Angela Lansbury

From New World Encyclopedia

Angela Lansbury
Studio publicity Angela Lansbury.jpg
Lansbury in 1950
BornAngela Brigid Lansbury
October 16 1925(1925-10-16)
Regent's Park, London, England
DiedOctober 11 2022 (aged 96)
Los Angeles, California
  • United Kingdom
  • United States (from 1951)
  • Ireland (from 1970c. 1970)
OccupationActress, singer
Years active1942–2022
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Richard Cromwell
​(m. 1945; div. 1946)​
Peter Shaw
​(m. 1949; died 2003)

Dame Angela Brigid Lansbury DBE (October 16, 1925 – October 11, 2022) was an Irish-British and American actress and singer. In a career spanning eight decades and touching four generations, she played various roles across film, stage, and television. Although based for much of her life in the United States, her work attracted international attention.

After studying acting in New York City. she moved to Hollywood and obtained her first film roles with MGM in Gaslight (1944), National Velvet (1944), and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). She appeared in 11 further MGM films, mostly in minor roles, but her role in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) received widespread acclaim and is frequently ranked as one of her best performances. In musical theatre, Lansbury gained stardom for playing the leading role in the Broadway musical Mame (1966), winning her first Tony Award.

From 1984 she achieved worldwide fame as the sleuth Jessica Fletcher in the American whodunit television series Murder, She Wrote, which ran for twelve seasons until 1996, becoming one of the longest-running and most popular detective drama series in television history. She also moved into voice work, contributing to animated films like Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Anastasia (1997). She continued acting on stage and screen into the twenty-first century, including roles in Nanny McPhee (2005) and Mary Poppins Returns (2018); her final performance was a cameo as herself in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery which was released after her death.

Among her numerous accolades are 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. Lansbury was considered acting aristocracy on both sides of the Atlantic, beloved and revered as an icon of stage and screen in both her native Britain and Ireland as well as the United States. Her portrayals of memorable characters inspired not only audiences of all ages but generations of actors. She was loved not only for her acting ability and work ethic but also for her reserved and kind nature, which she maintained despite international acclaim.


Angela Brigid Lansbury was born to an upper-middle-class family on October 16, 1925.[1][2] Although her birthplace has often been given as Poplar, East London, she rejected this, stating that while she had ancestral connections to Poplar, she was born in Regent's Park, Central London:

I want to make one thing clear: I was not born in Poplar, that's not true, I was born in Regent's Park, so I wasn't born in the East End, I wish I could say I had been. Certainly my antecedents were: my grandfather, my father. [3]

Her mother was Belfast-born Irish Moyna MacGill (born Charlotte Lillian McIldowie), an actress who regularly appeared on stage in London's West End and who also appeared in several films.[4] Lansbury defined herself as being "Irish-British."[5]

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 comes out. The combination makes a good mix for acting.[1]

Her 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 George Lansbury, a man whom she felt "awed" by and considered "a giant in my youth."[1] Angela had an older half-sister, Isolde, from MacGill's previous marriage to Reginald Denham. In January 1930, MacGill 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; on weekends, they would vacate to a rural farm in Berrick Salome, Oxfordshire.[2]

When Lansbury was nine, her father died from stomach cancer; she retreated into playing characters as a coping mechanism.[4] Facing financial difficulty, her mother entered a relationship with a Scottish colonel, Leckie Forbes, and moved into his house in Hampstead. Lansbury then received an education at South Hampstead High School from 1934 until 1939. She nevertheless considered herself largely self-educated, learning from books, theatre, and cinema. Lansbury became a self-professed "complete movie maniac," visiting the cinema regularly.[2] Keen on playing the piano, she briefly studied music at the Ritman School of Dancing, and in 1940 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.[1]

That year, Lansbury's grandfather died, and with the onset of the Blitz, the German bombing campaign against the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941, MacGill decided to take Angela, Bruce, and Edgar to the United States; Isolde remained in Britain with her new husband, the actor Peter Ustinov. MacGill secured a job supervising 60 British children who were being evacuated to North America aboard the Duchess of Athol, arriving with them in Montreal, Canada, in August 1940. She then 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 gained a scholarship from the American Theatre Wing to study at the Feagin School of Drama and Radio, 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.[1][2]

Lansbury became a U.S. citizen in 1951, while retaining her British citizenship. Although adopting an Americanized accent for roles like that of Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote, Lansbury retained her English accent throughout her life.[6]

As a young actress, Lansbury was a self-professed homebody, preferring 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.[2] She cited F. Scott Fitzgerald as her favorite author,[1] and Roseanne and Seinfeld among her favorite television shows.[4]

Lansbury in 2013

She 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.[7]

