Anytime Angela Lansbury appears in a political drama, the results are anything but conventional.
As a ruthless newspaper magnate backing presidential candidate Spencer Tracy, she stole scenes from him and Katharine Hepburn in "State of the Union" (1948). Then she played Laurence Harvey's venomous mother who used her assassin son for her own White House agenda in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962). Now the five-time Tony winner is lighting up the stage as a grand dame of Washington politics in "Gore Vidal's The Best Man," which opens April 1 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre and boasts a starry cast that also includes James Earl Jones, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack and John Larroquette.
During a recent phone chat with Newsday's Daniel Bubbeo, Lansbury talked about her nearly seven-decade career, including her days as a contract player at MGM, her 12-year run as mystery writer Jessica Fletcher on TV's "Murder, She Wrote" and her love affair with the theater.
What attracted you to "The Best Man" and the character of Sue Ellen?
First and foremost, the play is a renowned piece of political extravaganza. And it seemed to me that it paralleled so much what we were going to be facing. I thought I wanted to come back to New York as I do try to every season, and this seemed to be a very comfortable way to play a rather outstanding, extraordinary lady, certainly a character that I can get my teeth into. It didn't require me to be onstage throughout the entire play. It was one of those little gems that actors look for in their lives. Especially when you're my age, to do something of this kind was very attractive.
She's a hoot. She embodies so many of the things we are seeing at the present time, the place that the wives of the candidates take in the election. You do see them trying to help their husbands, hanging very close and looking longingly at their spouses while they're talking, and this woman that I play certainly encourages this and says it's terribly important, and the women are the power behind the men and must be represented in all things political. It's true but a little humorous at times.
What's it been like working with such an amazing cast?
I've been very lucky in my career that I have worked with the best and this is no exception. These actors I'm working with are just the best at what they do. . . . James Earl Jones, a titan in our business and a man who I've longed to worked with for years. Interestingly enough, except for Jimmy Earl Jones, everyone in the cast has made a name for themselves in television. When you're a good actor and you've made it in television and you come to Broadway in the right role, you can attract an enormous attendance. I think it was very wise of the producers to use a group of people who are very well-known from "the box" as we call it.
Did you have any advice for Candice Bergen since she hasn't done a lot of theater?
I wouldn't dream of advising anybody. Everybody has to find their own level in these things. Certainly she is a curious and carefully prepared woman when it comes to anything to do with acting and theater. During the rehearsal process one discovers things -- the need to project, the need to be heard -- which we don't have to pay attention to in television.
Do you miss doing a regular television series?
No, I do not. I had enough in that 12-year stretch. It was a very long, enjoyable but hugely time-consuming period. Twelve years is a great deal of time to snatch out of a life of the theater to do television. It deprives one of so much. You go into this world of television, which is literally a 24-hour job. There's no time off, unlike the theater. It's also very relentless -- the 8:00 curtain every single day -- but the day is yours. You have to be ready to go on stage at 8:00, and at 11:00 you're finished. Some people consider the theater very taxing, I don't.
One thing with "Murder, She Wrote," did it ever strike you as funny that you would never want to go anywhere with Jessica Fletcher, because there was always a chance of ending up murdered?
[Laughs.] That's the whole point. She just attracted crime, murder and mayhem. But it was all very lightly done with a light brush. There was nothing particularly gory or nasty about it, especially when you see what's going on today on television. We were very mild. You established the crime and then proceed to show how she solved it, which was the interesting part of the equation.
You were only 18 when you came to Hollywood in 1944. When you came to MGM and arrived on the set of "Gaslight," was it pretty much what you expected?
I was fortunate enough to start in a very important movie. It was a stunning lesson in how to work in the movie medium for a young actress who was trained to be able to characterize, to become somebody other than myself, which in that case was to become Nancy the maid. And I was working with the best -- Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty -- here I was surrounded by such nice, warm, encouraging, helpful actors and a great director, George Cukor, who I knew had directed Garbo and all the greats in those earlier days. It was a comfortable, warm and real situation for a young actress. So I was terribly lucky. I wasn't just thrown in as a kind of popsy in some movie that didn't have much of a story and lots of legs. It was all about acting.
I started off as an actress, got nominated for an Academy Award, which was very thrilling, but I didn't really understand what it represented because I was very, very young. But being under contract at MGM for seven, eight, however many years it was, was a whole education in moviemaking.
MGM put you in some very important films when you started out, but did feel that they didn't really know what to do you with you since they never gave you the star buildup?
They didn't know what to do with me. I defied being slotted as a performer for my entire career. I was able to do too many different things. At the base of it was that I was a young character actress from a very young age. I didn't want to play myself. I didn't really know who I was at that point, I was much too young to rely on me as a character. So I had to become another character to be successful, so that's what I did and that's what I've done to this day. The only time I think I played fairly close to myself was in "Murder, She Wrote," which turned out to be the most successful thing I've done. [Laughs.]
How was she most like you?
I didn't try to be some other person. I just was Angela playing Jessica Fletcher, but she was a woman on a level emotionally and mentally with me, although she's a lot smarter and cattier and more interested in crime than I am. Although I became more interested after playing her. As a young person I did read a certain amount of detective stories, as we used to call them in those days -- the great Agatha Christie, Peter Whimsey and all those wonderful characters that nobody knows what we're talking about -- and used a lot of what I read and understood about the game and brought them to "Murder, She Wrote."
I'm so glad when you said that the character you thought was closest to you, you didn't say the mother from "The Manchurian Candidate."
[Laughs.] Oh, are you kidding? That was a character that I had years to live down, but I managed to since I went and did "Mame" right afterwards, so there you are.
Do you have any favorite performers you worked with?
In those days, I had never done a musical period. I was asked to play a character who sang. It was logical for them to dub my voice because I didn't know how to sing like that. I had the voice, but it hadn't been developed, I hadn't worked on it, I hadn't produced the sound that was required for that role, so they dubbed my voice, and I don't blame them. It hadn't occurred to me to object to their proposal. I was under contract and you did what you were told in those days. You belonged to the studio who hired you and put you under term contract, and that was OK with me.
You still do films occasionally, but most of your work has been on Broadway. Is that because the theater provides a better variety of interesting roles?
Oh, unquestionably. Unquestionably. You must understand, I'm 86, I'm still working full blast in the theater. You can't say I would ever be given that opportunity. Would I? What parts? There aren't any that I would want to play. The theater is a wonderful, wonderful platform for actors of all ages. So there's no limit to how long I can continue acting if I work in the theater.