Murder, She Wrote star Dame Angela Lansbury dies aged 96
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At the age of 58, leading movie roles just were not coming her way, and her phone had stopped ringing. The only offers she received were for television: then viewed somewhat snootily as a career graveyard for film stars. Only two roles were on offer: a sitcom, and a crime series. “Take the sitcom,” urged her agent.
But ignoring the advice, Lansbury instead opted for a murder mystery series featuring an unlikely amateur detective in the shape of a novelist named Jessica Fletcher.
The show was Murder, She Wrote, and it transformed Lansbury into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, rejuvenating her film and Broadway career, and paving the way for other A-listers to turn to the small screen without being branded a failure.
“When I first started Murder, She Wrote, I thought it would last maybe two, three years, or maybe a year if we were lucky,” said Lansbury, who died on Tuesday just five days before her 97th birthday.
“But when it extended and I realised the deep inroads it had made into family life in America, I couldn’t stop. So I was sort of trapped – happily trapped.”
Yet being exiled to TV was only the latest in a long and painful line of seemingly disastrous developments in Lansbury’s life that she transformed into glorious successes.
Lansbury found Hollywood fame at 17, yet studio chiefs told her she was not beautiful enough to play romantic leads.
“I hated it,” she said. “I fought it.” Yet it also led her to far meatier roles.
“For those women who were lovely, were known for their beauty and so on, it was darned difficult,” she said. “But I was playing older parts when I was terribly young because I wasn’t a big screen beauty.
“I was never going to get to play the girl next door. And I was never going to be groomed to be a glamorous movie star… So I had to make peace with myself on that score.”
The setbacks came off-screen as well. Her first marriage to American actor Richard Cromwell exploded when she discovered he was homosexual.
He walked out on her, leaving a note: “I’m sorry darling, I can’t go on.” Yet she learned from the experience and never regretted their union.
“I had known so many gay people in Hollywood,” she said. “It just had never sunk in. I was in love with love… It was a shock, but it wasn’t a shock because I was so in love with Richard… I had had no experience sexually, and I didn’t really know.
“I never blamed him for it in any way, and I realised that I had just made an excruciating error… but I don’t regret it, because I learned so much during the short time we were together, which was probably less than a year.”
She married British actor Peter Shaw in 1949, but family life was often tormented. Daughter Deidre fell in with the murderous Manson family and drugs, while son Anthony became hooked on heroin.
When their Malibu home was destroyed in a 1970 wildfire, Lansbury relocated her family to Ireland in the hope of saving the children from Hollywood excess. “We didn’t shut out the world, but we were almost too self-contained,” she later confessed.
Born in 1925 in East London to British Communist politician Edgar Lansbury and Irish actress Moyna Macgill, she fled the Second World War Blitz in 1940, moving to America.
“My mother had been widowed five years earlier by the death of my father,” she recalled. “She was also in the middle of a rather unproductive love affair, and she wanted to get away from it.”
They performed on stage together, but Lansbury’s mother soon became jealous of her daughter’s growing talents. “That green-eyed monster sort of crept in from my mother’s side,” she said. The duo had differing approaches to acting: “It put tremendous strain on her, whereas I seem to do it with one hand tied behind my back.”
Moving to Los Angeles, Lansbury aced her first film audition at 17, winning the role of a flirtatious maid in 1944 classic Gaslight, opposite Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, earning her an Oscar nomination.
I was absolutely knocked off my pins – couldn’t believe it,” she said of the honour. A year later she was nominated again, for The Picture Of Dorian Gray.
Yet she felt limited by the roles offered under her studio contract. “MGM didn’t have a clue how to use me,” she said. “Eventually I couldn’t wait to leave because I wasn’t getting anywhere.”
Her early studio work took its toll, she admitted: “I sort of missed my adolescence.” Repeatedly cast as older women, she was annoyed to appear in 1961’s Blue Hawaii playing the mother of Elvis Presley – only nine years her junior.
She earned a third Oscar nomination for 1962 thriller The Manchurian Candidate as a politician’s domineering wife planning an assassination, but lamented that Hollywood subsequently struggled to find roles for her, and she “never really advanced”.
Accepting an honorary Oscar in 2013, she said: “I just couldn’t top that role, so I took off for Broadway.” Her musical debut on Broadway in 1964, in Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle was hardly inspiring: it closed after nine performances.
But it led to iconic stage roles in two other Sondheim musicals: as Mama Rose in Gypsy – which she initially turned down as too challenging, saying: “I don’t think I’m up for it” – and then as cannibalistic pie-maker Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.
Yet despite winning five Tony awards she insisted: “I’m not really a singer. I have a serviceable voice. But how I use it, it’s the emotion under the voice that sells the song.” She still won occasional movie roles, including Disney’s 1971 fantasy Bedknobs And Broomsticks, but her career seemed stalled when offered Murder, She Wrote in 1984.
A surprise hit, the series ran for 12 seasons and 264 episodes until 1996, averaging more than 30 million viewers and making her a global star. Lansbury admired her sleuthing alter ego Jessica Fletcher: “She embodied all of the qualities that I like about women: she was valiant and liberal and athletic and exciting and sexy and all kinds of good stuff that women of a certain age are not given credit for.”
She credited husband Peter Shaw for her continued success, saying: “He totally controlled my career as time went by, and made it possible for me to do what I did.” They were married for 54 years, until his death in 2003.
Lansbury won a new generation of young fans singing as teapot Mrs Potts in Disney’s 1991 animated hit Beauty And The Beast – recorded in one take – and older roles in Mary Poppins Returns and Nanny McPhee.
Made a Dame by the Queen in 2014, Lansbury continued working into her nineties. “I would like to be remembered,” she said, “as someone who entertained, who took one out of oneself for a few minutes, a few hours, transported you into a different venue, gave you entertainment, gave you joy and laughter, tears, all those things.”
Indeed she did, and she will be.
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