TThe sad news of Angela Lansbury’s death just days before her 97th birthdayth Birthday, ended one of the longest and most illustrious careers in Hollywood history. While she may be best remembered for the 265 episodes (and four feature-length films) in which she played best-selling mystery writer Jessica Fletcher murder, she wrote, a period that earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘Most Prolific Amateur Detective’, Lansbury has filled her eight decades on stage and screen with a variety of memorable roles. She instilled in each of them a quirky sense of humor and a gentle warmth that could sometimes mask their deceptively sharp wit.
Born on October 16, 1925 in Regent’s Park, London, Lansbury left Britain with her family after the start of the Blitzkrieg in 1940. Her mother, Belfast-born actress Moyna Macgill, moved to New York with Lansbury and her brothers Bruce and Edgar then to Los Angeles. Her father, also known as Edgar, was a British communist who had been mayor of Poplar before his death from stomach cancer in 1935. While Lansbury’s schooling was cut short by the war, she later said her real education began when she signed a seven-year contract with MGM in 1944, aged just 17.
That same year she made her screen debut opposite Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in gas light. The film was a hit and popularized the term “gaslighting” as a term for the type of malicious manipulation depicted. Perfectly cast as the devious Cockney maid Nancy Oliver, Lansbury received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress on her first try.
The following year, she played a variety singer in Albert Lewin’s adaptation of Oscar Wildes The picture of Dorian Gray, a role for which she was again nominated for an Oscar. A third nod followed in 1962 for her role in The Manchurian Candidate alongside Frank Sinatra. Although she didn’t win on any of those three occasions, she received an honorary Oscar for lifetime cinematic achievement in 2013. During the ceremony, actor Geoffrey Rush described her as the “living definition of reach,” a reflection on appearances in film noirs like 1956 please murder me as well as in musical comedies like 1955 The court jester with Danny Kaye. In 1961 she played Elvis Presley’s mother Blue Hawaii. “Obviously I was impressed by his presence,” Lansbury later recalled, “but he was a terribly nice young man then.”
For many fans, their first encounter with Lansbury was their long association with Disney films. Her magical lead in the 1971 musical fantasy bedknobs and broomsticks saw her audiences of all ages mesmerize as the apprentice witch Eglantine Price. Two decades later, her instantly recognizable voice brought the charming Mrs. Potts to life in the 1991 animated version Beauty and the Beast. Even in her 90s, she still retained the ability to steal scenes, as she demonstrated when she appeared in a cameo to sing the 2018 closing number Mary Poppins’ Return. Her Disney roles alongside appearances in children’s films such as 1997 Anastasia and 2005 Nanny McPhee, made her a familiar presence for generations of viewers.
Off-screen, Lansbury’s life was just as eventful. Her first marriage to actor Richard Cromwell in 1945 ended in divorce after a year when she learned he was gay. In 1949 she married another actor, Peter Shaw, and they were together for 54 years until his death in 2003. Raising their two children, Anthony and Deirdre, in Malibu in the Sixties, they saw firsthand the darkness embedded in the city’s nascent counterculture. For a time, Deirdre met associates of cult leader Charles Manson, while Lansbury also dealt with the distress of seeing Anthony fall into a coma from a heroin overdose. He recovered and became an acclaimed director whose credits span 68 episodes murder, she wrote.
Lansbury spent 12 years from 1984 to 1996 starring in the popular crime series. It’s no wonder Jessica Fletcher became her signature role, not only because of the show’s longevity, but because the talkative, charming, and inquisitive character so unmistakably resonated with Lansbury’s own personality. The success of murder, she wrote propelled Lansbury to a new level of global fame at the age of 59. “It’s a beautiful thing to have this recognition in countries around the world,” she once said. “Although it really was as easy as ABC for an actress who’s tried so many extraordinary roles in her career.” In a nod to her famous character, Lansbury’s final screen appearance will be a cameo knife out Whodunnit sequel glass onion this November. Even now, after eight decades of playing everyone from teenage naive to doting widows, Angela Lansbury still has secrets to unveil.