Angela Lansbury Biography

Angela Lansbury

Best known for her endearing portrayal of Jessica Fletcher on 'Murder, She Wrote', Lansbury has had a 50-year career spanning film, theatre and television, and a life fraught with frustration and disappointment.

Angela Brigid Lansbury was born in London in 1925 to Belfast born actress Moyna MacGill and businessman Edgar Lansbury.

Lansbury’s mother played a significant part influencing her daughter’s love of the theatre, taking her to plays at the Old Vic in London and subsequently removing her from South Hampstead High School for Girls to enroll her at the Ritman School of Dancing (later known as the Webber-Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art) instead.

Sadly, Lansbury’s father died of stomach cancer in 1934 and her mother immediately took charge of her children (including Lansbury’s twin brothers Edgar and Bruce, who later became successful Broadway and television producers respectively, and a half-sister) as best she could. But with the outbreak of the Second World War looming, Moyna immediately booked a one-way trip to New York and fled London.

Once in New York, Lansbury studied drama until her mother, who had been supporting the family by touring in a Noel Coward play, sent for her to join her in Los Angeles. In LA, Lansbury worked at the Bullocks Wilshire department store while her mother hosted parties for British performers who were making their first visits to California. At one of these parties she was introduced to MGM casting agent Mel Ballerino who was assembling a cast for the film version of the Broadway play Gaslight.

Lansbury was lucky enough to be offered the role of Nancy in the film (1944), playing the malicious maid to Ingrid Bergman’s Paula, and her performance was so admired that she earned her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress in her very first film debut. Just a year later, she was nominated in the same category again for her portrayal of Sibyl Vane in Dorian Gray.

In 1945, at the tender age of 19, Lansbury married American actor Richard Cromwell - who was then 35. Unbeknown to her, Cromwell was bisexual and the marriage ended after a year, but the two remained friends.

In 1949, Lansbury married Irish-born actor Peter Shaw. The couple had two children, Anthony and Deirdre as well as David, a son from Shaw’s previous marriage. Shaw was instrumental in guiding and managing Lansbury's career when he made the career move from acting to agenting and producing. Until his death in 2003, Lansbury and Shaw enjoyed one of the longest show business marriages on record.

Treading the boards on Broadway, Lansbury received positive reviews for her first musical 'Anyone Can Whistle' in 1964. Two years later, she achieved major success in 'Mame' (1969) which ran for 1,500 performances and earned her a Tony award for Best Leading Actress.

The only blip on the crest of her success was taking the title role in the musical 'Prettybelle' in 1971. After a difficult rehearsal period, the show opened to brutal reviews in Boston and it closed within a week

Most of Lansbury’s subsequent films in the late 1940s and early ‘50s under her MGM contract did not match the quality of character or material as her debut films. She appeared in supporting parts in films such as 'National Velvet' (1944) and 'The Harvey Girls' (1946) and also began to work on live television dramas in the 1960s.

Lansbury’s willingness to play older women worked to her advantage. In many cases, she was less than five years older than her on-screen sons and this led to her being cast in many prominent roles from Disney’s 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks' (1971), to the malevolent mother to actor Laurence Harvey’s brainwashed war veteran (who was actually just three years Lansbury’s junior) in 'The Manchurian Candidate', which earned her a third Oscar nomination. She has since commented that the role was one of her favourites in her career.

By 1970, Lansbury, now in her forties, began a run of film roles to please her fans that tapped her flair for eccentric comedy. Most notably, she earned a Golden Globe nomination in the cult comedy 'Something For Everyone' (1970).

Lansbury’s long association with murder mysteries dramas began with a turn as a besotted romance novelist who becomes involved in a murder on board an Egyptian boat cruise in 'Death on the Nile' (1979), which brought her a National Board of Review award and a BAFTA nomination.

Back on Broadway, Lansbury landed a third Tony award for her performance in the revival of 'Gypsy' (1974) and her fourth Tony for her role in Stephen Sondheim’s gory blockbuster 'Sweeney Todd' (1979). Lansbury recreated the role for a 1982 PBS broadcast of the production, which also brought her a Cable ACE award and an Emmy nomination.

Off-screen, however, Lansbury’s personal life had taken a nose dive. Both of her children had become involved with hard drugs and a fire in 1970 destroyed the Lansbury’s home in Malibu. The fire and worry over the children’s drug involvement prompted a move to Country Cork in Ireland and Lansbury credited the incidents as fate in helping to put her children back on an even path.

Lansbury’s savvy portrayals in the Agatha Christie adaptations helped lay the groundwork for 'Murder, She Wrote' from 1984 to 1996 in which she starred (and later executive produced) as Jessica Fletcher, a mystery novelist with a knack for finding herself in the middle of a murder – and the ability to solve it without the help of police.

Lansbury appeared in all 256 episodes of the series, as well as four television movies (aired between 1997 and 2003), and earned a record 12 Emmy nominations for her performance – one for every season the series was on the air – as well as four Golden Globe Awards - making her one of the highest paid actresses of her time.

The series kept Lansbury exceptionally busy for the better part of the 1980s, but she did manage to appear in several television movies, including the Emmy-nominated adaptation of 'The Shell Seekers' (1989).

Lansbury turned to character voice work in animated films like 'The Last Unicorn' (1982) and as the Dowager Empress in the animated film 'Anastasia' in 1997. Her most famous voice work was the singing teapot Mrs. Potts in the Disney hit 'Beauty and the Beast' (1991). She reprised the role in 'Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas' (1997).

After Murder, She Wrote left the airwaves for its continuous series (one-off TV specials would still appear), Lansbury busied herself with a score of television projects. She also reaped the rewards of a lifetime with a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, an American National Medal of the Arts in 1997, a Kennedy Center Honour in 2000, and was awarded a CBE by the Queen in 1994.

Lansbury returned to the Broadway stage for the first time in more than 25 years in 'Deuce', in April 2007 and officially opened on 6 May to a limited run of 18 weeks. Lansbury received a Tony nomination in the category of Leading Actress in a Play for her role in this production, but sadly missed out on winning.

One of the most respected and versatile actresses of the 20th century, Angela Lansbury is a true star of film, television, and stage and has been lucky enough to maintain her hiatus over the course of a 60-year career.

Related Bios

View More Biographies
© 2013 AETN UK. All Rights Reserved.