Angela Brigid Lansbury
October 16, 1925
Regent's Park, London, England
|Died||October 11, 2022 (aged 96)|
Los Angeles, California, US
|Notable work||Full list|
Dame Angela Brigid Lansbury(October 16, 1925 – October 11, 2022) was an Irish-British and American film, stage, and television actress. Her career spanned eight decades, much of it in the United States, and her work received a great deal of international attention. At the time of her death, she was one of the last surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema. Lansbury received many accolades throughout her career, including six Tony Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award), six Golden Globe Awards, a Laurence Olivier Award, and the Academy Honorary Award, in addition to nominations for three Academy Awards, eighteen Primetime Emmy Awards, and a Grammy Award. In 2014, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Lansbury Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Lansbury was born to an upper-middle-class family in Central London, the daughter of Irish actress Moyna Macgill and English politician Edgar Lansbury. She moved to the United States in 1940 to escape the Blitz and studied acting in New York City. Proceeding to Hollywood in 1942, she signed with MGM and obtained her first film roles, in Gaslight (1944), National Velvet (1944), and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), earning two Academy Award nominations and a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress. She appeared in eleven more MGM films, mostly in minor roles, and after her contract ended in 1952, she began to supplement her cinematic work with theatrical appearances. Although she was largely seen as a B-list star during this period, her role in the film The Manchurian Candidate (1962) received widespread acclaim, and it is frequently cited as one of her best performances. It earned her a third Academy Award nomination and another Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress.
In 1964, Lansbury transitioned to the Broadway stage in her first musical, Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle. Lansbury gained stardom playing the titular role in Jerry Herman's musical Mame (1966), winning her first Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, and establishing her as a gay icon. She received two more Tony Awards for her starring roles as Countess Aurelia in Dear World in 1969 and Rose in Gypsy in 1973, as well as a nomination for her role as Anna in The King and I in 1978. She cemented her status as a Broadway icon in 1979 portraying Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and garnering her fourth Tony Award.
Lansbury earned international acclaim on television portraying the fictional writer and sleuth Jessica Fletcher in the CBS whodunit series Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996), among the longest-running and most popular detective series in television history. Through Corymore Productions, a company that she co-owned with her husband, Peter Shaw, Lansbury assumed ownership of the series and served as its executive producer during the final four seasons. She was also associated with roles in family films such as Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), The Last Unicorn (1982), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Anastasia (1997). Lansbury toured in a variety of international stage productions and returned to Broadway at the age of 84, earning her fifth Tony Award playing Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit (2009). Lansbury's later film appearances include Nanny McPhee (2005), Mary Poppins Returns (2018), and a (posthumous) cameo in Glass Onion (2022).
Lansbury was born to an upper-middle-class family on October 16, 1925, in the district of St Pancras in Central London. Her birthplace is sometimes given, wrongly, as Poplar, East London. Lansbury said that she had ancestral connections to Poplar but was born in Regent's Park, Central London. Her mother was Belfast-born actress Moyna Macgill (born Charlotte Lillian McIldowie). Macgill regularly appeared on stage in the West End and starred in several films. Lansbury's father was the wealthy English timber merchant and politician Edgar Lansbury, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and former mayor of the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar. Her paternal grandfather was the Labour Party leader and anti-war activist George Lansbury. Angela felt "awed" by him and considered him "a giant in my youth". She had an older half-sister, Isolde, born of Moyna's previous marriage to writer and director Reginald Denham. In January 1930, when Angela was four, her mother gave birth to twin boys, Bruce and Edgar, leading the Lansburys to move from their Poplar flat to a house in Mill Hill, North London. They spent weekends on a rural farm in Berrick Salome, near Wallingford, Oxfordshire.
I'm eternally grateful for the Irish side of me. That's where I got my sense of comedy and whimsy. As for the English half–that's my reserved side ... But put me onstage, and the Irish come out. The combination makes a good mix for acting.
— Angela Lansbury
When Lansbury was nine, her father died from stomach cancer and she retreated into playing characters as a coping mechanism. Facing financial difficulty, her mother became engaged to Leckie Forbes, a Scottish colonel, and moved into his house in Hampstead. Although Lansbury received an education at South Hampstead High School from 1934 until 1939, where she was two years below Glynis Johns (who later became an actress and another of the last surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood), she considered herself largely self-educated, learning from books, theatre and cinema. She became a self-professed "complete movie maniac", visiting the cinema regularly and imagining herself as certain characters. Keen on playing the piano, she briefly studied music at the Ritman School of Dancing. In 1940, she began studying acting at the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art in Kensington, West London, first appearing onstage as a lady-in-waiting in the school's production of Maxwell Anderson's Mary of Scotland.
Angela's grandfather died that year, and with the onset of the Blitz, Macgill decided to take Angela, Bruce and Edgar to the United States. Isolde remained in Britain with her new husband, actor Peter Ustinov. Macgill secured a job supervising 60 British children who were being evacuated to North America aboard the Duchess of Atholl, arriving with them in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in mid-August. From there, she proceeded by train to New York City, where she was financially sponsored by a Wall Street businessman, Charles T. Smith, moving in with his family at their home at Mahopac, New York. Lansbury received a scholarship from the American Theatre Wing which allowed her to study at the Feagin School of Drama and Radio in New York City, where she appeared in performances of William Congreve's The Way of the World and Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. She graduated in March 1942, by which time the family had moved to a flat on Morton Street in Greenwich Village in the New York City borough of Manhattan.
