Angela Lansbury dead: ‘Murder, She Wrote’ actor was 96

Angela Lansbury, a Tony Award-winning actress who took to Broadway in the glamorous roles the film studios never gave her and conquered television viewers as the star of the hit series Murder, She Wrote, is at her home in Los Angeles died.

Lansbury, who played literary television detective Jessica Fletcher from 1984 to 1996, died Tuesday “peacefully in her sleep,” her family said in a statement obtained by NBC News. she was 96

Her TV series Murder, She Wrote was a classic but light-hearted crime thriller, an educated and sophisticated show of clues and red herrings. Like its star, the show had exceptionally good manners that made it easy to watch with family.

The series topped the ratings charts for nearly a decade, becoming a CBS trademark and establishing Lansbury as a household name. Lansbury was nominated for a dozen Emmys for playing the warm-hearted and spunky detective. She never won, but has repeatedly said fans made her feel like a “national treasure.”

Though she viewed the “Murder” mysteries as “formula stuff,” Lansbury said the program was popular because it was like a crossword puzzle that audiences could solve with her.

Even as a young contract player, Lansbury stood out. She was nominated for Oscars for her first two films – playing a maid in Gaslight (1944) and a variety singer in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).

She received a third nomination for her portrayal of the villainous mother in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), often cited as her best screen performance. Lansbury once said that she “enjoyed” acting so nasty.

In 2013 she received an honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

After appearing in 36 films and almost as many television plays, often portraying what she called “bestial women” much older than herself, she became a middle-aged superstar a continent ahead.

At 40, Lansbury burst onto the New York stage in 1966 as the feisty, eccentric star of Mame, a role she almost didn’t get because producers perceived her as “the lady who plays the mother of all.”

Critic Rex Reed stated that according to the 1996 biography Angela Lansbury, she “brought the Broadway stage about as close to an MGM musical as the Broadway stage probably comes.”

She received her first Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical and basked in the attention: “I want all the glamor there is,” Lansbury told Life Magazine. “I was starving for it.”

When “Mame” opened in Los Angeles in 1968, Lansbury received a 20-minute standing ovation. Theater director James Doolittle considered it “the most exciting opening” in Los Angeles theater history, according to his biography.

Her fourth Tony came in 1979 for the role of the murderous Nellie Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s delightfully spooky Sweeney Todd. Her performance is considered a classic of music theater.

At 83, she set the record for most Tony Awards won for acting when she received a fifth for portraying a medium in the 2009 revival of “Blithe Spirit.” (Audra McDonald set a new record in 2014 when she won her sixth.) Lansbury reprized the role in 2014 when she returned to the stage.

The Broadway years were “amazing,” Lansbury said, for she became everything she “never had in film” as MGM kept calling them “tough dames” who she didn’t like playing.

The rock bottom, she said, was portraying Elvis Presley’s mother in Blue Hawaii (1961) — when she was 9 years older than the singer. She was 59 when Murder, She Wrote began, but later said viewers probably thought she was 85.

At about 80 years old, she played the villainous Aunt Adelaide in the 2006 family film “Nanny McPhee”. At this point, her voice was familiar to a generation that had grown up watching the 1991 Disney film Beauty and the Beast on video; Lansbury sings the theme song and addresses the maternal teapot.

Angela Brigid Lansbury was born in London on October 16, 1925 into a family used to playing in front of an audience. Her mother, Moyna MacGill, was a well-known Irish-born stage actress and her grandfather, George Lansbury, was a leader of the British Labor Party in the early 1930s. Her maternal grandfather ran the Belfast Opera.

Her father, a lumber merchant, Edgar Lansbury, died of cancer when she was 9 years old.

From her mother’s first marriage, Lansbury had a half-sister, Isolde, who became the first wife of actor Peter Ustinov. She also had younger twin brothers, Edgar and Bruce, who grew up to be television producers. Bruce Lansbury died in 2017.

Her natural talent showed through what she called ‘family theatre’ and she attended drama schools in England and the USA

During World War II, the family fled to America by ship, arriving in New York in 1940.

For money, the mother and daughter staged school readings of Shakespeare for $25 a performance. Lansbury also developed a musical comedy, which landed the 16-year-old her first steady job at a Montreal nightclub.

Eventually the women ended up in Los Angeles and by 1942 were clerks at Bullock’s Wilshire. Her mother had a small Hollywood career, appearing with Lansbury in Dorian Gray and Kind Lady (1951).

An actor friend told her MGM was looking for an English girl for Dorian Gray. At the property, Lansbury met director George Cukor, who cast the maid who flirts with Charles Boyer and threatens Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight.