Lansbury was married twice. On September 27, 1945, Lansbury married Richard Cromwell, an artist and decorator whose acting career had come to a standstill. Their marriage was troubled; Cromwell was gay, and had married Lansbury in the unsuccessful hope that it would turn him heterosexual. Lansbury filed for divorce within a year, it being granted on September 11, 1946, but they remained friends until his death.[1] In December 1946, she was introduced to fellow English expatriate Peter Pullen Shaw at a party held by former co-star Hurd Hatfield in Ojai Valley. Shaw was an aspiring actor and had recently left a relationship with Joan Crawford. He and Lansbury became a couple, living together before she proposed marriage. They wanted a wedding in Britain, but the Church of England refused to marry two divorcees. Instead, they wed at St. Columba's Church, a place of worship under the jurisdiction of the Church of Scotland, in Knightsbridge, London, in August 1949, followed by a honeymoon in France. Returning to the U.S., they settled into Lansbury's home in Rustic Canyon, Malibu.[2]

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.[2] She had three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren at the time of her death in 2022.[8]

Lansbury brought up her children as Episcopalians, 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."[4]

During the 1990s, Lansbury began to suffer from arthritis and underwent hip replacement surgery in May 1994, followed by knee replacement surgery in 2005.

Lansbury's final film appearance was in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, released in 2022. She died in her sleep at her Los Angeles home on October 11, 2022, aged 96.[9]


Lansbury began her career in Hollywood, signing with MGM and obtaining her first film roles, in Gaslight (1944), National Velvet (1944), and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). She appeared in 11 further MGM films, mostly in minor roles, and after her contract ended in 1952. Lansbury was largely seen as a B-list star during this period, but her role in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) received widespread acclaim and is frequently ranked as one of her best performances.

In musical theatre, Lansbury gained stardom for playing the leading role in the Broadway musical Mame (1966), winning her first Tony Award. She went on to receive four more Tony Awards for her performances in Dear World (1969), Gypsy (1975), Sweeney Todd (1979), and Blithe Spirit (2009).

She achieved worldwide fame as the sleuth Jessica Fletcher in the American whodunit television series Murder, She Wrote, which ran for twelve seasons until 1996, becoming one of the longest-running and most popular detective drama 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 was its executive producer during its final four seasons. She also moved into voice work, contributing to animated films like Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Anastasia (1997). In the 21st century, she toured in several theatrical productions and appeared in family films such as Nanny McPhee (2005) and Mary Poppins Returns (2018).

Early years

A young white women facing forward, with the name "Angela Lansbury" superimposed in front of her
Lansbury in the trailer for The Picture of Dorian Gray

Having moved to Hollywood where her mother tried to resurrect her own cinematic career, 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. The film was being directed by George Cukor and starred Ingrid Bergman in the lead role of Paula Alquist, a woman in Victorian London being psychologically tormented by her husband. Druten suggested that Lansbury would be perfect for the role of Nancy Oliver, a cockney maid; she was accepted for the part, although, since she was only 17, a social worker had to accompany her on the set. Obtaining an agent, Earl Kramer, she was signed to a seven-year contract with MGM, earning $500 a week.[1] Gaslight received mixed critical reviews, although Lansbury's role was widely praised and earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.[4]

Her next film appearance was as Edwina Brown in National Velvet (1944); the film became a major commercial success and Lansbury developed a lifelong friendship with co-star Elizabeth Taylor. Lansbury next starred in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), a cinematic adaptation of Wilde's 1890 novel of the same name, which was again set in Victorian London. Directed by Albert Lewin, Lansbury was cast as Sybil 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, and she was again nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards, losing to Anne Revere, her co-star in National Velvet.

Later MGM films

A young white woman, her arms exposed, wearing a large red feathered headdress. A fairground ride can be seen in the background.
Lansbury in a scene from MGM's Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), one of her earliest film appearances

Following the success of Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray, MGM cast Lansbury in 11 further films until her contract with the company ended in 1952. Keeping her among their B-list stars, MGM used her less than their similar-aged actresses; Lansbury biographers Rob Edelman and Audrey E. Kupferberg believed that the majority of these films were "mediocre," doing little to further her career. This view was echoed by Cukor, who believed Lansbury had been "consistently miscast" by MGM.[2] In 1946, Lansbury played her first American character as Em, a honky-tonk saloon singer in the Oscar-winning Wild West musical The Harvey Girls; her singing was dubbed by Virginia Reese.[10] She was repeatedly made to portray older women, often villainous, and as a result became increasingly dissatisfied with working for MGM, commenting that "I kept wanting to play the Jean Arthur roles, and Mr Mayer kept casting me as a series of venal bitches."[2]