Macgill secured work in a Canadian touring production of Tonight at 8.30. Lansbury joined her and gained her first theatrical job as a nightclub act at the Samovar Club in Montreal. Claiming to be 19 when she was only 16, she earned $60 a week singing songs by Noël Coward. Lansbury returned to New York City in August 1942. By then, her mother had moved to Hollywood, Los Angeles, hoping to resurrect her film career; Lansbury and her brothers followed. The family moved into a bungalow in Laurel Canyon, and Lansbury and her mother obtained Christmas jobs at the Bullocks Wilshire department store in Los Angeles. Macgill was sacked for incompetence, leaving the family to subsist on Lansbury's wages of $28 a week. Lansbury befriended a group of gay men and became privy to the city's underground gay scene. She and her mother attended lectures given by spiritual guru Jiddu Krishnamurti; she met Aldous Huxley at one of these lectures.
At a party hosted by her mother, Lansbury met John van Druten, who had recently co-authored a script for Gaslight (1944), a mystery-thriller based on Patrick Hamilton's 1938 play Gas Light. Set in Victorian London, the film starred Ingrid Bergman and was directed by George Cukor. Van Druten suggested that Lansbury would be perfect for the role of Nancy Oliver, a conniving cockney maid. She was accepted for the part, though a social worker had to accompany her on the set because she was only 17. She obtained an agent, Earl Kramer, and signed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, starting at $500 a week. She used her real name as her professional name. Her casting received immediate attention: In August 1943, Variety magazine claimed that Lansbury had gone from unknown to a movie star in just four days. Gaslight received mixed reviews from critics, but Lansbury's performance was widely praised. The film earned seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Lansbury as Best Supporting Actress.
Her next film appearance was as Edwina Brown, the older sister of Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944). The film was a major commercial hit, and Lansbury developed a lifelong friendship with Elizabeth Taylor, who played Velvet. Lansbury next appeared in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), a cinematic adaptation of Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel of the same name, directed by Albert Lewin. Lansbury was cast as Sibyl Vane, a working-class music hall singer who falls in love with the protagonist, Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield). Although the film was not a financial success, Lansbury's performance once more drew praise, earning her a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture. She was again nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, losing to Anne Revere, who played Mrs Brown in National Velvet.
On September 27, 1945, Lansbury married Richard Cromwell, a visual artist and decorator whose acting career had come to a standstill. Their marriage was troubled: Cromwell was gay, and he had married Lansbury in the futile hope that doing so would turn him, heterosexual. The marriage ended less than a year after she filed for divorce on September 11, 1946, but they remained friends until his death. In December 1946, she was introduced to fellow English expatriate Peter Pullen Shaw at a party held by Hurd Hatfield in Ojai Valley. An aspiring actor, Shaw was also signed to MGM, and he had recently ended a relationship with Joan Crawford. He and Lansbury became a couple, living together before she proposed marriage to him.
They were intent on getting married in England, but the Church of England would not perform a marriage ceremony for a divorced person whose spouse was still living. So in August 1949, they wed in a Church of Scotland ceremony at St. Columba's Church in Knightsbridge, London. They honeymooned in France and returned to the United States, where they settled into Lansbury's home in the Rustic Canyon neighbourhood of Los Angeles, close to Santa Monica and the beach, in 1951, they became naturalized US citizens, retaining their British citizenship via dual nationality.
Following the success of Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray, MGM cast Lansbury in 11 more films until her contract with the company ended in 1952. Keeping her among their B-list stars, MGM used her less than actresses of the same age. Biographers Edelman and Kupferberg believe that the majority of these films were "mediocre", doing little to further her career. George Cukor believed Lansbury had been "consistently miscast" by MGM. She was repeatedly made to portray older women, often villainous, and became increasingly dissatisfied with working for MGM. "I kept wanting to play the Jean Arthur roles, and Mr. Mayer kept casting me as a series of venal bitches," she recalled. Suffering from the post-1948 slump in box office revenue, the company was slashing film budgets and cutting staff.
Lansbury's first American character is "Em", a tough honky-tonk saloon singer who slaps Judy Garland's character in the Oscar-winning Wild West musical The Harvey Girls (1946) Lansbury's singing voice was dubbed. She appeared in The Hoodlum Saint (1946), Till the Clouds Roll By (1947), If Winter Comes (1947), Tenth Avenue Angel (1948), The Three Musketeers (1948), State of the Union (1948), and The Red Danube (1949). She was loaned by MGM, first to United Artists for The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947), and then to Paramount for Samson and Delilah (1949). She appeared as a villainous maidservant in Kind Lady (1951) and a French adventuress in Mutiny (1952). Turning to the radio, in 1948 she appeared in an audio adaptation of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage for NBC University Theatre, and the following year she starred in their adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Moving into television, she appeared in a 1950 episode of Robert Montgomery Presents adapted from A.J. Cronin's The Citadel.
Unhappy with the roles MGM was giving her, Lansbury instructed her manager, Harry Friedman of MCA Inc., to terminate her contract in 1952, the same year that her son Anthony was born. Soon after his birth, she joined the East Coast touring productions of two recent Broadway hits: Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's Remains to Be Seen and Louis Verneuil's Affairs of State. Biographer Margaret Bonanno later wrote that at this point, Lansbury's career "hit an all-time low".
In April 1953, her daughter, Deirdre Angela Shaw, was born. Shaw had a son by a previous marriage, David, and after gaining legal custody of the boy in 1953, brought him to California to live with the family. With three children to raise, the Shaws moved to a larger house on San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. However, Lansbury did not feel entirely comfortable in the Hollywood social scene. She later observed that because of her British roots, "in Hollywood, I always felt like a stranger in a strange land." In 1959, the family moved to Malibu, settling into a house on the Pacific Coast Highway that had been designed by Aaron Green. There, Lansbury and Peter escaped the Hollywood scene and were able to send their children to a local public school.
