Angela Lansbury, whose career crossed theater, film, and television across more than seven decades, has died at the age of 96. Her death was announced by MSNBC’s Ali Velshi on his Twitter account on Tuesday afternoon and confirmed by NBC News. “The children of Dame Angela Lansbury are sad to announce that their mother died peacefully in her sleep at home in Los Angeles at 1:30 AM today, Tuesday, October 11, 2022, just five days shy of her 97th birthday,” her family said in a statement.
The actress is best known for “Murder, She Wrote,” but started her career in 1944 and has delighted generations of fans with nearly 150 credits. That includes everything ranging from voice-over performances to musicals and dramas. Lansbury was able to be anything an audience needed, from a warmhearted mother to a vicious villain.
Angela Brigid Lansbury was born on October 16, 1925 in London, England. She was born into entertainment, with her mother, Moyna Macgill, being a regular performer on the West End stage. Her father was a wealthy timber merchant, and her grandfather the leader of the country’s Labour Party. Her father died when Lansbury was nine and it was then she started creating characters. A self-confessed “movie maniac,” the young Lansbury consumed everything associated with film.
She began studying acting and first appeared on stage at the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art’s production of Maxwell Anderson’s “Mary of Scotland.” The arrival of WWII saw Lansbury’s mother take her and her siblings to the United States where they eventually settled in Greenwich Village. As Macgill started getting jobs, Lansbury, at just 16, would travel alongside her mother, working in nightclubs. The family would soon move cross-country to Los Angeles, where Macgill hoped to become a movie star. Her lack of wages forced Lansbury to become the sole breadwinner to her siblings.
It was at one of her mother’s Hollywood parties that Lansbury met screenwriter John van Druten, the screenwriter of “Gaslight,” who thought the young woman would be perfect in the role of Nancy Oliver, the conniving maid meant to care for Ingrid Bergman’s gaslit character. At just 17, Lansbury was signed to the standard seven-year contract at MGM. “Gaslight” became a hit, with Lansbury securing her first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She’d soon secure a second nomination for her role in 1945’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
Lansbury was regularly dissatisfied with the roles MGM gave her, which tended to veer towards older women and villains. When her contract was up in 1952 the studio decided not to renew it. “I kept wanting to play the Jean Arthur roles, and Mr Mayer kept casting me as a series of venal bitches,” Lansbury wrote in her 1996 autobiography. Though she acted opposite some of MGM’s biggest stars, including Judy Garland in the musical “The Harvey Girls,” Lansbury started dabbling with radio and television.
Courtesy Everett Collection
With her contract up at MGM, and as she welcomed the arrival of her first child, she started appearing in Broadway touring productions. Her second child, a daughter, would be born in 1953. Now a freelancer in Hollywood, Lansbury returned to the movies but was still cast as older women, despite breaking that trend in features like 1956’s “The Court Jester.”
Her appearances in the Martin Ritt-directed film “The Long Hot Summer” and the Sandra Dee-starring “The Reluctant Debutante,” both in 1958, finally saw Lansbury’s career rise from B to A-list. She also drew accolades on Broadway, two years later, for playing the mother in the landmark British production of “A Taste of Honey.” Lansbury also saw garnered another Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as the manipulative Mrs. Iselin in the 1962 political thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate.” But despite all the critical love for her performances, she remained frustrated at her career trajectory. She disliked playing women significantly older than her, many of whom were villains or otherwise supporting roles.
In 1966, Lansbury campaigned hard for the role of Mame Dennis in the musical adaptation of “Auntie Mame.” Though Rosalind Russell had portrayed the character in the 1958 film version, she refused to do the Broadway version. When Lansbury, at 41, was brought onto the production it was surprising considering she was not a household name. The Broadway production was a smash hit with Lansbury securing a Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. It was with “Auntie Mame” that Lansbury finally secured the superstardom that had eluded her.
The 1970s saw the actress become more selective in her film roles, turning down the likes of Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to portray the daffy Eglantine Price in the Disney feature “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” She continued to perform on-stage, on both Broadway and the West End. The latter, most famously, saw her take on the role of Rose in the incomparable classic “Gypsy.” It would eventually land Lansbury her third Tony Award during its Broadway run.
Her work on the stage during that decade would also include a run in the National Theatre Company’s production of “Hamlet” and the Broadway revival of “The King and I.” Most famously, starting in 1979, Lansbury debuted in another iconic role, that of Mrs. Lovett, the meat-pie maven of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Another Tony award would follow as well as a 10-month tour in 1980.
Everett Collection / Everett Collection
In 1983, Lansbury took the role that secured her a legion of television fans when she became Jessica Fletcher in “Murder, She Wrote.” The series saw Lansbury’s Fletcher spend her days in the small hamlet of Cabot Cove where she wrote books and, in her spare time, solved mysteries. “Murder, She Wrote” premiered in September of 1984 and became hugely popular with fans. Jessica Fletcher didn’t just secure Lansbury a steady paycheck, she also had creative control of the character, from how Fletcher looked and dressed to the avoidance of a romantic interest. The series didn’t just gain a following from older viewers, but young ones as well. She would eventually secure a firmer role behind the scenes of the show, co-producing it with Universal. The show would conclude in 1996, becoming one of the longest-running detective series in television history.
The show’s pop culture impact remains to this day with fansites and Twitter accounts devoted to Lansbury’s role as Fletcher. “It was a slice of my career that was totally unconnected to anything that I had done before,” Lansbury told Star2.com in 2018. “Making Jessica Fletcher the character I ended up playing took me several years. She started off a little bit goofy, but I finally made her a woman of my age and of my intellect. I think that is what made her such an appealing character of the world — because she was somebody that people could understand and make part of their lives.”
Lansbury continued to gain young fans, especially with her voicework as Mrs. Potts in the animated Disney feature “Beauty and the Beast.” Her performance of the title song would win an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1991.
The death of her husband Peter Shaw in 2003 saw Lansbury retire from leading performances and stick to supporting turns in the likes of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” and films like “Nanny McPhee” and “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” She continued to act on-stage, earning another Tony for her turn in the revival of “Blithe Spirit.” Up until 2019 Lansbury was continuing to do turns on stage and had recently made an appearance as the Balloon Lady in the 2018 Disney sequel, “Mary Poppins Returns.”
Lansbury is survived by her two children and three grandchildren.