Minor roles

Lansbury with her children in 1957

Unhappy with the roles she was being given by MGM, Lansbury instructed her manager, Harry Friedman of MCA Inc., to terminate her contract in 1952.[4] She was pregnant with Shaw's child, and that year her son Anthony was born. Soon after the birth, she joined the East Coast touring productions of two former-Broadway plays: Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse's Remains to be Seen and Louis Verneuil's Affairs of State. Biographer Margaret Bonanno later stated that at this point, Lansbury's career had "hit an all-time low."[1] In April 1953, her daughter Deirdre Angela Shaw was born. Shaw had a son by a previous marriage, David, whom he brought to California to live with the family after he gained legal custody of the boy in 1953. Now with three children to care for, Lansbury moved to a larger house in San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica. Lansbury did not feel entirely comfortable in the Hollywood social scene, later commenting that as a result of her British roots, "in Hollywood, I always felt like a stranger in a strange land."[4] In 1959, the family moved to Malibu, settling into a house on the Pacific Coast Highway that had been designed by Aaron Green; there, she and Peter escaped the Hollywood scene, and sent their children to state school.

Returning to cinema as a freelance actress, Lansbury found herself typecast as an older, maternal figure, appearing in this capacity in most of her films from this period. She later stated that "Hollywood made me old before my time," noting that in her twenties she was receiving fan mail from people who thought her in her forties.[1] She obtained minor roles in such films as A Life at Stake (1954), A Lawless Street (1955) and The Purple Mask (1955), later describing the latter as "the worst movie I ever made."[2] She played Princess Gwendolyn in the comedy film The Court Jester (1956), before taking on the role of a wife who kills her husband in Please Murder Me (1956). From there she appeared as Minnie Littlejohn in The Long Hot Summer (1958), and as Mabel Claremont in The Reluctant Debutante (1958), for which she filmed in Paris. Biographer Martin Gottfried has claimed that it was these latter two cinematic appearances which restored Lansbury's status as an "A-picture actress."[4] Throughout this period, she continued making television appearances, starring in episodes of The Revlon Mirror Theater, Ford Theatre and The George Gobel Show, and became a regular on game show Pantomime Quiz.

A young white woman, with bare arms, looking directly at the viewer.
Lansbury in a publicity shot from 1966

In April 1957, she debuted on Broadway at the Henry Miller Theatre in Hotel Paradiso, a French burlesque directed by Peter Glenville. The play only ran for 15 weeks, although she earned good reviews for her role as Marcel Cat. She later stated that had she not appeared in the play, her "whole career would have fizzled out."[1] Into the 1960s, she followed this with an appearance in a Broadway performance of A Taste of Honey at the Lyceum Theatre, directed by Tony Richardson and George Devine. Lansbury played Helen, the boorish, verbally abusive mother of Josephine (played by Joan Plowright, only four years Lansbury's junior), remarking that she gained "a great deal of satisfaction" from the role.[4] During the show's run, Lansbury developed a friendship with both Plowright and Plowright's lover Laurence Olivier; it was from Lansbury's rented flat on East 97th Street that Plowright and Olivier eloped to be married.[4]

After a well-reviewed appearance in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) – for which she had filmed in the Australian Outback – and a minor role in A Breath of Scandal (1960), Lansbury appeared in 1961's Blue Hawaii as the mother of a character played by Elvis Presley. Although believing that the film was of poor quality, she commented that she agreed to appear in it because she "was desperate."[1] Her role as Mavis in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) drew critical acclaim, as did her appearance in All Fall Down (1962) as a manipulative, destructive mother.

In 1962, she appeared in the Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate as Eleanor Iselin, cast for the role by John Frankenheimer. Although Lansbury played actor Laurence Harvey's mother in the film, she was in fact only three years older than him. She had agreed to appear in the film after reading the original novel, describing it as "one of the most exciting political books I ever read."[4] Biographers Edelman and Kupferberg considered this role "her enduring cinematic triumph,"[2] while Gottfried stated that it was "the strongest, the most memorable and the best picture she ever made... she gives her finest film performance in it."[4] Lansbury received her third Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for the film.

She followed this with a performance as Sybil Logan in In the Cool of the Day (1963) – a film she renounced as awful – before appearing as wealthy Isabel Boyd in The World of Henry Orient (1964) and the widow Phyllis in Dear Heart (1964). Although many of her cinematic roles had been well received, "celluloid superstardom" evaded Lansbury, and she became increasingly dissatisfied with these minor roles, feeling that none allowed her to explore her potential as an actress.[2]

Her first appearance in a theatrical musical was the short-lived Anyone Can Whistle, written by Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. An experimental work, it opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway in April 1964, but was critically panned and closed after nine performances. Lansbury had played the role of crooked mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper, and although she loved Sondheim's score she experienced personal differences with Laurents and was glad when the show closed.[1]


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.[1]

