I still watch Murder, She Wrote because I like the show and the character Jessica Fletcher played by the great Angela Lansbury. My 7 year old son is also a fan of Jessica Fletcher’s. Before taking on the role of a mystery writer in one of the longest running detective drama series in television history, Angela was a silver screen movie star. My husband thought she was hot then.
Angela is a versatile actress, easily portraying an unlikable and cheeky maid in Gaslight opposite Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer to the music hall singer who, unfortunately and tragically, falls in love with the protagonist, Dorian Gray in the movie, The Picture of Dorian Gray to the frightening and domineering mother in The Manchurian Candidate. Her performance as Mrs. John Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate is ranked #21 in the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains for villains.
Angela was born to an upper middle class family on October 16, 1925 in Regent’s Park, central London. Her mother, Moyna Macgill, was a Belfast born Irish actress and her father was the wealthy English timber merchant and politician Edgar Lansbury. He was 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 and anti-war activist George Lansbury. Angela was in awe of him and to her, he was “a giant in my youth”. Angela had an older half-sister, Isolde from her mother’s previous marriage. When Angela was four, her mother gave birth to twin boys, Bruce and Edgar, prompting the Lansburys to move from their Poplar flat to a house in Mill Hill, North London. In the weekends, they went to a rural farm in Berrick Salome, Oxfordshire.
She was nine years old when her father died from stomach cancer. To cope with her loss, she played characters, describing the event as “the defining moment of my life. Nothing before or since has affected me so deeply.” Faced with financial difficulty, her mother got engaged to a Scottish colonel and moved into his house in Hampstead. Angela attended South Hampstead High School from 1934 to 1939. She considered herself to be largely self-educated, learning from books, theatre and cinema. She became a “complete movie maniac”, going regularly to the cinema and imagining herself as certain characters.
Angela’s grandfather died in 1940 and with the onset of the Blitz, her mother, Moyna took her and her brothers to the United States. Her half-sister, Isolde remained in Britain with her new husband, actor Peter Ustinov. Angela’s mother got a job supervising sixty British children who were evacuated to North America aboard the Duchess of Athol, arriving with them in Montreal, Canada in mid-August. From Montreal they went by train to New York City where Moyna was sponsored financially by a Wall Street businessman and moved in with his family at their home in Mahopac, New York. Angela got a scholarship from the American Theatre Wing which allowed her to study at the Feagin School of Drama and Radio. There she appeared in performances of William Congreve’s The Way of the World and Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. By the time she graduated, she and her family had moved to a flat in Morton Street, Greenwich Village.
Moyna got work in a Canadian touring production of Tonight at 8:30. Angela joined her mother who got her first theatrical job as a nightclub act at the Samovar Club in Montreal. She lied about her age to get the job and earned $60 a week. She returned to New York city but her mother had moved to Hollywood to revive her cinematic career. Angela and her brothers joined her. After moving into a bungalow in Laurel Canyon, Angela and her mother got Christmas jobs at the Bullocks Wilshire department store in Los Angeles but unfortunately, Moyna got fired for incompetence. The family had to live on Angela’s wages of $28 at week.
Angela met John van Druten at a party hosted by her mother. He recently co-authored a script for Gaslight. He suggested that Angela would be perfect for the role of Nancy Oliver, a conniving cockney maid and she accepted the part although at the time she was only 17. A social worker had to accompany her on the set. She got an agent and was signed to a seven-year contract with MGM, earning $500 a week. She used her real name as her professional name. The movie received mixed reviews although Angela’s role was widely praised. It received six Academy Award nominations, one of which was for Best Supporting Actress for Angela.
Following Gaslight, Angela starred in a supporting character in National Velvet which was a major commercial hit. Angela developed a lifelong friendship with co-star Elizabeth Taylor. I remember that the two friends appeared together in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d with Angela in the role of the endearing Miss Marple.
Angela next starred in The Picture of Dorian Gray with Hurd Hatfield, George Sanders, Donna Reed and Peter Lawford. Surprisingly, at least to me, the film was not a financial success. However, it garnered Angela her second Best Supporting Actress nomination. She lost to her National Velvet co-star Anne Revere.
Angela married Richard Cromwell, an artist and a decorator. When I saw a photo of him, I recognized him as the brother of Henry Fonda’s character in the marvelous movie, Jezebel. Angela’s marriage to Richard was a trouble one. She would later disclose that he was gay, something she was not aware of until after their separation. The marriage ended in less than a year and Angela filed for a divorce. They remained friends, however, until his death.