Returning to the cinema as a freelance actress, Lansbury found herself typecast as a woman older—sometimes far older—than herself. "Hollywood made me old before my time," she said later, noting that in her 20s she was receiving fan mail from people who believed her to be in her 40s. She had minor roles in the films A Life at Stake (1954), A Lawless Street (1955), and The Purple Mask (1955), later describing the last as "the worst movie I ever made". She played Princess Gwendolyn in the comedy film The Court Jester (1956), and then took the role of a wife who kills her husband in Please Murder Me (1956). She appeared as Minnie Littlejohn in The Long, Hot Summer (1958), and as Mabel Claremont in The Reluctant Debutante (1958), which she filmed in Paris. Biographer Martin Gottfried says that these latter two are roles restored Lansbury's status as an "A-picture actress". Throughout this period, she continued appearing on television, starring in episodes of Revlon Mirror Theatre, Ford Theatre and The George Gobel Show, and she became a regular on the game show Pantomime Quiz.
Lansbury's rare sympathetic role as Mavis in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) drew critical acclaim, as did her performances as a manipulative, destructive mother in All Fall Down (1962) and the scheming ideologue Mrs Iselin in the Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962). John Frankenheimer cast her in the part of Iselin based on her performance in All Fall Down. Lansbury was only three years older than actor Laurence Harvey, who played her son in the film. She agreed to appear in The Manchurian Candidate after reading the original novel, which she described as "one of the most exciting political books I ever read". Biographers Edelman and Kupferberg consider this role "her enduring cinematic triumph", while Gottfried states that it was "the strongest, the most memorable and the best picture she ever made ... she gives her finest film performance in it." Lansbury received her third Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for the film, losing to Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker (1962).
Lansbury played Sybil Logan in In the Cool of the Day (1963)—a film she renounced as awful— wealthy socialite Isabel Boyd in The World of Henry Orient (1964), the widow Phyllis in Dear Heart (1964), and the mother of screen actress Jean Harlow (played by Carroll Baker) in Harlow (1965).
Lansbury declined several film roles, including the lead in The Killing of Sister George (1968) and the role of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Instead, she accepted the role of the Countess von Ornstein, an ageing German aristocrat who falls in love with a younger man, in Something for Everyone (1970), which was filmed on location in Hohenschwangau, Bavaria. She played the middle-aged English witch Eglantine Price in the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). This was her first lead in a screen musical, and it led to her publicizing the film on television programmes like the David Frost Show. She later noted that as a big commercial hit, this film "secured an enormous audience for me".
Lansbury spent most of the 1970s on stage rather than on screen, but she was acclaimed for her supporting performance as the perpetually inebriated romance novelist and murder suspect Salome Otterbourne in the classic 1978 whodunnit Death on the Nile, a turn which garnered her a BAFTA Award nomination, and a National Board of Review Award nomination and win for her portrayal. Johnny Depp cited Lansbury's performance as one of his inspirations for his performance as Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. Lansbury appeared as Miss Froy in The Lady Vanishes (1979), a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's earlier film, released in 1938. The Mirror Crack'd (1980) featured her in another film based on an Agatha Christie novel, this time as Miss Marple, a sleuth in 1950s Kent. Lansbury hoped to get away from the depiction of the character popularised by Margaret Rutherford, returning to Christie's description of the character and creating a precursor to her later role as Jessica Fletcher. She was signed to appear in two sequels as Miss Marple, but these never were made. Her tour-de-force in the film earned her a Saturn Award nomination for Best Actress.  Lansbury's next role was in the animated film The Last Unicorn (1982), for which she provided the voice of the witch Mommy Fortuna.
Throughout the run of Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury continued making appearances in other television films, miniseries, and cinema. In 1986, she co-hosted with Kirk Douglas. the New York Philharmonic's televised tribute to the centenary of the Statue of Liberty She appeared as the protagonist's mother in Rage of Angels: The Story Continues (1986) and portrayed Nan Moore – the mother of a victim of the real-life Korean Air Lines Flight 007 plane crash – in Shootdown (1988); as a mother, she was "enormously touched by the incident". She was featured in The Shell Seekers (1989) as an Englishwoman recuperating from a heart attack, and starred in The Love She Sought (1990), also known as A Green Journey, as an American school teacher who falls in love with a Catholic priest (played by Denholm Elliott) while visiting Ireland. Lansbury thought it "a marvellous woman's story". She next starred as the Cockney Mrs Harris in a film adaptation of the novel Mrs 'Arris Goes to Paris (1992), which was directed by her son and executive produced by her stepson. Her highest profile film role since The Manchurian Candidate was as the voice of the motherly teapot Mrs. Potts in the Disney animation Beauty and the Beast (1991). She considered Mrs Potts to be a gift to her three grandchildren. Lansbury performed the title song to the film, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song, and Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media. Additionally, her work on Beauty and the Beast garnered her nominations for a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, as well as for an Awards Circuit Community Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.  In 2021, Lansbury made a surprise appearance referencing her role as Mrs Potts on the audio guide of "Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts", The Metropolitan Museum of Art's first exhibition about Walt Disney and his studios. It was probably her last recorded performance.
Lansbury starred in the film Nanny McPhee (2005) as Aunt Adelaide, later informing an interviewer that working on Nanny McPhee "pulled me out of the abyss" after the death of her husband. She then appeared in the film Mr. Popper's Penguins (2011), opposite Jim Carrey. In 2012, it was announced that Lansbury was set to star in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel; however, she had to back out of the project (with Tilda Swinton replacing her) due to prior scheduling conflicts with the Australian production of the play Driving Miss Daisy, in which she co-starred with James Earl Jones. In November 2013, she received an Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievement at the Governors Awards. Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies presented the award and Emma Thompson and Geoffrey Rush offered tributes. She voices the Witch in the Spanish film Justin and the Knights of Valour (2013).
