Angela Lansbury, whose six-decade career made her a movie star, a TV icon and Broadway royalty, died on Tuesday, just five days before her 97th birthday. The veteran performer died at her home in Los Angeles, according to a statement from her three children.
Although born in London, Lansbury spent most of her working life in Los Angeles and New York. She arrived in the United States in 1940 on a World War II evacuation boat from Liverpool, England. “Our boat was one of the last to get out without being torpedoed,” she recalled during a TV interview in 2004. “We got out just before the Blitz.”
Beloved on Broadway as Jerry Herman’s original “Mame” (1966) and Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” (1979), she won five Tony Awards — four received between 1966 and 1979, the last in 2009 for her blissfully dotty performance as the spirit medium Madame Arcati in “Blithe Spirit.” Earlier this year, she was given a special lifetime achievement Tony, but did not appear at the ceremony to accept it.
Her last celebrated Broadway performance was as Madame Armfeldt, the imperiously worldly, aged courtesan in the 2009 revival of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” opposite Catherine Zeta-Jones. In 2012, she had a supporting role in “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.”
For all her theater triumphs, however, the rest of the world knew her best as Jessica Fletcher, mystery writer and master sleuth in television's “Murder, She Wrote,” in which she pleasantly resolved grisly slaughters against particularly jaunty theme music. The series was a huge moneymaker for CBS from 1984 until shortly before the network canceled it in 1996. Lansbury earned an Emmy nomination during each of the 12 seasons that the show ran.
“I had very carefully kept away from television up to that point,” she said about the series. “I was afraid of burning myself out. Isn’t that ridiculous?”
Tributes poured in from her show-biz colleagues via social media. "Angela Lansbury, who graced the stage for decades winning five Tony awards and brought the sleuthing Jessica Fletcher into our living rooms for a dozen years, has passed. A tale old as time, our beloved Mrs. Potts will sing lullabies to us now from the stars. Rest, great soul," tweeted actor George Takei.
"The great Angela Lansbury — one of the most versatile, talented, graceful, kind, witty, wise, classy ladies I’ve ever met has left us," wrote actor Jason Alexander on Twitter. "Her huge contribution to the arts and the world remains always. #ripAngelaLansbury."
Lansbury was born on Oct. 16, 1925, in the London borough of Poplar, where her father served as mayor. Her mother was Irish actress Moyna Magill, so it's no surprise that as a child Lansbury was frequently taken to London’s West End theaters. “My mother was a leading lady, but she was also a character actress, which is what I became,” Lansbury said.
She was 15 when her boat landed in New York, where she almost immediately got a scholarship from the American Theater Wing to study at the Feagin School of Dramatic Arts. “For two great years, I learned the American way of doing theater,” she remembered fondly.
Then, a fellow student urged her to go to a cabaret audition. “I had a freaky voice that could do all kinds of things. I built an act around the confines of the Noël Coward song, ‘I Went to a Marvelous Party,.’ ” Lansbury said in the interview.
She got an agent, then a job at a Russian nightclub in Montreal. “I lied about my age,” she said.
But her mother moved the family to Los Angeles. “That really bugged me,” Lansbury said. “I never felt anyone had really proven herself as an actress unless it was on the boards on Broadway or the West End. … I had to wait almost 14 years before I got back to New York.”
It didn’t take long for Lansbury to prove herself to Hollywood. In 1944, at just 19, she played Ingrid Bergman’s menacing maid in “Gaslight,” and was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar. The next year, she was nominated again for “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
Critic James Agee memorably wrote that her classic face “reminds me of the milkmaids in 18th century pornographic prints.” But Lansbury, a contract player at MGM, said she was not considered “beautiful enough for the Lana Turner roles. I wasn’t in that category.”
“But that was OK. I always knew that I would be a character actress. Even when I was 19 years old, I was playing 36-, 38-, 40-year-old wives, mothers. It hurt me for a while.”
In the early ’60s, she played Elvis Presley’s mother in “Blue Hawaii,” Warren Beatty’s mother in “All Fall Down" and, most memorably, Laurence Harvey’s terrifying matriarch in the political thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” for which she received her third supporting actress Oscar nomination.
She returned briefly to New York in 1964 for Sondheim’s first flop, “Anyone Can Whistle.” But it was “Mame,” two years later, that made her a star. She also got a Tony for Herman’s “Dear World” in 1969, and another in the 1974 revival of “Gypsy.” She won another best actress in a musical Tony for her Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” and a supporting dramatic actress Tony for “Blithe Spirit.”
As Mrs. Lovett, diabolical baker of human meat pies in “Sweeney Todd,” she articulated Sondheim’s devastatingly clever lyrics with the dazzling precision that set the standard for the popular role. “I had great trust in the material, but I wasn’t sure the audience would buy into the very bloody spectacle,” she said. “At the first preview, people in the first row were getting splattered with blood.”
Lansbury returned to movies, mostly such mysteries as “Death on the Nile” in 1978 and “The Mirror Crack’d” (playing Miss Marple) in 1980. From there, it was just a short hop to Jessica Fletcher’s Cabot Cove, Maine, because, as she put it, “actors are always looking for an annuity, something that might keep you in your old age.”
For much of the time, “Murder, She Wrote” was run by the family business — that is, the production company run with her producer-husband Peter Shaw. Their son, Anthony, directed many of the episodes. She was especially proud that Shaw hired guest artists from old Hollywood. Still, working in television had its challenges.
"It was a very long, enjoyable but hugely time-consuming period," Lansbury told Newsday in 2012. "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."
Shaw died in 2002. That same year, she returned to Broadway for one night — a benefit for Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater. Lansbury was in one of the evening’s playlets, a lump-in-the-throat little Terrence McNally piece called “Ghost Light.”
“Hello, is anybody there?” she asked in her instantly familiar treasure of a voice, then delivered a grand soliloquy of mixed emotions about an actress immortalized by Hollywood, but missing the evanescence of the theater. Then she wistfully recalled how it was to “stand here taking a bow.”
She stood. She took a bow. Four years later, she moved back to New York and was seldom away from Broadway again.
In addition to her children, Anthony, Deirdre and David, Lansbury is survived by her grandchildren, Peter, Katherine and Ian, plus five great grandchildren and her brother, producer Edgar Lansbury.
“Mame” (1966) (Tony Award)
“Dear World” (1969) (Tony Award)
“Gypsy” (1974) (Tony Award)
“Sweeney Todd” (1979) (Tony Award)
“Deuce” (2007) (Tony nomination)
“Blithe Spirit” (2008) (Tony Award)
“A Little Night Music” (2009) (Tony nomination)
"Little Gloria … Happy at Last" (1982) (Emmy nomination)
“Murder She Wrote” (1984-1996) (12 Emmy nominations)
“Gaslight” (1944) (Oscar nomination)
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) (Oscar nomination)
“National Velvet” (1945)
“The Harvey Girls” (1946)
“The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) (Oscar nomination)
“Death on the Nile” (1979)
“The Mirror Crack’d” (1980)
“Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” (1991)
“Mary Poppins Returns" (2018)