Angela met her second husband, Peter Pullen Shaw at a party held by her former co-star Hurd Hatfield. Hurd would later be a guest star on Murder She Wrote. Peter was an aspiring actor also signed with MGM and had recently left a relationship with Joan Crawford. He and Angela became a couple, living together before she proposed marriage. They wanted to get married in Britain but the Church of England refused to marry two divorcees. So, they wed at St. Columba’s Church which was under the jurisdiction of the Church of Scotland in Knightsbridge, London. They had their honeymoon in France. They returned to the United States and settled in Angela’s home in Rustic Canyon, Malibu, each becoming naturalised U.S. citizens with dual British citizenship.
Angela’s contract with MGM ended in 1952. She was miscast, playing older and often villainous women. Earlier in her career, MGM loaned her to United Artists for The Private Affairs of Bel Ami in 1947 and then to Paramount for Samson and Delilah (1949). Unhappy with the roles MGM was giving her, Angela instructed her manager to terminate her contract. At the time she was pregnant with her first child, Anthony whom she gave birth to that year. Soon after he was born, she joined the East Coast touring productions of two former Broadway plays, Remains to be Seen and Affairs of the State. In 1953, Angela gave birth to her daughter, Deidre Angela. Angela’s husband, Peter had a son by a previous marriage and had legal custody of him. He brought the boy to California to live with the family. They moved to a larger house in Santa Monica.
In the mid-fifties Angela entered the world of Broadway theatre. In 1957 she debuted in Hotel Paradiso, a French burlesque set in Paris, at the Henry Miller Theatre. Although the play ran for only 15 weeks, earning her good reviews, she later stated that had she not appeared in the play, her “whole would have fizzled out”. Next she appeared in A Taste of Honey, playing Helen, a boorish and verbally abusive absentee mother of Josephine played by Joan Plowright who was only four years younger. Angela became friends with Joan and Laurence Olivier, Joan’s lover. It was from Angela’s rented apartment on East 97th Street that Joan and Laurence eloped to get married.
Angela didn’t feel comfortable in the Hollywood social scene. She chalked this up to her British roots. “In Hollywood, I always felt like a stranger in a strange land.” In 1959, the family moved to Malibu where they settled into a house on the Pacific Coast Highway where she and Peter were able to escape the Hollywood scene and send their children to state school.
In 1962, Angela starred opposite Lawrence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, playing his manipulative mother even though she was only three years older than him. The role earned her her third Best Supporting Actress Award nomination. It bothered her that she didn’t win. Angela starred in several movies in the 1960s but although her performances were well received, the kind of roles she wanted evaded her and she became dissatisfied with the minor roles she was getting, feeling that none of them allowed her to explore her potential as an actress.
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
In 1966 Angela took on the title role of Mame Dennis in the musical Mame, the musical adapted from the novel, Auntie Mame. The director’s first choice for the role was Rosalind Russell who played Mame in the non-musical adaptation but she declined. Theatre critics were surprised that Angela was chosen for the role, believing that the role would go to a better known actress. Angela was forty-one at the time and this was her first starring role. She trained extensively for the role which involved over twenty costume changes throughout the play and ten songs and dance routines. Auntie Mame opened on Broadway in May 1996, gaining Angela rave reviews. She received her first Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Following her success as Mame, Angela appeared in Dear World, the musical adaptation of The Madwoman of Chailott, as a 75 year old Parisian eccentric. Angela found the experience “pretty depressing” but received positive reviews for her performance and her second Tony award. The show, however, received critical reviews and ended after 132 performances. After Dear World, Angela played the title role of the musical Prettybelle, based on Jean Arnold’s The Rape of Prettybelle, set in the Deep South. It was a controversial play because it dealt with issues of racism with Angela as a wealthy alcoholic who seeks sexual encounters with black men. It opened in Boston to poor reviews and was cancelled before it even reached Broadway. Angela would later say that the play was a “complete and utter fiasco.” She felt that her performance was awful.