Lansbury appears as The Balloon Woman in Mary Poppins Returns (2018), a sequel to the original 1964 film set 20 years later in Depression-era London. Emily Blunt plays the title character, Lansbury was originally short-listed for the title role in Mary Poppins that was originated by Julie Andrews.
Lansbury made her penultimate film appearance playing her last starring role in the 2018 fantasy film Buttons: A Christmas Tale, co-starring with Dick Van Dyke.
In January 2019, Lansbury was invited to give the annual benediction to the American Film Institute's luncheon. She talked about her experiences at MGM, the craft of acting and the importance of a film community. The appearance was a surprise to the audience of film and television stars, who gave her a standing ovation. Lansbury concluded her remarks by advising about the awards season to the possible Oscar and Golden Globe contenders: "As you leave here today and are invited to endure a seemingly endless parade of programs that label you a 'winner' or a 'loser' – I've been there, I've done that, remember this room, when we are all together as one."
Lansbury's final film role was a cameo appearance in Rian Johnson's 2022 detective drama Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.
In April 1957, she debuted on Broadway at the Henry Miller Theatre in Hotel Paradiso, a French burlesque set in Paris, directed by Peter Glenville. The play ran for only 15 weeks, although she earned good reviews for her role as "Marcel Cat". She said later that her "whole career would have fizzled out." if she had not appeared in the play. She followed this with the 1960;Broadway production of A Taste of Honey at the Lyceum Theatre, directed by Tony Richardson and George Devine. Lansbury played Helen, the boorish, verbally abusive, otherwise absentee mother of Josephine (played by Joan Plowright, only four years Lansbury's junior). Lansbury gained "a great deal of satisfaction" from the role and made friends with Plowright, and Plowright's lover and future husband, Laurence Olivier. Plowright and Olivier eloped to be married from Lansbury's rented flat on East 97th Street. After a well-reviewed appearance in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) – filmed in Sydney – and a minor role in A Breath of Scandal (1960), she appeared in Blue Hawaii (1961) as an overbearing mother. Her son was played by Elvis Presley, although he was only nine years younger. Acknowledging that the film was of poor quality, she recalled that she agreed to appear in it because "I was desperate."
Her first appearance in a theatrical musical was in the short-lived Anyone Can Whistle, written by Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, which opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway in April 1964. An experimental work, it was panned by critics and closed after nine performances. Lansbury played the role of crooked mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper, and although she loved Sondheim's score, she had personal differences with Laurents and was glad when the show closed. In 1965, she appeared as a flamboyant wealthy actress in a second-season episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.. She was among 30 actors playing brief credited cameo roles in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), an epic film about the life of Jesus. She was cut almost entirely in the final edit. Appearances as Mama Jean Bello in Harlow (1965), as Lady Blystone in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), and as Gloria in Mister Buddwing (1966) followed. Despite her well-received performances in several films, "celluloid superstardom" evaded her, and she became increasingly dissatisfied with these minor roles, feeling that none allowed her to explore her potential as an actress.
Returning to the musical cinema, Lansbury starred as Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance (1983), a film based on Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera of the same name. While filming it in London she sang on a recording of The Beggar's Opera as a mezzo-soprano. She played the Grandmother in the gothic fantasy film The Company of Wolves (1984). Lansbury began to work in television, appearing with Bette Davis in a miniseries about the 1930s custody fight over Gloria Vanderbilt titled Little Gloria... Happy at Last (1982). Lansbury's performance as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney earned her a nomination for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie.. She followed this with an appearance in The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story (1983), which she later described as "the most unsophisticated thing you can imagine". She plays a wheelchair-using mystery writer in the television film A Talent for Murder (1984). She described it as "a rush job" that she did to work with co-star Laurence Olivier. Two miniseries featuring Lansbury appeared in 1984: Lace and The First Olympics: Athens 1896.
In 1966, Lansbury took on the title role of Mame Dennis in Mame, Jerry Herman's musical adaptation of the novel Auntie Mame. Rosalind Russell, who played Mame in the non-musical film adaptation Auntie Mame, was the director's first choice for the role, but she declined. Lansbury actively sought the part, hoping that it would mark a change in her career. When she was chosen, it came as a surprise to theatre critics, who believed that it would go to a better-known actress. Lansbury was forty-one years old, and it was her first starring role. Mame Dennis was a glamorous character, with over twenty costume changes throughout the play, and Lansbury's role included ten songs and dance routines, for which she trained extensively. After runs in Philadelphia and in Boston, Mame opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in May 1966. The film was already popular among the gay community, and Mame gained Lansbury a cult gay following, something that she later attributed to the fact that Mame Dennis was "every gay person's idea of glamour ... Everything about Mame coincided with every young man's idea of beauty and glory and it was lovely."
I was a wife and a mother, and I was completely fulfilled. But my husband recognised the signals in me which said "I've been doing enough gardening, I've cooked enough good dinners, I've sat around the house and mooned about what more interior decoration I can get my fingers into." It's a curious thing with actors and actresses, but suddenly the alarm goes off. My husband is a very sensitive person to my moods and he recognised the fact that I had to get on with something. Mame came along out of the blue just at this time. Now isn't that a miracle?
— Angela Lansbury
Reviews of Lansbury's performance were overwhelmingly positive. Stanley Kauffmann wrote in The New York Times: "Miss Lansbury is a singing-dancing actress, not a singer or dancer who also acts ... In this marathon role she has wit, poise, warmth and a very taking coolth." Lansbury received her first Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Lansbury's biographer Margaret Bonanno claims that Mame made Lansbury a "superstar". The actor herself observed: "Everyone loves you, everyone loves the success, and enjoys it as much as you do. And it lasts as long as you are on that stage and as long as you keep coming out of that stage door."