In 1966, Lansbury took on the title role of Mame Dennis in the musical Mame, Jerry Herman's musical adaptation of the 1955 novel Auntie Mame. The director's first choice for the role had been Rosalind Russell, who played Mame in the 1958 non-musical film adaptation, but she had declined. Lansbury actively sought the role in the hope that it would mark a change in her career. When she was chosen, it came as a surprise to theatre critics, who believed that the part would go to a better-known actress; Lansbury was 41 years old, and it was her first starring role. Mame Dennis was a glamorous character, with over 20 costume changes throughout the play, and Lansbury's role involved ten songs and dance routines for which she trained extensively. First appearing in Philadelphia and then Boston, Mame opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in May 1966. Auntie Mame 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."[11]

Reviews of Lansbury's performance were overwhelmingly positive. In The New York Times, Stanley Kauffmann wrote: "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."[12] The role resulted in Lansbury receiving her first Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, as well as the Antoinette Perry Award. Lansbury's later biographer Margaret Bonanno claimed that Mame made Lansbury a "superstar,"[1] with the actress herself commenting on her success: "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."[2]

Off the stage, Lansbury made further television appearances, such as on Perry Como's Thanksgiving Special in November 1966. She also engaged in high-profile charitable endeavors, for instance appearing as the guest of honor at the 1967 March of Dimes annual benefit luncheon. She was invited to star in a musical performance for the 1968 Academy Awards ceremony, and co-hosted that year's Tony Awards with former brother-in-law Peter Ustinov. That year, Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Club elected her "Woman of the Year." When the film adaptation of Mame was put into production, Lansbury hoped to be offered the part, but it instead went to Lucille Ball, an established box-office success. Lansbury considered this to be "one of my bitterest disappointments."[2] Her personal life was further complicated when she learned that both of her children had become involved with the counterculture of the 1960s and had been using recreational drugs. As a result, Anthony had become addicted to cocaine and heroin.

Lansbury followed the success of Mame with a performance as Countess Aurelia, the 75-year-old Parisian eccentric 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, but Lansbury found it a "pretty depressing" experience. Reviews of her performance were positive, and she was awarded her second Tony Award on the basis of it. Reviews of the show more generally were critical, however, and it ended after 132 performances. She followed this with an appearance in the title role of the musical Prettybelle, based upon Jean Arnold's Prettybelle: A Lively Tale of Rape and Resurrection. Set in the Deep South, it dealt with issues of racism, with Lansbury playing a wealthy alcoholic who seeks sexual encounters with black men. The play 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."[1]

Ireland and Gypsy

The year 1970 was a traumatic one for the Lansbury family, as Peter underwent a hip replacement, Anthony suffered a heroin overdose and entered a coma, and the family's Malibu home was destroyed in a brush fire. They then purchased Knockmourne Glebe, a farmhouse built in the 1820s which was located near Conna in rural County Cork, and, after Anthony quit using cocaine and heroin, took him there to recover from his drug addiction. He subsequently enrolled in the Webber-Douglas School, his mother's alma mater, and became a professional actor, before moving into television directing. Lansbury and her husband did not return to California, instead dividing their time between Cork and New York City, where they lived in a flat opposite the Lincoln Center.

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.[4]

In the early 1970s, Lansbury declined several cinematic roles, including the lead in The Killing of Sister George and the role of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, because she was not satisfied with them. 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), for which she filmed on location in Hohenschwangen, Bavaria. That same year, she appeared as the middle-aged English witch Eglentine Price in the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks; this was her first lead in a screen musical, and led to her publicizing the film on television programs like the David Frost Show. She later noted that as a big commercial success, this film "secured an enormous audience for me."[4]

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 portrayed the character in the original Broadway production. When the show started in May 1973, Lansbury earned a standing ovation and rave reviews. Settling into a Belgravia flat, she was soon in demand among London society, having dinners held in her honor. Following the culmination of the London run, in 1974 Gypsy toured the U.S.; in Chicago, Lansbury was awarded 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 several months' break, Gypsy toured the country again in the summer of 1975.

Wanting to move on from musicals, Lansbury obtained the role of Gertrude in the National Theatre Company's production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, staged at the Old Vic. Directed by Peter Hall, the production ran from December 1975 to May 1976 and received mixed reviews. Lansbury disliked the role, later commenting that she found it "very trying playing restrained roles" such as Gertrude.[4] Her next theatrical appearance was in two one-act plays by Albee, Counting the Ways and Listening, performed side by side at the Hartford Stage Company in Connecticut. Reviews of the production were mixed, although Lansbury was again singled out for praise. This was followed by another revival tour of Gypsy. 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 Salome Otterbourne in a 1978 adaptation of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, filmed in both London and Egypt. In the film, Lansbury starred alongside Ustinov and Bette Davis, who became a close friend. The role earned Lansbury the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actress of 1978.

