Versatile & Gracious Thespian
Many Americans know the late actress Angela Lansbury as the mystery writer/detective character of Jessica Fletcher on the 12 season 1980s-1990s TV series Murder She Wrote. Yet to fans of classic movies she was also the conniving Cockney maid in the Gaslight, (Her first role), the music hall singer in The Picture of Dorian Gray or Mame on Broadway. Younger people might know her as the voice of Mrs. Potts in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Whether it was movies, theater or television Angela Lansbury did it all and more. And along the way she won many awards—from Tony awards for Broadway to a Royal honor as well. And reportedly she remained a gracious and genuine performer.
Angela Brigid Lansbury was born into a middle class family in October, 1925 in London. Her mother was Irish actress Moyna Macgill and her father Edgar Lansbury, an English politician/merchant. Her paternal grandfather was also a well known politician and activist named George Lansbury. She had younger twin brothers and half-sister from her mother’s first marriage. When she was nine her father died from cancer, and to help her cope, Angela drifted into playing imaginary characters. Her mother then began a relationship with a wealthy army officer, and this enabled the family to relocate, so Angela could attend school. As an avid movie fan, she attended when she could as well as being schooled in piano, dance and drama.
In 1940 her grandfather died, and as London faced German bombing, Moyna decided to go to the U.S. with her children. She arrived first in Canada and then traveled to New York, where Angela received a scholarship for theatrical training. She graduated from the special school in 1942.
Later that year Moyna moved to Hollywood to revitalize her own film career. To support themselves she and Angela worked at a department store.
Then Moyna met a scriptwriter who was preparing a screenplay based on a play and that was just about to be filmed. Called Gaslight, the movie had Ingrid Bergman as a major player, but for the supporting part of the conniving Cockney maid Nancy that seemed right for Angela. So as she took the role at age 17 she had to have social worker on set because she was underage. She received good reviews, though the movie was not popular but of the seven Academy Awards nominations the film earned, one was Angela’s as a Best Supporting Actress.
Her next movie part was in another classic—as Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister in National Velvet. This was followed by The Picture of Dorian Gray where she played a jilted music hall singer. This film was not a financial success but Angela’s performance drew another Oscar nomination.
In September, 1945 Angela married Richard Cromwell but their marriage was troubled, since Cromwell was gay and hoped marriage would “cure” him. They were divorced the next year but remained friends. In 1946 she met actor and fellow British expatriate Peter Shaw, and they began a relationship which culminated in their marriage in August, 1949.
Following the Dorian Gray film, Lansbury’s employer, MGM, cast Angela in 11 more films that one biographer called “mediocre.” It seemed that Angela was consistently cast as older women, even villainous, what Angela later called “a series of venal bitches.” Also, she had her first role as an American playing a saloon singer in The Harvey Girls—where she got to slap Judy Garland. Besides these B-list films, she also appeared on radio and television. Her next role was as a mother since son Anthony was born in 1952, the same year she asked to be released from her movie contract. Her daughter Deidre was born in 1953. The family also included Peter’s son by a previous marriage so the Shaw family decided to leave the Hollywood atmosphere and move to a house on the Pacific.
She continued to appear in films on a freelance basis but the problem of casting still existed. She seemed to always play women older than she was—sometimes much older—than she was. She did have occasionally have a better role and continued to appear on television.
Then her 1960 role in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs was popular with critics, and another memorable role was as the main character’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate. In fact, Laurence Harvey who played her son was only three years younger than Angela. Again, Lansbury was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for The Manchurian Candidate.
She played a different type of film role in 1970’s Bednobs and Bromsticks, a Walt Disney musical fantasy production where Angela played a middle aged witch at the time of World War II. Television performances help publicized the film.
Though Angela appeared mostly on the stage in the 1960s she did receive great acclaim for a role as one of several murder victims in 1970s Death on the Nile A memorable Agatha Christie mystery, the film featured Peter Ustinov, once married to Angela’s half sister Isolde, playing Hercule Poirot.