The stardom achieved through Mame allowed Lansbury to make further television appearances, including a guest shot on Perry Como's November 1966 Thanksgiving special. Her fame also allowed her to engage in a variety of high-profile charitable endeavours, appearing as the guest of honour at the 1967 March of Dimes annual benefit luncheon. She was invited to star in a musical performance—"Thoroughly Modern Millie"—on the 1968 Academy Awards ceremony, and she co-hosted that year's Tony Awards with her former brother-in-law Peter Ustinov. Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Club elected her "Woman of the Year" for 1968. When the film adaptation of Mame was put into production, Lansbury hoped to be offered the part, but it went to Lucille Ball, an established box-office success. Lansbury considered this to be "one of my bitterest disappointments". (The film was a box-office failure, critics panned it.)
Her personal life became complicated when she learned that both of her children were using recreational drugs and that Anthony had become addicted to cocaine and heroin.
Lansbury followed the success of Mame with a performance as 75-year-old Parisian eccentric Countess Aurelia in Dear World, a musical adaptation of Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot. The show opened at Broadway's Mark Hellinger Theatre in February 1969. Lansbury found it a "pretty depressing" experience. Reviews of her performance were positive, and she received her second Tony Award based on it. Reviews of the overall show were critical, however, and it closed after 132 performances. She followed this with the title role in the musical Prettybelle, which was based on Jean Arnold's book, The Rape of Prettybelle. Set in the Deep South, it dealt with issues of racism, with Lansbury as a wealthy alcoholic driven mad by the revelation of her late husband's crimes against people of colour. She seeks sexual encounters with men of colour to compensate for them. A controversial play, it opened in Boston but received poor reviews and was cancelled before it reached Broadway. Lansbury later described the play as "a complete and utter fiasco", admitting that in her opinion, her "performance was awful".
The year 1970 was traumatic for the Lansbury family: Peter underwent a hip replacement, Anthony overdosed on heroin and became comatose, and the family's Malibu home was destroyed in a brush fire in September. To help her children, the family decided to move to Ireland. They purchased Knockmourne Glebe, a farmhouse constructed in the 1820s near the village of Conna in rural County Cork, and, after Anthony quit using cocaine and heroin, took him there to recover from his drug addiction. Lansbury did not work for a whole year so she could be there for Anthony and Deidre while they were recovering from their addictions. Anthony enrolled in the Webber-Douglas School, his mother's alma mater, and became a professional actor, then moved into television directing. Lansbury and her husband did not return to California, instead dividing their time between County Cork and New York City.
[In Ireland, our gardener] had no idea who I was. Nobody there did. I was just Mrs Shaw, which suited me down to the ground. I had absolute anonymity in those days, which was wonderful.
— Angela Lansbury
In 1972, Lansbury returned to London's West End to perform in the Royal Shakespeare Company's theatrical production of Edward Albee's All Over at the Aldwych Theatre. She portrayed the mistress of a dying New England millionaire, and although the play's reviews were mixed, Lansbury's acting was widely praised. This was followed by her reluctant involvement in a revival of Mame, which was then touring the United States, after which she returned to the West End to play the character of Rose in the musical Gypsy. She had initially turned down the role, not wishing to be in the shadow of Ethel Merman, who had played Rose in the original Broadway production, but she eventually accepted it. When the show opened in May 1973, she earned a standing ovation and rave reviews. Settling into a Belgravia flat, she was soon in demand among London society: Dinners were held in her honour. In 1974, after the end of the London run, Gypsy toured the United States, and in Chicago Lansbury received the Sarah Siddons Award for her performance. The show eventually reached Broadway, where it ran until January 1975. A critical success, it earned Lansbury her third Tony Award. After a hiatus of several months, Gypsy toured throughout the country again, in the summer of 1975.
Desiring to move on from musicals, Lansbury decided that she wanted to appear in a production of one of William Shakespeare's plays. She obtained the role of Gertrude in the National Theatre Company's production of Hamlet, staged at the Old Vic. Directed by Peter Hall, the production ran from December 1975 to May 1976, receiving mixed reviews. Lansbury later commented that she "hated" the role, believing it too restrained. Her mood was worsened by the news that in November 1975 her mother had died in California. Lansbury had her mother's body cremated and the ashes were scattered near her own County Cork home. Her next theatrical appearance was in two one-act plays by Edward Albee, Counting the Ways and Listening, performed side by side at the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut. Reviews of the production were mixed, but Lansbury was again singled out for praise. Another revival tour of Gypsy followed.
In April 1978, Lansbury appeared in 24 performances of a revival of The King and I musical staged at Broadway's Uris Theatre. Lansbury played the role of Mrs Anna, replacing Constance Towers, who was on a short break. Her first cinematic role in seven years was as novelist and murder victim Salome Otterbourne in Death on the Nile (1978), an adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1937 novel of the same name that was filmed in both London and Egypt. In the film, Lansbury starred alongside Peter Ustinov and Bette Davis, who became a close friends. The role earned Lansbury the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress of 1978.