Sweeney Todd

In March 1979, Lansbury appeared as Nellie Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a Sondheim musical directed by Harold Prince. Opening at the Uris Theatre, she starred alongside Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd, the murderous barber in nineteenth-century London. After being offered the role, she jumped on the opportunity due to Sondheim's involvement, commenting that she loved "the extraordinary wit and intelligence of his lyrics."[2] The musical received mixed critical reviews, although earned Lansbury her fourth Tony Award and After Dark magazine's Ruby Award for Broadway Performer of the Year.

In 1982, Lansbury 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 moving to Broadway's Martin Beck Theatre. It was critically panned and faced protests from California's Japanese-American community for including anti-Japanese slurs.[4] That year, Lansbury was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, and the following year appeared in a Mame revival at Broadway's Gershwin Theatre. Although Lansbury was praised, the show was a commercial failure, with Lansbury noting: "I realised that it's not a show of today. It's a period piece."[1]

Working in cinema, in 1979 Lansbury appeared as Miss Froy in The Lady Vanishes, a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 film. The following year she appeared in The Mirror Crack'd, 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 role made famous by Margaret Rutherford, instead returning to Christie's description of the character. She was signed to appear in two sequels as Miss Marple, but these were never made. Lansbury's next film was the animated The Last Unicorn (1982), for which she provided the voice of the witch Mommy Fortuna.

Returning to musical cinema, she starred as Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance (1983), a film based on Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera of the same name, and while filming it in London sang on a recording of The Beggar's Opera. This was followed by an appearance as the grandmother in Gothic fantasy film The Company of Wolves (1984).

Lansbury had also begun work for television, appearing in a 1982 television film with Bette Davis titled Little Gloria... Happy at Last. She followed this with an appearance in CBS's The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story (1983), later describing it as "the most unsophisticated thing you can imagine."[2]

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.[2]

A BBC television film followed, A Talent for Murder (1984), in which she played a wheelchair user mystery writer; although describing it as "a rush job," she agreed to do it in order to work with co-star Laurence Olivier.[2] Two further miniseries featuring Lansbury appeared in 1984: Lace and The First Olympics: Athens 1896.

Murder, She Wrote

Lansbury with Mame original Broadway cast member Bea Arthur at the 41st Primetime Emmy Awards in 1989.

In 1983, Lansbury was offered two main television roles, one in a sitcom and the other in a detective drama series, Murder, She Wrote. As she was unable to do both, her agents advised her to accept the former, although Lansbury chose the latter. Her decision was based on the appeal of the series' central character, Jessica Fletcher, a retired school teacher from the fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine. As portrayed by Lansbury, Fletcher was a successful detective novelist who also solved murders encountered during her travels. Lansbury described the character as "an American Miss Marple."[2]

The pilot episode, "The Murder of Sherlock Holmes", premiered on CBS 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. Designed as inoffensive family viewing, despite its topic the show eschewed depicting violence or gore, following the "whodunit" format rather than those of most U.S. crime shows of the time. Lansbury herself commented that "best of all, there's no violence. I hate violence."[2]

Lansbury exerted creative input over Fletcher's costumes, makeup and hair, and rejected pressure from network executives to put the character in a relationship, believing that the character should remain a strong single woman. When she believed that a scriptwriter had made Fletcher do or say things that did not fit with the character's personality, Lansbury ensured that the script was changed. She saw Fletcher as a role model for older female viewers, praising her "enormous, universal appeal – that was an accomplishment I never expected in my entire life."[2] Edelman and 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 commented that "I think it's the first time a show has really been aimed at the middle aged audience,"[2] and although it was most popular among senior citizens, it gradually gained a younger audience.

As Murder, She Wrote went on, Lansbury assumed a larger role behind the scenes. In 1989, her own company, Corymore Productions, began co-producing the show with Universal. Lansbury began to tire of the series, and in particular the long working hours, stating that the 1990–1991 season would be its last. She changed her mind after being appointed executive producer for the 1992–1993 season, something that she felt "made it far more interesting to me."[2] For the seventh season, the show's primary setting moved to New York City, where Fletcher had taken a job teaching criminology at Manhattan University; the move, encouraged by Lansbury, was an attempt to attract younger viewers. Having become a "Sunday-night institution" in the U.S., the show's ratings improved during the early 1990s, becoming a Top Five program.

