Referred to by The New York Times as the “First Lady of Musical Theatre,” Angela Lansbury is a musical theater diva that covered the various breadth of class and theatrical styles. She is also famous from film and TV, especially through that 12-year stint as Jessica Fletcher in the popular ’80s to 90’s series Murder, She Wrote. However, it’s her stage work that’s what shaped her as an actress.
Lansbury spent many years as an actress appearing in films during the Golden Age of Hollywood before choosing a new career as a Broadway musical star. Her notable performances in theater include Anyone Can Whistle (1964), Mame (1966), Dear World (1969), Gypsy (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Blithe Spirit (2009).
Lansbury has won several awards for her work in theater, including four Tony Awards for Best Actress in a Musical. She also won six times at the Golden Globes Awards for her work in television.
Dame Angela Brigid Lansbury (October 16, 1925) is a British-American born in the neighborhood o Poplar in the East End of London, England. Her mother, MoynaMacGill, was a stage actress, while her father, Edward Lansbury, was a noted politician, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and former mayor of Metropolitan Borough of Poplar.
When Angela was nine, her father died from stomach cancer, which affected her for the rest of her life. For a time, their family lived in Ireland before she turned into a teenager, where both she and her sister attended a dancing and acting school.
When her grandfather died in 1940, her mother took her and her brothers to the United States. Lansbury gained a scholarship from the American Theatre Wing, allowing her to study at the Feagin School of Drama and Radio.
While in New York, her mother took a job with a Canadian production and made Lansbury move to Los Angeles. She worked in a department store before landing her debut film role in 1944’s Gaslight, playing the housemaid Nancy. She earned an Academy Award nomination for Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance. She also starred in National Velvet (1944), where Lansbury started a lifelong friendship with Elizabeth Taylor. Then, she starred in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), where she earned a Golden Globe Award.
MGM cast Lansbury in 11 more films, playing minor and supporting roles. She was repeatedly made to portray women older than her age and are often villainous. As a result, she became dissatisfied with working for MGM. She terminated her contract in 1952, the same year her first son was born.
Theater and Film Career
After giving birth, Lansbury joined the East Coast touring productions of two former Broadway plays: Louis Verneuil’s Affairs of State, and Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s Remains to be Seen.
In 1953, she gave birth to her daughter, and in 1959, her family with husband Peter Shaw moved to Malibu. There, Lansbury and Shaw escaped the Hollywood scene and were able to send their children to a public school.
In 1957, Lansbury debuted on Broadway in Hotel Paradiso, which only ran for 15 weeks. She followed it with an appearance in the 1960s Broadway play of A Taste of Honey. She played the role of Helen, a boorish, absentee mother, which gave her a great deal of satisfaction as an actress. Her first appearance in a theatre musical was in Anyone Can Whistle, written by Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents in 1964.
Lansbury returned to the cinema as a freelance actress. She often found herself typecast as women older than her. She was cast in The Manchurian Candidate (1963), which bought her third Academy Award nomination. Other film appearances during the decade included Blue Hawaii (1961) with Elvis Presley, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965). After appearing in Mister Buddwing in 1966, she starred in several more cinematic roles. Despite her well-received performances in different films, she became increasingly dissatisfied with minor roles.
In 1966, Lansbury took the title role in the musical Mame. She wasn’t the first choice for the role, so she actively sought it hoping that it would mark a change in her acting career. Lansbury was already 41 years old when she landed her first starring role in Mame. It opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway in May 1966. True enough, Lansbury’s performance in the musical brought her first Tony Award for the Best Leading Actress in a Musical. The stardom she achieved in this play allowed her to make further appearances on television.
Lansbury followed Mame with a performance as Countess Aurelia in Dear World, which opened on Broadway in February 1969. She received positive reviews on her performance, and she was awarded a second Tony Award for it. However, the reviews of the show were generally critical, so it ended after 132 performances. Lansbury also landed a controversial role in Prettybelle in 1971, as she played a wealthy alcoholic who seeks sexual encounters with black men. The play was canceled before reaching Broadway.
In the 1970s, Lansbury took several cinematic roles, while declining many offers. She starred as a countess in a comedy Something for Everyone (1970), and a witch in a Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), which was her first lead in a screen musical. She worked in theater in between and worked prolifically in cinema the remaining of the decade until the early 1980s.
Lansbury returned to London’s West End in 1972, to perform in All Over at the Aldwych Theatre. This was followed by a revival of Mame, which was touring in the United States. Then, she returned to West End to play the character of Rose in the musical Gypsy. She garnered another Tony Award for her performance in Gypsy after the show reached Broadway. In 1979, Lansbury later portrayed Mrs. Nellie Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which gave her another Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.
In 1982, she played in A Little Family Business, a Broadway production in which her son Anthony also starred in. That same year, Lansbury was inducted to the American Theatre Hall of Fame.
Breakout TV Career
For those who don’t watch Broadway plays, Lansbury is most famous for her role in Murder, She Wrote, a detective TV series that centered on the character of Jessica Fletcher. In 1982, Lansbury was offered two main TV roles: the detective series gig, and the other a sitcom. She chose to do the detective series despite her agents’ advice to accept the sitcom role.
The series proved to be a success, having lasted for 12 seasons in 12 years. It gained high ratings, even if the show was the first to have an older female character as a single protagonist, paving the way for later series with an older main cast like The Golden Girls. The TV role, which she played from 1984 to 1996, became the most successful and prominent of Lansbury’s career. She was nominated for eighteen Emmy Awards but never won, including twelve consecutive nominations for every season of Murder, She Wrote.
Due to the higher profile, she gained from playing the main character of the successful TV show. She began to appear in a lot of infomercials and advertisements. She also continued making appearances in films, television films, and miniseries. Since The Manchurian Candidate, her highest-profile cinematic role was the voice of the singing teapot Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast (1991). She also performed the title song to the movie, which won the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Academy Award for Best Original Song, and Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song.
Return to Theatre
After the end of Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury returned to the theatre. However, she pulled out before the opening of The Visit (2001) though she was cast in the lead role because of her husband’s deteriorating health. Her husband Peter died in January 2003 and left her heartbroken. She felt that she couldn’t take on any major acting roles and might make a few cameo appearances only.
In 2007, Lansbury returned to Broadway after a 23-year absence. She starred in Deuce, which ran for only 18 weeks. She received a Tony Award nomination for her role. In 2009, she appeared in the revival of Blithe Spirit – an appearance that earned her fifth Tony Award. From 2009 to 2010, she starred in the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music alongside Catherine Zeta-Jones, earning her a seventh Tony Award nomination.
In 2014, Lansbury reprised her role in Blithe Spirit at London’s West End. The next year, she received her first Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance at the age of 89. She returned to Broadway to portray the role of Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in 2019.
Lansbury has won many nominations for her work in theater, film, and television, but she was most critically successful in theater. Here are the awards she earned during her theater career:
- Best Actress in a Musical, Tony Awards (1966) – Mame
- Best Actress in a Musical, Tony Awards (1969) – Dear World
- Best Actress in a Musical, Tony Awards (1975) – Gypsy
- Best Actress in a Musical, Tony Awards (1979) – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
- Best Featured Actress in a Play, Tony Awards (2009) – Blithe Spirit
- Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Laurence Olivier Awards (2015) – Blithe Spirit