businessman and her mother was a stage and screen actress known as Moyna Macgill.

Her parents divorced and Angela was 9 when her stepfather died of cancer. Movies became a haven, she said. Her mother made sure that she and her three siblings took piano and dance lessons.

Fleeing German incursions during World War II, the family came to New York in 1940 and later settled in Los Angeles, where Macgill used her contacts with the British in the film colony to find acting work for herself and Angela. At 17, Ms. Lansbury won a screen test at MGM that led to roles in Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In other supporting roles, she played the older sister of Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet (1944) and Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epic Samson and Delilah (1949). She was also a saloon dance hall queen in the musical The Harvey Girls (1946) starring Judy Garland.

Studio executives declined to give Ms. Lansbury leading roles she coveted, such as the wily Lady de Winter in The Three Musketeers (1948), a role that fell to Lana Turner. Mrs. Lansbury played the Queen of France.

“I had the ability, but I didn’t have the name,” she noted. “I was all talent and no looks.”

Sensing a downturn in her career, Ms. Lansbury eventually negotiated a release from her MGM contract. As a freelancer, she played a princess in the Danny Kaye comedy The Jester (1954), Orson Welles’ bloated mistress in The Long Hot Summer (1958), and a series of overbearing mother-and-wife actors in the 1960s. Roll .

Ms. Lansbury became so tired of awkward or dark roles that she turned down director Milos Forman’s offer to play Sister Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), a role for which Louise Fletcher won the Oscar for best Lead actress won.

For the remainder of her screen career, Ms. Lansbury vowed to play likable characters, from the apprentice witch in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) to a society matron in the Jim Carrey comedy Mr. Popper’s Penguins” (2011).

Broadway fully showcased the range of her abilities. She demonstrated a deft farceuse in Hotel Paradiso (1957) with comics great Bert Lahr and played a vulgar mother in A Taste of Honey (1960), a drama starring Joan Plowright as her pregnant and abandoned daughter.

Ms. Lansbury made her musical theater debut in Anyone Can Whistle (1964), a Laurents and Sondheim musical, in which she was the imperious mayor of a run-down town. Critics loathed the show — finding its absurdist satire and nonconformist theme halfway too clever — and it only ran for nine performances.

But one ticket buyer, composer Jerry Herman, loved it and became Ms. Lansbury’s champion for his show “Mame.” She spent two years in the role, which made her a theater star.

A string of high-profile musicals, most notably “Sweeney Todd” opposite Len Cariou in the title role, cemented her reputation as a consummate professional, boasting tunes like “The Worst Pies in London” and “By the Sea.”

Ms. Lansbury’s awards include the National Medal of Arts in 1997 and the Kennedy Center Honors in 2000. She received an honorary Oscar in 2013 and was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

In addition to the struggles of her career, Ms Lansbury has spoken openly about complications in her personal life. She had a brief early marriage to actor Richard Cromwell, who she said was gay. In 1949 she married Peter Shaw, who became a top talent agent. She said her two children, Deirdre and Anthony, developed drug problems, which led to the family leaving their home in Malibu, California and spending much of the 1970s in County Cork, Ireland to get away from what she said to stay away from Hollywood’s negative influence.

Shaw died in 2003. In addition to their two children, survivors include a stepson, David Shaw; a brother; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

In interviews, Ms Lansbury downplayed her high-flying ambition, saying she considers herself a “journeyman” who got lucky.

“I just did what I was given, but the things that were given to me were quite extraordinary,” she told the Sunday Express in 2014. “I have excessive energy and I have to use it up somehow. I always say that there are two things in life I can do – one is housekeeping and the other is action.

“And the acting usually comes first, so the place can be a bit chaotic at times.”

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