Upon seeing her screen test, Louis B. Mayer said, “Sign this girl — she’s got talent,” Lansbury later recounted. She received a seven-year contract.

MGM never saw her as a star, and her screen aura from the start was that of a considerably older and often awkward woman. She portrayed Walter Pidgeon’s mischievous wife in If Winter Comes (1947) and Spencer Tracy’s mistress in State of the Union (1948).

In National Velvet (1944) she played Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister. Lansbury later recalled being hissed in public for being mean to Judy Garland in the 1946 musical The Harvey Girls.

Her first leading musical role was as the eccentric Good Witch in the 1971 musical Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The Disney film failed at the box office, but as usual, critics praised her performance. The New York critic Pauline Kael called Lansbury an “image savior”.

A first marriage at 19 to an actor 15 years her senior ended months after their marriage, though they remained lifelong friends.

On a blind date, she met Peter Pullen Shaw, an actor so handsome he reportedly showed up with an MGM contract. They married in 1949, and 30 years later Lansbury still referred to him as “lovely, loveable Peter.”

Frank Capra watched a screen test Lansbury did with Shaw and said, according to “Balancing Act,” a Lansbury biography, “The Englishman is terrible, but I’ll use them”. And he did in State of the Union in 1948.

When Lansbury prodded him, Shaw quit acting and became an agent for William Morris. His clients included Robert Mitchum and Katharine Hepburn.

The couple, who became US citizens in 1951, lived in Encino and had a son, Anthony Peter, in 1952. Daughter Deirdre Angela arrived a year later. Shaw also had a son, David, from his first marriage. Lansbury is survived by her two children and numerous grandchildren.

She made her Broadway debut in 1957 with Bert Lahr in Hotel Paradiso, a French farce that made people see her as a legitimate actress, Lansbury later said. She also appeared with Joan Plowright in the 1960 Broadway hit “A Taste of Honey.”

The moment Lansbury said she had been waiting for came in 1963, when she received a letter from playwright Arthur Laurents, who wrote West Side Story and Gypsy.

He had written the musical Anyone Can Whistle with Stephen Sondheim and wanted to know if she could sing. She played the role of the tough mayor in the offbeat fable, which ran for nine performances but caught the attention of Jerry Herman, the composer and lyricist of “Hello, Dolly.” His next project was a musical version of the play “Auntie Mame”.

In 1966 Lansbury appeared in New York in Mame and played the role for two years before appearing in touring productions in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Bea Arthur, who died in 2009, became a close friend after starring in Mame. She called Lansbury “a first class act” who had “a mouth like a docker,” Arthur told the Independent of London in 2003.

Again, Hollywood disappointed when it came time to make the movie Mame. Lucille Ball landed the role and the film flopped.

Although Lansbury reached a peak on stage, his personal life began to fall apart. The Malibu home she called her “island in the sky” burned to the ground in a 1970 brush fire.

She also realized her children were experimenting with drugs and took refuge in a former vicarage in Ireland, “one of the last places on earth that was fairly drug-free,” she later recalled.

For a decade, she and Shaw commuted between London and New York, and her son and daughter recovered from their addiction. Years later, she expressed guilt at being away from home so often.

In 1973, Lansbury returned to the stage in a London revival of Gypsy. She followed the show to Broadway and earned a Tony. She also won a Tony for the role of the tragi-comic Countess in the 1969 musical Dear World.

In “Sweeney Todd,” Lansbury was approached about making a TV series about a bicycle-riding crime writer in a Maine hamlet who solves real-life murders.

“First and foremost, I was motivated by ego,” Lansbury told the Saturday Evening Post of his appearance on television. “I just wanted to play in front of this huge audience once.”

She was also ready to settle down. The couple bought a house in Brentwood, and she crouched down to play the American version of Miss Marple, who solved 286 murders in 12 years.

In 1987 her husband and sons formed Corymore Productions and over time Lansbury took on a larger role in running the show. For the past four seasons, her brother Bruce has been supervising producer.

The show made her “perhaps richer than God and almost as popular,” the Washington Post said in 2000.

Her marriage to Shaw lasted 53 years, until his death in 2003 at the age of 84.

In 2006, Lansbury rented an apartment in New York and said she needed to be around theater people again. She returned to Broadway the next year in Deuce and was nominated for a Tony.

Returning to the stage “turned the tide for me,” she told the Associated Press in early 2013. “It gave me a career after 70… I loved theater and it turned out to be the thing.” Angela Lansbury dead: ‘Murder, She Wrote’ actor was 96

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