Lansbury photographed in 2000 at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC

Hoping to gain a larger audience for the show's 11th season, CBS executives moved Murder, She Wrote to Thursdays at 8 pm, opposite NBC's new sitcom, Friends. Lansbury was angry at the move, believing that it ignored the show's core audience. This would be the series' final season. The final episode aired on May 8, 1996, and ended with Lansbury voicing a "Goodbye from Jessica" message. In The Washington Post, Tom Shales suggested that the series had become "partly a victim of commercial television's mad youth mania."[13]

Lansbury initially had plans for a Murder, She Wrote television film that would be a musical with a score composed by Jerry Herman; that project did not materialize but resulted in the 1996 television film Mrs. Santa Claus, with Lansbury playing the eponymous character, which proved to be a ratings success. Murder, She Wrote continued through several made-for-television films: South By Southwest in 1997, A Story To Die For in 2000, The Last Free Man in 2001, and The Celtic Riddle in 2003.[14] The role of Fletcher would prove the most successful and prominent of Lansbury's career.

Throughout the run of Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury had continued appearing in other television films, miniseries, and cinema. In 1986, she co-hosted the New York Philharmonic's televised tribute to the centenary of the Statue of Liberty with Kirk Douglas. That same year, she appeared as the protagonist's mother in Rage of Angels: The Story Continues, and in 1988 portrayed Nan Moore – the mother of a victim of the real-life Korean Air Lines Flight 007 plane crash – in Shootdown. 1989 saw her featured in The Shell Seekers as an Englishwoman recuperating from a heart attack, and in 1990 she starred in The Love She Sought as an American school teacher who falls in love with a Catholic priest while visiting Ireland; Lansbury thought it "a marvelous woman's story."[2] She next starred as the eponymous cockney in a television film adaptation of the novel Mrs 'Arris Goes to Paris, directed by her son and executive produced by her stepson.

Lansbury's highest profile cinematic role since The Manchurian Candidate was as the voice of the singing teapot Mrs. Potts in the 1991 Disney animation Beauty and the Beast, as part of which she performed the film's title song. She considered the appearance to be a gift for her three grandchildren. Lansbury again lent her voice to an animated character, this time that of the Empress Dowager, for the 1997 film Anastasia.[10]

In 1988, she released a VHS 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.[15] As a result of her work, she was awarded a CBE by the British government, given to her in a ceremony by Charles, Prince of Wales, at the British consulate in Los Angeles.

Final years

An elderly white woman wearing a red dress sitting in a chair
Lansbury performing in Deuce on Broadway in 2007

In the years following Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury was increasingly preoccupied by her husband's deteriorating health; it was for this reason that she dropped out of being the lead role in the 2001 Kander and Ebb musical The Visit before it opened. Lansbury explained that the decision to pull out and be with her husband of 51 years, Peter Shaw, who recently had heart surgery, has left her feeling “absolutely shattered,” and that:

The kind of commitment required of an artist carrying a multimillion dollar production has to be 100 percent, and in fairness to you, I realize I simply couldn’t manage being available to you and the company, and fulfill my desire and need to care for Peter. I wouldn’t have had this happen for the world, if I could have avoided it.[16]

Peter died in January 2003 of congestive heart failure at the couple's Brentwood home. Lansbury felt that after this she would not take on any more major acting roles, perhaps only making cameo appearances.[17]

Lansbury appeared in a season six episode of the television show Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, for which she was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2005. She also starred in the 2005 film Nanny McPhee as Aunt Adelaide, later informing an interviewer that working on it "pulled me out of the abyss" after her husband's death.[18] 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 an 18-week limited run. Lansbury received a Tony Award nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Play for her role. 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. This appearance earned her the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play; this was her fifth Tony Award, tying her with the previous record holder for the number of Tony Awards, Julie Harris. From December 2009 to June 2010, Lansbury then starred as Madame Armfeldt in a Broadway revival of A Little Night Music 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 Manhattan School of Music.[19] She then appeared in the 2011 film Mr. Popper's Penguins, opposite Jim Carrey.

Lansbury on stage in Driving Miss Daisy in 2013

From March to July 2012, Lansbury appeared 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 2013, she starred alongside James Earl Jones in an Australian tour of Driving Miss Daisy, an appearance that resulted in her pulling out from a scheduled role in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel. In November 2013, she received an Academy Honorary Award for her lifetime achievement at the Governors Awards. In 2014, Lansbury was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.[20] From March 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, a screening of some of her films in Poplar. From December 2014 to March 2015 she joined the tour of Blithe Spirit across North America. In April 2015 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.