However, besides television and films, Angela also appeared on the Broadway stage. Her first musical was 1964, a production that did not last long, but by 1966 Angela won a role she greatly desired—the title character in the musical Mame. She dutifully trained for the many songs and dances and critics were enthusiastic about her performance. It was for this role she received her first Tony Award for best leading actress. Later as Mame was to become a movie, though Angela still desired the title role, she was bypassed for it by Lucille Ball, who was a well-established box office success. Angela was “bitterly disappointed” at the loss of a favorite role, but as it turned out the film was a box office failure and judged poorly by critics.
Then in 1970 the entire Shaw family faced new challenges. Angela had previously discovered, that her children Anthony and Deidre had become addicted to drugs, and in 1970 Anthony suffered an overdose. Peter Shaw faced hip surgery and the family’s coastal home was destroyed in a wild fire. The family decided to find a new life abroad and moved to Ireland, where Anthony and Deidre did recover their health. They remained in Ireland for some time, commuting to the U.S. as required. Angela did reminiscence that in Ireland she achieved the obscurity she wanted. To her employees “I was just Mrs. Shaw, which suited me down to the ground. I had absolute anonymity in those days, which was wonderful.”
She continued to appear to great acclaim in other musicals, but in March 1979 came a Broadway role that became a classic. She had the lead female role in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and that also got her another Tony award. As it happened, her male co-star became a close friend and later had a reoccurring role on Murder, She Wrote.
In 1983 Angela decided to try television again and had two programs to choose from. One was a situation comedy, and the other was as a detective-type series. Though her agent suggested she take the sitcom role Angela preferred what became Murder, She Wrote—a role that was first offered to and rejected—by Jean Stapleton and Doris Day.
Lansbury’s role, as a widowed ex-school teacher living in Maine, whose first book, a murder mystery was published to great popularity. (In the story line she’d turned to writing at the death of her husband, and her novel was submitted without her knowledge by her nephew). She was called Jessica Fletcher, whom Angela referred to as “An American Miss Marple” referring to Agatha Christie’s spinster sleuth.) The pilot episode broadcast in 1984 and it was the beginning of what would be a 12 season consistent hit.
Angela was very careful with Jessica’s character, dismissing the idea of her having a continuing love interest, believing that she should remain a strong single female, also seeing her as a model for older women. In this way, Angela saw Jessica’s “enormous, universal appeal” and described her doing the role as “an accomplishment I never expected in my entire life.”
Many of the guest stars on the Murder, She Wrote episodes were stars from classic Hollywood, which meant they were often friends from Angela’s early movie career. Some of these were Van Johnson (who appeared in several episodes), June Allyson, Jane Powell, Howard Keel, and other Hollywood greats who had often reoccurring roles. According to one account, she encouraged the casting of these roles with the intention that her guests might get the required performing credits, to get the right insurance through their union. In fact, one young actress appeared occasionally as a young librarian in a wheelchair, a role Angela created and arranged for her. This was Madlyn Rhue, an MS patient in real life and the role helped her maintain the right income credits, to let her get the right coverage for her disease.
As Angela continued to perform into her 90s, she retained the drive, dedication but concern for her current role as well as her fellow performers. Len Cariou, friend and fellow performer in Sweeney Todd as well as Murder, She Wrote, said in 2012: “Ange is classy and elegant, warm and generous, but she’s also tough and expects everyone around her to give their all…Working on the stage keeps her vibrant. What keeps her ageless is her immense curiosity, her exuberance for life and her tremendous gift for holding on to joy.”
In honor of her work, Lansbury received a royal honor, when she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) an award that was given her by the Prince of Wales (who is now King Charles).
Angela Lansbury died in her sleep at her home in Los Angeles in October, 2022, at age 96. Her last acting performances had been just months previously.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.