In the early 1970s Angela turned down several cinematic roles, including the role of Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which went to Louise Fletcher who won the Oscar for Best Actress. In 1970 Angela appeared as the middle-aged English witch in the Disney film, Beadknobs and Broomsticks, her first lead in a screen musical. 1970 was a traumatic year for the Lansbury family. Peter underwent a hip replacement, their son Anthony suffered a heroin overdose and went into a coma and the family’s home in Malibu was destroyed in a bush fire. They bought a farmhouse constructed in the 1820s located near the village of Conna in rural County Cork. It was there Anthony was taken to receover from his drug addiction after he quit using cocaine and heroin. He enrolled in the Webber-Douglas School, his mother’s alma mater and became a professional actor before becoming a television director. Angela and her husband did not return to California, instead, they divided their time between Cork and New York City. They lived opposite the Lincoln Centre.
Angela returned to theatre in 1972, performing in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s theatrical production of Edward Albee’s All Over in London’s West End. Although reviews of the play were mixed, her performance was widely praised. She did a revival of Mame which was touring the United States at the time. She returned to the West End to play Rose in the musical Gypsy. Initially, she turned down the role because she didn’t want to be in Ethel Merman’s shadow. Ethel had portrayed the character in the original Broadway production. Eventually, Angela accepted the role and she received a standing ovation and rave reviews. Not at all in anyone’s shadow, she was in demand among the London society, having dinners in her honour. When Gypsy went to Broadway, it was a critical success, earning Angela her third Tony Award.
Eager to move on from musicals, Angela decided to tackle a production of one of William Shakespeare’s plays and landed the role of Gertrude in The National Theatre Company’s production of Hamlet. The play received mixed reviews. Angela later admitted that she hated the role because it was too restrained. To make matters worse, she learned that her mother had died in California. Angela had her mother’s body cremated and her ashes scattered near to her own County Cork home.
Angela appeared in Edward Albee’s Counting the Ways and Listening. Her performance was praised. She followed this with another revival tour of Gypsy. She appeared in the revival of The King and I musical at Broadway’s Uris Theatre. After seven years, she starred in her first cinematic role in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, opposite her brother-in-law Peter Ustinov and Bette Davis who became a close friend. Of Bette, she had this to say, “She is an original. There has never been anyone, before or since, who could touch her.”
In 1979 she earned her fourth Tony Award playing Nellie Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. In 1982 she played an upper middle class housewife in A Little Family Business which also starred her son, Anthony. The movie was panned and accused of racism by the Japanese-American community. She co-starred with friend Bette Davis in the film made for television, Little Gloria…Happy at Last. She appeared in other television movies, one of which was BBC’s A Talent for Murder which she jumped at the chance to take in order to work with co-star Laurence Olivier.
Then in 1983, Angela was offered two television roles–one was in a sitcom and the other was in a detective series. She was unable to do both so her agents advised her to accept the sitcom role but she decided to accept the other role. And we are thrilled that she did! Angela described her character Jessica Fletcher as “an American Miss Marple”. It’s interesting that she said that because she played Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d. She played the sleuth the way Agatha Christie described the her unlike Margaret Rutherford who made the role famous. The role of Jessica Fletcher had been offered to Jean Stapleton first but she turned it down. I must say that I am happy that she did because I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part. Angela was the perfect choice.
Angela took her role as Jessica Fletcher very seriously and had creative input over the character’s costumes, makeup and hair. Network executives wanted to put the character in a relationship which Angela strongly rejected, believing that the character should remain a strong single female. She changed any script which did not fit Jessica’s personality. She saw Jessica as a role model for older female viewers and praised her “enormous, universal appeal” and admitted that, “It was an accomplishment I never expected in my entire life.” Murder, She Wrote was described as a television landmark in the U.S. for having an older female character as the protagonist, paving the way for series like The Golden Girls, another show I enjoyed tremendously. “I think it’s the first time a show has really been aimed at the middle aged audience,” Angela said. It was the most popular show among senior citizens but it gradually gained a younger audience. By 1991, a third of the viewers were under fifty. It gained high ratings throughout most of its run.
I know why [Murder, She Wrote was a success]. There was never any blood, never any violence. And there was always a satisfying conclusion to a whodunit. The jigsaw was complete. And I loved Jessica’s everywoman character. I think that’s what made her so acceptable to an across-the-board audience – Angela Lansbury, 2014.