Lansbury agreed to star as Mrs St Maugham in a Broadway run of Enid Bagnold's 1955 play The Chalk Garden, although later acknowledged that she no longer had the stamina for eight performances a week. Instead, she appeared in a one-night staged reading of the play at Hunter College in 2017.[21] Her next role was as Aunt March in the BBC miniseries Little Women, screened in December 2017. In 2018, she appeared in the family film Buttons: A Christmas Tale, as well as in the film Mary Poppins Returns; her cameo role as the Balloon Lady involved singing the song "Nowhere To Go But Up." That year also saw the release of animated film The Grinch, for which Lansbury voiced the Mayor of Whoville. In November 2019, she returned to Broadway, portraying Lady Bracknell in a one-night benefit staging of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest for Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre. Lansbury's final film appearance was in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, released in 2022.[22]


Angela Lansbury's legacy is one of longevity, variety, and excellence on stage and screen:

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.[23]

In her early career, The New York Times referred to her as the "First Lady of Musical Theatre."[1] Sondheim stated that she had a strong voice, albeit with a limited range.[4] Lansbury described herself as an actress who also could sing, although in her early film appearances her singing was repeatedly dubbed. She was viewed as "more a character actress than a leading lady" for much of her career, one who brought "a sparkling stage presence to her work."[10]

Popular on both sides of the Atlantic, she was described as "an American icon,"[4] while 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."[17] The BBC characterized her as "one of Britain's favorite exports,"[6] The Independent suggested that she could be considered Britain's most successful actress,[24] and journalist Mark Lawson described her as a member of the "acting aristocracy in three countries" – Britain, Ireland, and the United States.[21]

Despite such acclaim, Lansbury was a profoundly private person, and disliked attempts at flattery. Gottfried characterized her as being "Meticulous. Cautious. Self-editing. Deliberate. It is what the British call reserved," also noting that she was "as concerned, as sensitive, and as sympathetic as anyone might want in a friend," and "practically saintly."[4] In The Daily Telegraph, the theatre critic Dominic Cavendish stated that Lansbury's hallmarks were "self-composure, commitment and, yes, gentility," approaches he thought had become "in too short supply in the age of snowflakery and social media self-promotion."[25]

Following the announcement of Lansbury's death, many figures in the entertainment industry were quick to offer well-deserved praise for the actress who had "touched four generations" with her work.[26] The actor Jason Alexander called her "one of the most versatile, talented, graceful, kind, witty, wise, classy ladies" he had ever met.[27] Actor Uzo Aduba called her an "icon of the stage," while actor Josh Gad noted that it was rare that "one person can touch multiple generations, creating a breadth of work that defines decade after decade. Angela Lansbury was that artist."[26] Screenwriter and actor Mark Gatiss praised Lansbury as "the very definition of a pro," while Douglas C. Baker, the producing director for Center Theatre Group, stated that "Angela was a titan of show business, but at the same time she was one of the most kind and approachable people you would ever meet [...] Impeccably professional, genuine and deeply hilarious."[28] Former Walt Disney Studios CEO Robert Iger described her "a consummate professional, a talented actress, and a lovely person."[29]

Lansbury's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles

Lansbury was recognized for her achievements in Britain on multiple occasions. In 2002, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 1994 Birthday Honours, and subsequently was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to drama, charitable work, and philanthropy.[30] 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.[30]

Lansbury won six Golden Globe Awards and a People's Choice Awards for her television and film work. She never won an Emmy Award despite 18 nominations.[31] 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.[32]