In March 1979, Lansbury originated the role of Nellie Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a Stephen Sondheim musical directed by Harold Prince. Opening at the Uris Theatre on Broadway, she starred alongside Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd, the murderous barber in 19th-century London. When offered the role, she jumped at the opportunity because of Sondheim's involvement in the project. She loved "the extraordinary wit and intelligence of his lyrics". She remained in the role for fourteen months before being replaced by Dorothy Loudon; the musical received mixed critical reviews, although it earned Lansbury her fourth Tony Award and After Dark magazine's Ruby Award for Broadway Performer of the Year. She returned to the role in October 1980 for a ten-month tour of six U.S. cities, with George Hearn playing the title character; the production was also filmed and broadcast on The Entertainment Channel. In 1982, she took on the role of an upper-middle-class housewife who champions workers' rights in A Little Family Business, a farce set in Baltimore in which her son Anthony also starred. It debuted at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre before heading on to Broadway's Martin Beck Theatre. It was panned by critics and was accused of racism by the Japanese-American community. That year, Lansbury was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, and the following year she appeared in a Mame revival at Broadway's Gershwin Theatre. Although Lansbury was praised, the show was a commercial flop. "I realised that it's not a show of today. It's a period piece." Lansbury said.
Following the end of Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury returned to the theatre. Although cast in the lead role in the 2001 Kander and Ebb musical The Visit, she withdrew before it opened due to her husband's deteriorating health. In January 2003, Peter died of congestive heart failure at the couple's home in Brentwood, California. Lansbury felt that she would not take on any more major acting roles, but might make a few cameo appearances . Wanting to spend more time in New York City, in 2006 she purchased a $2 million condominium in Manhattan.
Lansbury returned to Broadway after a 23-year absence in Deuce, a play by Terrence McNally that opened at the Music Box Theatre in May 2007 for a limited run of eighteen weeks. Lansbury received a Tony Award nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Play for her role as a retired tennis player.
In March 2009, she returned to Broadway for a revival of Blithe Spirit at the Shubert Theatre, where she took on the role of Madame Arcati, an eccentric medium. This appearance earned her the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play; her fifth Tony Award, tying her with the previous recordholder Julie Harris, albeit all of Harris' Tonys were for Best Leading Actress. From December 2009 to June 2010, Lansbury starred as Madame Armfeldt alongside Catherine Zeta-Jones in the first Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, held at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The role earned her a seventh Tony Award nomination. In May 2010, she was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from the Manhattan School of Music.
From April to July 2012, Lansbury starred as women's rights advocate Sue-Ellen Gamadge in the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. From February to June 2013, Lansbury starred alongside James Earl Jones in an Australian tour of Driving Miss Daisy. From March to June 2014, Lansbury reprised her performance as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud Theatre in London's West End, her first London stage appearance in nearly 40 years. While in London, she made an appearance at the Angela Lansbury Film Festival in Poplar, a screening of some of her best-known films, organized by Poplar Film. From December 2014 to March 2015, she joined the tour of Blithe Spirit across North America.
In April 2015, when she was 89 , she received her first Olivier Award, as Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Arcati, and in November 2015 was awarded the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre.
On June 2, 2016, Playbill reported that Lansbury had confirmed that she would return to Broadway in the 2017–2018 season in a revival of Enid Bagnold's 1955 play The Chalk Garden to be produced by Scott Rudin. However, in an interview published on September 20, 2016, Lansbury said she would not be performing in The Chalk Garden, saying: "At my time of life, I've decided that I want to be with family more and being alone in New York doing a play requires an extraordinary amount of time left alone."
On November 18, 2019, Lansbury made her final return to Broadway portraying Lady Bracknell in a one-night benefit staging of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest for Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre. In October 2020, Variety magazine said that her career "(defied) all logic" adding: "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."
Main article: Murder, She Wrote
A small number of people have seen me on the stage. [Television] is a chance for me to play to a vast U.S. public, and I think that's a chance you don't pass up ... I'm interested in reaching everybody. I don't want to reach just the people who can pay forty-five or fifty dollars for a [theatre] seat.— Angela Lansbury
In 1983, Lansbury was offered two main television roles, one in a Norman Lear sitcom opposite Charles Durning and the other in a detective series by co-creators William Link and Richard Levinson of Columbo fame. Unable to do both, she chose to do the detective series despite the fact her agents had advised her to accept the sitcom. The series Murder, She Wrote centred on the character of Jessica Fletcher, a retired school teacher from the fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine, who became a successful detective novelist after her husband's death, also solving murders encountered during her travels. Lansbury described the character as "an American Miss Marple". The series was created by Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson, and William Link, who had earlier had success with Columbo, and the role of Jessica Fletcher had been first offered to Jean Stapleton, who declined the role, as did Doris Day. The pilot episode "The Murder of Sherlock Holmes" premiered on September 30, 1984, with the rest of the first season airing on Sundays from 8 to 9 pm. Although critical reviews were mixed, it proved highly popular, with the pilot having a Nielsen rating of 18.9 and the first season being rated top in its time slot. Designed as inoffensive family viewing, despite its topic the show eschewed violence and gore, following the "whodunit" format rather than those of most contemporary U.S. crime shows; Lansbury herself commented that "best of all, there's no violence. I hate violence."
Lansbury was protective of Jessica Fletcher, having creative input over the character's costumes, makeup, and hair and rejecting pressure from network executives to put her in a relationship, believing that the character should remain a strong single female. When she believed that a scriptwriter had made Jessica do or say things that did not fit with the character's personality, Lansbury ensured that the script was changed. She saw Jessica as a role model for older female viewers, praising her "enormous, universal appeal – that was an accomplishment I never expected in my entire life." Lansbury biographers Rob Edelman and Audrey E. Kupferberg described the series as "a television landmark" in the U.S. for having an older female character as the protagonist, paving the way for later series like The Golden Girls. Lansbury herself noted that "I think it's the first time a show has been aimed at the middle-aged audience", and although it was most popular among senior citizens, it gradually gained a younger audience. By 1991, one-third of the program's viewers were under the age of 50. It gained continually high ratings throughout most of its run, outdoing rivals in its time slot such as Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories. In February 1987, a spin-off was produced, The Law & Harry McGraw, although it was short-lived.