As the show went on Angela assumed a larger role behind the scenes with her own company, Corymore co-producing the show with Universal. After a while, though she began to get tired of the series, especially of the long working hours and said that the 1990-1991 would be the show’s last season. However, she changed her mind after she was appointed executive producer for the 1992-1993 season, which made it far more interesting for her. For the seventh season, the show’s setting moved to New York where Jessica had taken a job teaching criminology at Manhattan University in an attempt to attract younger viewers. Angela encouraged this move. The show aired on Sunday where its ratings improved in the early 1990s. People had gotten used to tuning in every Sunday night to see what murder mystery Jessica Fletcher would be solving so it was unfortunate when CBS executives got the bright idea to move it to Thursdays opposite NBCs new sitcom, Friends with the hope of drawing a larger audience. Not surprisingly, Angela was angry at this move, believing that it ignored the show’s core audience. The show’s final episode aired in May 1996 and ended with Angela voicing a “Goodbye from Jessica” message. The role of Jessica Fletcher would prove to be the most successful and prominent of Angela’s career. It must have been hard saying goodbye to Jessica Fletcher for Angela and the faithful viewers. All good things must come to an end. Sigh.
After the end of Murder, She Wrote, Angela returned to the theatre. Fast forward to March to June 2014 when Angela reprised her 2009 Tony winning Broadway performance as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End, marking her first London stage appearance in nearly 40 years. She picked up her first Olivier award, Britain’s most prestigious prize a the age of 89 for Blithe Spirit. It’s worth mentioning that Angela received an Academy Honorary Award for her lifetime achievement at the Governors Awards on November 16, 2013 and received the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre on November 16, 2015.
I read a few interesting things about Angela. I will just mention a few. In the late 1940s, MGM planned to cast her as the female lead in a film entitled “Angel’s Flight” with Clark Gable but the project never came through because Mr. Gable disliked the storyline, so the studio had to squash the entire project. She was considered for the role of Miss Caswell in All About Eve (1950), but Marilyn Monroe was cast in the role instead. Frank Sinatra wanted Lucille Ball for the role of Mrs. Iselin, the manipulative mother in The Manchurian Candidate but Angela got the part and played it convincingly. I don’t know if Lucille Ball would have pulled it off. Angela is a staunch Democrat and a solid supporter of Barack Obama. She was very close friends with Bob Hope. She gave a speech at his memorial service on August 27, 2003. Her nephew David Lansbury was married to actress Ally Sheedy, The Breakfast Club.
Angela was self-professed homebody who preferred spending quiet evenings inside with friends to the Hollywood night live. She is a supporter of the United States Democratic Party and the British Labour Party. Notes to Women celebrate this remarkable woman who is a staunch supporter of charities such as Abused Wives in Crisis which combated domestic abuse and those who worked toward rehabilitating drug users. She supported charities dedicated to fighting against HIV/AIDs. She was a chain smoker early in life but gave up the addiction cold turkey in the mid-1960s. We congratulate her on her promotion to Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2014 New Year Honours for services to drama and to charitable work and philanthropy. Last year she was made a Dame by the Queen at Windsor Castle. This honour couldn’t have happened to a more deserving lady. Dame Angela, we applaud you for the work you have done in movies and in theatre and most importantly, your charitable deeds.
The older I get, the more I realize how much I have missed because I was so busy entertaining that audience and so busy pursuing a career.I just went along for the ride. It was a God-given gift. It is. So you can’t say well, you wasted your life because you spent all of it acting, but I think gosh, I’ve never been to China, I’ve never been to Japan. I’ve never been to Yellowstone Park.I had no idea that such a thing could happen. It never occurred to me.My son told me. He called me and said, “Darling, I just wanted you to know that you have been chosen to receive an honorary Academy Award.” I was in the back of this car, and I said, “Oh,” and burst into tears, of course, because it was so unexpected and quite wonderful. I thought it’s been worth hanging around all these years.I honestly consider that the greatest gift to me, is the reaction that I get from my work. That is a given which I never, ever take for granted. But to be given that by audiences, individuals, on the street, in the theater, is an extraordinary feeling.My mother was one of the most beautiful women, I have to say, of her generation. She was absolutely lovely. She was a very, extremely sensitive, Irish actress. She came from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and she came to London, and she was sort of discovered by several people.~Angela Lansbury~
Sources: azquotes; Wikipedia; IMDB; Hollywood Reporter; Deadline Presents
2 Replies to “Dame Angela Lansbury”
Nice article, but it’s curious you say that the actress adopted “Angela Lansbury” as her stage name, as it is her actual name.
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Thank you so much for flagging that. I corrected it to say: “She used her real name as her professional name.” I’m happy you liked the article. I’m a huge fan of Angela Lansbury.