In 2013, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors voted to bestow upon Lansbury an Honorary Academy Award for her lifetime achievements in the industry. The actors 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, stating that "Angela has been adding class, talent, beauty, and intelligence to the movies" since 1944.[33] The Oscar statue is inscribed: "To Angela Lansbury, an icon who has created some of cinema's most memorable characters inspiring generations of actors."[34]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 Margaret Wander Bonanno, Angela Lansbury: A Biography (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987, ISBN 978-0312005610).
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 2.23 Rob Edelman and Audrey E. Kupferberg (Citadel Press, 1999, ISBN 0806520760).
  3. Angela Lansbury, Richard Deacon, Philip Seymour Hoffman Front Row: Interview with Mark Lawson, BBC Radio 4, February 3, 2014. Retrieved April 12, 2023.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 4.15 4.16 4.17 4.18 Martin Gottfried, Balancing Act: The Authorized Biography of Angela Lansbury (Little, Brown, 1999, ISBN 978-0316322256).
  5. Jason Kennedy and Louise Kelly, 'I am an Irish-British Actress' Irish Independent, February 21, 2016. Retrieved April 12, 2023.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Obituary: Angela Lansbury BBC News, October 11, 2022. Retrieved April 12, 2023.
  7. Collections at the Gotlieb Center Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. Retrieved April 12, 2023.
  8. "Murder, She Wrote" Star Angela Lansbury Dies at 96 CBS News, October 11, 2022. Retrieved April 12, 2023.
  9. Mike Barnes, Angela Lansbury, Entrancing Star of Stage and Screen, Dies at 96 The Hollywood Reporter, October 11, 2022. Retrieved April 12, 2023.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Thomas S. Hischak, The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television (Oxford University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0195335330).
  11. Lydia Richardson, ‘I’m Proud To Be A Gay Icon!’: Angela Lansbury Opens Up In New Interview Entertainment Wise, January 25, 2014. Retrieved April 15, 2023.
  12. Stanley Kauffmann, "Theatre: Mame Is Back with a Splash as Musical" The New York Times, May 25, 1966.
  13. Tom Shales, Murder, They Wrote Off The Washington Post, May 19, 1996. Retrieved April 15, 2023.
  14. Horace Newcomb (ed.), Encyclopedia of Television (New York: Routledge, 2004, ISBN 978-1579583941).
  15. Angela Lansbury, Angela Lansbury's Positive Moves: My Personal Plan for Fitness and Well-Being (Delacorte Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0385302234).
  16. Kenneth Jones, Angela Lansbury Withdraws From The Visit; Producers Seek Alternatives Playbill, July 20, 2000. Retrieved April 15, 2023.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Jesse Green Surprising Herself, a Class Act Returns The New York Times, April 29, 2007. Retrieved April 15, 2023.
  18. Vanessa Thorpe, Angela Lansbury: Return of a Star who Shines ever Brighter The Observer, January 26, 2014. Retrieved April 15, 2023.
  19. Adam Hetrick, Angela Lansbury to Receive Honorary Degree from Manhattan School of Music Playbill, May 6, 2010. Retrieved April 15, 2023.
  20. Angela Lansbury 'Proud' to be Made a Dame by the Queen BBC News, April 16, 2014. Retrieved April 15, 2023.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Mark Lawson, Angela Lansbury: The Scene-Stealing Grande Dame of Stage and Screen for 75 Years The Guardian, October 11, 2022. Retrieved April 15, 2023.
  22. Jack King, Whodunit Legend Angela Lansbury Makes a Bittersweet Cameo in Knives Out 2 GQ, October 17, 2022. Retrieved April 15, 2023.
  23. Dennis Kennedy (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, ISBN 978-0199574193).
  24. Andrew Johnson, Angela Lansbury Britain's Most Successful Actress Ever? The Independent, June 13, 2010. Retrieved April 15, 2023.
  25. Dominic Cavendish, Today's Crybaby Actors Have Much to Learn from Angela Lansbury The Telegraph, October 12, 2022. Retrieved April 15, 2023.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Tributes pour in for Dame Angela Lansbury after her death aged 96 Tributes Pour in for Dame Angela Lansbury After Her Death Aged 96 Sky News, October 12, 2022. Retrieved April 16, 2023.
  27. Lexy Perez and Abbey White, Beauty and the Beast Stars, Viola Davis Pay Tribute to Angela Lansbury: "She Touched Four Generations" The Hollywood Reporter, October 11, 2022. Retrieved April 16, 2023.
  28. Alexandra Del Rosario, Hollywood Pays Tribute to Angela Lansbury: 'She, my Darlings, was EVERYTHING!' Los Angeles Times, October 11, 2022. Retrieved April 16, 2023.
  29. Marco Margaritoff, Viola Davis, George Takei And More Pay Tribute To Angela Lansbury: 'An Absolute Legend' HuffPost, October 12, 2022. Retrieved April 16, 2023.
  30. 30.0 30.1 New Year's Honours: Lansbury and Keith become Dames BBC News, December 31, 2013. Retrieved April 16, 2023.
  31. Joe Reid, Angela Lansbury Refused to Be Defined By Her Lack of an Emmy PrimeTimer, October 12, 2022. Retrieved April 16, 2023.
  32. Lansbury Pleased Not to Have Won Oscars Contact Music, May 14, 2007.
  33. Gregg Kilday and Rebecca Ford, Oscars: Academy to Honor Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, Piero Tosi and Angelina Jolie The Hollywood Reporter, September 5, 2013. Retrieved April 16, 2023.
  34. 2013 (86th) Academy Awards: Honorary Award Academy Awards Acceptance Speech Database. Retrieved April 16, 2023.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bonanno, Margaret Wander. Angela Lansbury: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987. ISBN 978-0312005610
  • Edelman, Rob, and Audrey E. Kupferberg. Citadel Press, 1999. ISBN 0806520760
  • Gottfried, Martin. Balancing Act: The Authorized Biography of Angela Lansbury. Little, Brown, 1999. ISBN 978-0316322256
  • Hischak, Thomas S. The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television. Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0195335330
  • Kennedy, Dennis (ed.). The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0199574193
  • Lansbury, Angela. Angela Lansbury's Positive Moves: My Personal Plan for Fitness and Well-Being. Delacorte Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0385302234
  • Newcomb, Horace (ed.) Encyclopedia of Television. New York: Routledge, 2004. ISBN 978-1579583941

External links

All links retrieved July 27, 2023.


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