As the show's run continued, Lansbury assumed a larger role behind the scenes. In 1989, her company Corymore Productions began co-producing the show with Universal. Nevertheless, she began to tire of the series and in particular the long working hours, stating that the 1990–91 season would be the show's last. She changed her mind after being appointed executive producer for the 1992–93 season, something that she felt "made it far more interesting to me". On her death in 2022 the BBC reported her involvement in producing the show helped earn her a "fortune estimated at nearly $100m." For the eighth season, the show's setting moved to New York City, where Jessica had taken a job teaching criminology at Manhattan University. The move was an attempt to attract younger viewers and was encouraged by Lansbury. Having become a "Sunday-night institution" in the U.S., the show's ratings improved during the early 1990s, becoming a Top Five programme. However, CBS executives, hoping to gain a larger audience, moved it to Thursdays at 8 pm, opposite NBC's sitcom Friends. Lansbury was upset by the move, believing that it ignored the show's core audience. The final episode of the series aired in May 1996, and ended with Lansbury voicing a "Goodbye from Jessica" message at the end. Tom Shales wrote in The Washington Post: "The title of the show's last episode, "Death by Demographics", is in itself something of a protest. Murder, She Wrote is partly a victim of commercial television's mad youth mania." At the time, it tied the original Hawaii Five-O as the longest-running detective series in television history, and the role would prove to be the most successful and prominent of Lansbury's career. After the series ended, four further television movies bearing the Murder, She Wrote name and starring Lansbury were released between 1997 and 2003. Lansbury initially had plans for a Murder, She Wrote television film that would be a musical with a score composed by Jerry Herman. While this project did not materialize, it was transformed into Mrs. Santa Claus – in which Lansbury played Santa Claus' wife – which proved to be ratings hit. Lansbury employed Madlyn Rhue, who was at risk of losing her Screen Actors Guild medical coverage for failing to meet the income threshold. She created a reoccurring librarian character for her, ensuring Rhue, who has multiple sclerosis, did not lose her medical coverage.
Lansbury's higher profile gained from Murder, She Wrote resulted in her being employed to appear in advertisements and infomercials for Bufferin, MasterCard and the Beatrix Potter Company. In 1988, she released a video titled Angela Lansbury's Positive Moves: My Personal Plan for Fitness and Well-Being, in which she outlined her personal exercise routine, and in 1990 published a book with the same title co-written with Mimi Avins, which she dedicated to her mother. As a result of her work, she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), awarded to her in a ceremony by the Prince of Wales at the British consulate in Los Angeles. While living most of the year in California, Lansbury spent Christmases and summers at Corymore House, her farmhouse overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Ballywilliam, near Churchtown South, Cloyne, County Cork, which she had built as a family home in 1991.
Lansbury made an appearance as a mother in a season 6 episode of the television show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, for which she was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series in 2005.
In December 2017, Lansbury performed in her final television role as Aunt March in the BBC miniseries Little Women. Lansbury received acclaim for her performance with Variety film critic Jaqueline Cutler writing, "That's Aunt March, played with magnificent imperiousness by Angela Lansbury, wielding power by lording her wealth overall." Daniel Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter praised Lansbury declaring, "Angela Lansbury towers over a solid cast...rests on no laurels and steals her every scene."
Ange is classy and elegant, warm and generous, but she's also tough and expects everyone around her to give their all. As far as she is concerned, there is no challenge that can't be at least partially met with a "cuppa" very strong Yorkshire Gold. Working on the stage keeps her vibrant. A healthy regimen keeps her beautiful. What keeps her ageless is her immense curiosity, her exuberance for life, and her tremendous gift for holding on to joy.
On The Dick Cavett Show in 1972, Lansbury said that when she first came to the United States, she spoke "with a bit of an English accent . . . and a bit of a Cockney accent too, I think, because I was a Londoner", but since then, had lost her native accent. She held Irish citizenship. Biographer Martin Gottfried characterized her as "Meticulous. Cautious. Self-editing. Deliberate. It is what the British call reserved", adding that she was "as concerned, as sensitive, and as sympathetic as anyone might want in a friend". Also noting that she had "a profound sense of privacy", he added that she disliked attempts at flattery.
Lansbury was married twice, first to actor Richard Cromwell, when she was nineteen and Cromwell was 35. They eloped and they were married in a small civil ceremony on September 27, 1945. They divorced in 1946, but they remained friends until he died in 1960. In 1949, Lansbury married actor and producer Peter Shaw, and they remained together for 54 years until his death in 2003. They had two children together, Anthony Peter (b. 1952) and Deirdre Ann (b. 1953), and Lansbury became the stepmother of Shaw's son David from his first marriage. While Lansbury repeatedly stated that she wanted to put her children before her career, she admitted that she frequently had to leave them in California for long periods when she was working elsewhere. She brought up her children to be Episcopalian, but they were not members of a congregation. She stated, "I believe that God is within all of us, that we are perfect, precious beings, and that we have to put our faith and trust in that."
In the latter part of the 1960s, Anthony and Deirdre became involved in the growing counterculture movement and started using recreational drugs. Deirdre developed an acquaintance with the Manson family, and Anthony became addicted to cocaine and heroin. He overcame both addictions in 1971. After he recovered, Anthony became a television director and he directed 68 episodes of Murder, She Wrote. Deirdre married a chef, and together they opened a restaurant in West Los Angeles. Lansbury had three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren at the time of her death in 2022.
Lansbury was a cousin of the Postgate family, including the animator, writer, and social activist Oliver Postgate. She was also a second cousin of the academic and novelist Coral Lansbury, whose son Malcolm Turnbull was Prime Minister of Australia from 2015 to 2018.
