Angela Lansbury, the dignified stage and screen actress who played devious dames on Broadway and in the movies, and starred on the long-running TV mystery series Murder, She Wrote, died Tuesday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 96.
Lansbury’s family announced the news and said she died peacefully in her sleep, just five days shy of her 97th birthday.
“I have two audiences, actually,” Lansbury once said, “the people who love to see me play bitches and the ones who want to see me sing and dance.” Ironically, she made that comment before she took on the role for which millions of fans will remember her: Jessica Fletcher, the kindly Maine mystery writer who solved 264 homicides in 12 years on Murder, She Wrote. Although the hit CBS series brought Lansbury fame and wealth, it overshadowed a long, versatile career in films and on Broadway. She was, in fact, that rarity in show business: a star character actress.
Born in London, Lansbury fled for the United States with her family after the Blitz. They settled in Los Angeles, where she briefly worked as a shopgirl before being hired by MGM at 17 to play the saucy maid in Gaslight opposite Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. She wound up with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, as she did the next year, for The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Early on she showed the qualities of icy elegance and controlled scorn that allowed her to excel as characters who were unsympathetic or amoral — and often older than she was. Although the series of ignoble women that MGM foisted on her eventually led to a departure from the studio, she later admitted, “Any actress will tell you that evil roles to play are the best. You can go to town.” And she did just that in 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. Her impact as Laurence Harvey’s heinous mother made the role indelibly hers and it brought her a third Oscar nomination. As it happened, she was only three years older than Harvey and hadn’t even used makeup to age. “It all had to do with the way I carried myself and my general demeanor,” she said.
A smash run in Mame helped make Lansbury the toast of Broadway in the ’60s and ’70s, a stretch during which she won four Tonys for Best Actress in a Musical. (She never won an Oscar — although she was presented an honorary Academy Award in 2013 — or an Emmy, in spite of 18 nominations from the Television Academy; she holds the record for the most prime-time losses.) The run hit its peak when she teamed with Stephen Sondheim for her greatest triumph: Nellie Lovett in the operatic Sweeney Todd (1979). As the demented pie maker who uses the homicidal Todd’s victims as filling, she scuttled across the stage like a wide-eyed, aging kewpie doll, helping audiences swallow the gruesome plot.
But television beckoned. In the early ’80s Lansbury was offered a half-hour Norman Lear sitcom at the same time as a CBS hourlong series about a mystery writer. Her agent advised her against the latter. “In the history of television, there hasn’t been a dramatic show with a woman lead that has been successful,” he told her. Undeterred, she accepted Murder, She Wrote, which premiered in 1984 and stayed on top of CBS’ Sunday night schedule for more than a decade, before the network moved the show to Thursdays, where it struggled opposite Friends. Lansbury was piqued at the sabotage: “CBS has made it abundantly clear that they no longer want anything to do with my demographic,” she said. The series ended in August 1996.
Another of Lansbury’s signature roles was that of Mrs. Potts in the 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast. She and Jerry Orbach sang the Oscar-nominated song “Be Our Guest.”
Lansbury continued to make guest television and film appearances, with recent credits including the 2017 miniseries Little Women and the 2018 movie Mary Poppins Returns, and earlier this year she received a special Tony Award for lifetime achievement.
Her popularity stayed strong till the end. “I do feel a tremendous warmth from the American public who have known and loved that program,” Lansbury once said. “I feel their gratitude so often for all the nights.”
Lansbury is survived by three children, Anthony, Deirdre, and David; three grandchildren, Peter, Katherine, and Ian; five great-grandchildren; and her brother, producer Edgar Lansbury. She was proceeded in death by her husband of 53 years, Peter Shaw.
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