Angela Lansbury, Legendary Star of 'Murder, She Wrote,' 'Beauty and the Beast,' Dies at 96
Angela Lansbury, the legendary actress whose more-than-70-year career encompassed film, television, and the stage, died October 11. She was 96.
Her family released a statement that read, "The children of Dame Angela Lansbury are sad to announce that their mother died peacefully in her sleep at home in Los Angeles at 1:30 AM today, Tuesday, October 11, 2022, just five days shy of her 97th birthday."
Lansbury was a rare talent, one who shone in multiple fields. As playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein tweeted when news of her death broke, "She, my darlings, was EVERYTHING!"
Fellow acting luminary Viola Davis remembered her on Instagram, writing, "Thought you would live forever. What an absolutely beautiful legacy you've left. You have influenced generations of actors to aspire to excellence. Rest well!!! May flights of angels.....❤️❤️❤️💕💕."
She first found success in film, debuting in director George Cukor's classic 1944 thriller "Gaslight," from which the popular term was (much) later born. Leading lady Ingrid Bergman won a Best Actress Oscar, and a still-teenaged Lansbury was Oscar-nominated for her performance as a precocious maid caught up in a murderous plot.
Until her death, she had been the earliest surviving Academy Award nominee in any category.
While her true love was the theater — she was a sensation on Broadway in "Mame," "Gypsy," and "Sweeney Todd," among others — she was perhaps most iconic as Cabot Cove, Maine-based mystery author Jessica Fletcher, who helped solve over 270 murders on TV's "Murder, She Wrote" in the '80s and '90s.
In short, there was no one like her, and the versatile performer's appeal was no mystery.
Lansbury was born October 16, 1925, in London. Fleeing the Blitz, she moved to New York City in 1940 and Hollywood two years later. Signed to MGM, her success in "Gaslight" led to another dozen features, including 1945's "The Picture of Dorian Gray," which earned her a second Oscar nomination.
Her other films during these early years include "National Velvet" (1944) with Elizabeth Taylor, "The Harvey Girls" (1946) with Judy Garland, the lavish musical "Till the Clouds Roll By" (1946), the Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy starrer "State of the Union" (1948), and the Cecil B. DeMille-directed "Samson and Delilah" (1949), the latter of which was the biggest hit of 1950 — and was at the time the third-highest-grossing film in history.
In 1945, the 19-year-old ingénue wed Richard Cromwell, an actor nearly twice her age and secretly gay. The marriage ended within a year, but the two remained close until his death in 1960. She went on to marry producer Peter Shaw in 1949, staying with him until his death in 2003. It was with him she gave birth to a son, Anthony Shaw, now 70, and a daughter, Deirdre Shaw, now 69.
Her $500-a-week contract up in the early '50s, Lansbury supplemented her income and filled her time with early-TV assignments. She excelled in boob-tube dramas presented by series like "Robert Montgomery Presents" (1950 & 1953), "Lux Video Theatre" (1950-1954), "The Revlon Mirror Theater" (1953), "The Ford Television Theatre" (1953), "Fireside Theatre" (1955), and more.
In her late thirties, Lansbury's career heated up in film and on the stage.
She had a hit with "Blue Hawaii" (1961), in which she played Elvis Presley's mom — in spite of being just 10 years his senior. Always thought of as older than her years, Lansbury never hesitated to take advantage of that if it meant landing a juicy part. In fact, her next big splash came as the mother of Laurence Harvey's character in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) when she was merely two years older than Harvey. For her work in the Cold War classic — in which she was both a bitch on wheels ("You are to shoot the presidential nominee through the head") and somebody's mother — she was honored with her third and final Oscar nomination.
Other films of note in this period include the cult-fave "The World of Henry Orient" (1964), "Dear Heart" (1964), "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (1965), and "Harlow' (1965).