As a young actress, Lansbury was a self-professed homebody, who commented that she loved housekeeping. She preferred to spend quiet evenings with her friends inside her house because she did not like to engage in Hollywood nightlife. Her hobbies at the time included reading, riding, playing tennis, cooking, and playing the piano; she also had a keen interest in gardening. She cited F. Scott Fitzgerald as her favourite author, and Roseanne and Seinfeld among her favourite television shows. In 1990, she cited her favourite female actors as being Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, and Shirley MacLaine, with her favourite male actors as Sean Connery, Tom Cruise, and Tom Hanks. Lansbury was an avid letter writer who wrote letters by hand and made copies of all of them. At Howard Gotlieb's request, Lansbury's papers are housed at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.
Lansbury was a supporter of the Democratic Party in the United States, describing herself as a "Democrat from the ground up", and of the Labour Party in her native United Kingdom. Throughout her career, Lansbury supported a variety of charities, particularly, she supported charities which helped Abused Wives in Crisis and combated domestic abuse and she also supported charities which worked towards rehabilitating drug users. In the 1980s, she began to support several charities engaged in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
In her early life, Lansbury was a chain smoker, but she conquered her addiction to smoking in the mid-1960s. In 1976 and 1987, she underwent cosmetic surgery on her neck to prevent it from broadening with age. During the 1990s, she began to suffer from arthritis. Lansbury underwent hip replacement surgery in May 1994 and knee replacement surgery in 2005.
Lansbury died in her sleep at her home in Los Angeles on October 11, 2022, aged 96. Many in the entertainment industry praised her following her life and legacy including Lin-Manuel Miranda who wrote, "Singular. Thank you, Angela Lansbury. We'll miss you terribly." Former Walt Disney Studios CEO Robert Iger stated, "Disney's beloved Mrs. Potts, Angela Lansbury…a consummate professional, a talented actress, and a lovely person. Rest In Peace." Others who remembered Lansbury included Viola Davis, Harvey Fierstein, Jeremy O. Harris, Rachel Zegler, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Antonio Banderas and Kristin Chenoweth.
Main article: Angela Lansbury on screen and stage
Lansbury had a prolific career in film, theatre, and television. She was one of the last film stars of the golden age of Hollywood, and has been a contract player with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the 1940s. She acted alongside actors such as Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Orson Welles, Elvis Presley, Bette Davis, and Maggie Smith in such classic films as Gaslight (1944), National Velvet (1944), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), State of the Union (1948), The Court Jester (1956), The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Blue Hawaii (1961) The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Death on the Nile (1978).
She is also known for her roles in classic children's films such as Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), The Last Unicorn (1982), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Anastasia (1997), Fantasia 2000 (2000), Nanny McPhee (2005), The Grinch (2018), and Mary Poppins Returns (2018). Lansbury is also known for her iconic work in Broadway musicals working Stephen Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1978), Gypsy (1973), and A Little Night Music (2009–2010). She also starred in Jerry Herman's Mame (1966), and Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King and I (1978). Lansbury is known for her performances in plays such as the Terrence McNally play Deuce (2007), the Noël Coward comedy Blithe Spirit (2014), and the Gore Vidal political drama The Best Man (2012). She gained international fame for her role as mystery writer turned sleuth Jessica Fletcher in the CBS crime series Murder, She Wrote (1984–1996).
In a career stretching from ingénue to dowager, from elegant heroine to depraved villainess, [Lansbury] has displayed durability and flexibility, as well as a highly admired work ethic.
— The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance, 2010
In the 1960s, The New York Times referred to Lansbury as the "First Lady of Musical Theatre". Lansbury described herself as an actress who also could sing, with Sondheim stating that she had a strong voice, albeit with a limited range. Lansbury's authorized biographer Martin Gottfried described her as "an American icon", with a "practically saintly" public image.
A 2007 interviewer for The New York Times described her as "one of the few actors it makes sense to call beloved", noting that a 1994 article in People magazine awarded her a perfect score on its "lovability index". The New Statesman commented that she "has the kind of pulling power many younger and more ubiquitous actors can only dream of, while an article in The Independent has suggested that she could be considered Britain's most successful actress. She was a gay icon, and asserted that she was "very proud of the fact", attributing her popularity among the LGBT community to her performance in Mame, while Murder, She Wrote broadened that appeal.
Lansbury was recognised for her achievements in Britain on multiple occasions. In 2002, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) gave Lansbury a Lifetime Achievement Award. Lansbury was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1994 Birthday Honours and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to drama, charitable work, and philanthropy. On being made a dame by Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle, Lansbury stated: "I'm joining a marvellous group of women I greatly admire like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. It's a lovely thing to be given that nod of approval by your own country and I cherish it."
Lansbury never won an Emmy Award despite 18 nominations (17 of them Primetime Emmy Awards) for which she was nominated over 33 years. As of 2009, she held the record for the most unsuccessful Emmy nominations by a performer. She was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but never won; reflecting on this in 2007, she stated that she was at first "terribly disappointed, but subsequently very glad that [she] did not win" because she believed that she would have otherwise had a less successful career. However, she received Golden Globe and People's Choice Awards for her television and film work.
In 2013, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors voted to bestow upon her an Honorary Academy Award for her lifetime achievements in the industry. Emma Thompson and Geoffrey Rush offered tributes at the Governors Awards where the ceremony was held, and Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies presented her with the Oscar, saying in part "Angela has been adding class, talent, beauty, and intelligence to the movies ever since" her film debut in 1944. The Oscar statue is inscribed "To Angela Lansbury, an icon who has created some of cinema's most memorable characters inspiring generations of actors".