Lansbury had made her Broadway debut in 1957's "Hotel Paradiso," and followed it up with "A Taste of Honey" (1960). Her first foray into musicals was Stephen Sondheim's famous flop "Anyone Can Whistle," which had all of 12 previews and nine performances in 1964 before closing ignominiously.
Still, her first of two great career rejuvenations arrived when she was cast — after a hard-fought battle — in the title role of the Broadway musical "Mame" (1966). Based on the 1958 hit film "Auntie Mame," the musical about a grandiose bohemian Manhattanite attempting to raise her orphan nephew was an enormous smash, one for which she and co-star Bea Arthur won their first Tonys, and which opened audiences' eyes to her musical theater brilliance.
"Mame" was made into a big-budget movie musical, but Lansbury was passed over in favor of Lucille Ball, a bigger star with a fraction of the voice. It flopped.
Meanwhile, Lansbury had won a second Tony for "Dear World" in 1969.
I did a play with Angela which rehearsed in New York, went through three directors and eventually opened in Los Angeles. I was fired midway through the run. My final night she called me into her dressing room at half hour and gave me a beautiful leather handbag(pt.1)…
Fleeing the destruction of her Malibu home in a 1971 fire, and hoping to find a sanctuary for her children, who were battling drug abuse, Lansbury moved her family to County Cork, Ireland. It worked, and it didn't put a dent in her career.
Lansbury put her musical chops to good use in the Disney film "Bedknobs & Broomsticks" (1971), playing a benevolent witch, and in a long break from the cinema won a third Tony, as Mama Rose in the 1974 revival of "Gypsy."
Lansbury knocked 'em dead (and made 'em into pies) as Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd" (1979), for which she won another Tony. The performance was immortalized in a 1982 telefilm.
With the film "Death on the Nile" (1978), Lansbury began a long association with the mystery genre, one that continued with "The Lady Vanishes" (1979), "The Mirror Crack'd" (1980), and the TV film "A Talent for Murder" (1984).
But it was her casting as Jessica Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote" that offered the actress — who was not yet 60 — a chance to renew her household-name status, rake in millions, finally play a down-to-earth woman, and make TV history. Fletcher became a beloved character, albeit one with altogether too many run-ins with murder most foul.
She was nominated for the Emmy a dozen times for playing Jessica Fletcher, always losing (she lost at the Emmys a total of 18 times), but she stuck with the series long past her desire to keep at it, and was even lured back for four TV movies based on the character, from 1997-2003.
In the midst of the juggernaut that was "Murder, She Wrote," Lansbury found the time to add another classic performance to her résumé, voicing Mrs. Potts in 1991's "Beauty and the Beast." She sweetly revived her most famous song from the film in 2016.
Later in her career, Lansbury appeared on TV on "Law & Order: Trial by Jury" (2005) and "Law & Order: SVU" (2005), in the film "Nanny McPhee" (2005), won a fifth and final Tony for playing Madame Arcarti in "Blithe Spirit" (2009), and voiced the "Kingdom Hearts" video games (2005 & 2007).
Along with playing Aunt March in the 2017 miniseries "Little Women" and providing Mayor McGerkle's voice in "The Grinch" (2018), her final live-action films were "Mr. Popper's Penguins" (2011) and "Mary Poppins Returns" (2018), in which she played the Balloon Lady.
Her touching Balloon Lady was a suitable last impression for Lansbury's fans; she had signed up for and then balked at returning to Broadway one final time in "The Chalk Garden" in 2017, saying she wanted to devote more time to her family.
Still, rumors persist she will be seen in a forthcoming feature — one final cameo to delight her admirers.
In June, fans feared the worst when Lansbury — honored with a Lifetime Achievement Tony — failed to appear at the ceremony in NYC, or to send a video acceptance speech. It turned out to be one final honor for a woman revered by many as one of the all-time greats.
She is survived by her two children, by her stepson David Shaw, by her brother Edgar, and by eight grandchildren and great-grandchildren.