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‘Murder She Wrote’ star Angela Lansbury dies at 96

NEW YORK — (AP) — Angela Lansbury, the scene-stealing British actress who raised her heels in Broadway musicals “Mame” and “Gypsy” and solved endless murders as crime novelist Jessica Fletcher in the long-running TV series “Murder, She Wrote,” died. She was 96.

Lansbury died Tuesday at her home in Los Angeles, according to a statement from her three children. She died five days before her 97th birthday.

Her 75-year career included beloved stage musicals, iron-fisted matriarchs on film, singing the theme song to the animated film ‘Beauty and the Beast’, being made a Lady by Queen Elizabeth II and the creation of one of television’s most beloved characters.

Lansbury has won five Tony Awards for his performances on Broadway and a lifetime achievement award. She earned Oscar nominations as a supporting actress for two of her first three films, “Gaslight” (1945) and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1946), and was nominated again in 1962 for ” The Manchurian Candidate” and his murderous interpretation. of a communist agent and the main character’s mother.

Her mature demeanor prompted the producers to cast her much older than her actual age. In 1948, when she was 23, her hair was streaked gray so she could play a 40-something newspaper publisher with a yen for Spencer Tracy in “State of the Union.”

Her stardom came in middle age when she became the New York theater hit, winning Tony Awards for “Mame” (1966), “Dear World” (1969), “Gypsy” (1975) and “Sweeney Todd” (1979).

She was back on Broadway and earned another Tony nomination in 2007 in Terrence McNally’s ‘Deuce’, playing a rambling and hot-headed former tennis star, mulling it over with another ex-star as she watched a Times match. modern from the bleachers. In 2009 she received her fifth Tony, for Best Featured Actress in a revival of Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ and in 2015 won an Olivier Award for the role.

Broadway royalty paid their respects. Audra McDonald tweeted: “She was an icon, a legend, a gem and the kindest woman you would ever want to meet.” Leslie Uggams on Twitter wrote: “Dame Angela was so sweet to me when I made my Broadway debut. She was a key person in welcoming me into the community. She really lived, lived, lived!

Playwright Paul Rudnick added: “She provided the most fabulous and irreplaceable joy. She was loved as a person and an actress, and managed to be approachable, glamorous and heartbreaking. She will be missed, celebrated and adored.

But Lansbury’s wider fame began in 1984 when she debuted “Murder, She Wrote” on CBS. Loosely based on the stories of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, the series centered on Jessica Fletcher, a middle-aged widow and former substitute teacher living in the seaside village of Cabot Cove, Maine. She had made a name for herself as a detective novelist and amateur detective.

The actor found the show’s first season exhausting.

“I was shocked when I learned that I had to work 12 to 15 hours a day, tirelessly, day after day,” she recalls. “I had to lay down the law at one point and say, ‘Look, I can’t do these shows in seven days; it will take eight days.

CBS and the production company, Universal Studio, agreed, especially since “Murder, She Wrote” had become a Sunday night hit. Despite the long days — she left her home in Brentwood in West Los Angeles at 6 a.m. and returned after dark — and tons of dialogue to memorize, Lansbury kept a steady pace. She was thrilled that Jessica Fletcher served as an inspiration to older women.

“Women in movies have always struggled to be role models for other women,” she observed. “They have always been considered glamorous in their work.”

In the show’s first season, Jessica wore clothes that were almost frumpy. Then she gained intelligence, Lansbury believing that as a successful woman, Jessica should dress the part.

“Murder, She Wrote” remained high in the ratings throughout its 11th year. Then CBS, seeking a younger audience for Sunday night, moved the series to a less favorable midweek slot. Lansbury protested vigorously to no avail. As expected, the ratings plummeted and the show was cancelled. As a consolation, CBS contracted two-hour films on “Murder, She Wrote” and other specials featuring Lansbury.

“Murder, She Wrote” and other TV work earned her 18 Emmy nominations, but she never won one. She holds the record for the most Golden Globe nominations and won Best Actress in a Television Drama Series and the most Emmy nominations for Lead Actress in a Drama Series.

In a 2008 Associated Press interview, Lansbury said she always welcomed the right script but didn’t want to play “decrepit old women”, she said. “I want women my age to be portrayed as they are, which is to say vital and productive members of society.”

“I’m amazed at how much stuff I’ve managed to pack in the years I’ve been with the business. And I’m still here!

She was given the name Angela Brigid Lansbury when she was born in London on October 16, 1925. Her family was distinguished: a grandfather was the fiery leader of the Labor Party; his father, owner of a veneer factory; her mother a successful actress, Moyna MacGill.

“I was terribly shy, absolutely unable to come out of my shell,” Lansbury recalled of his youth. “It took me years to get over it.”

The depression forced his father’s factory into bankruptcy, and for a few years the family lived on money his mother had saved from her theatrical career. Angela suffered a severe blow when her beloved father died in 1935. The tragedy forced her to become self-sufficient – “almost a surrogate husband for my mother”.

When England was threatened with German bombing in 1940, Moyna Lansbury fought through bureaucracy and won passage to America for her family. With the help of two sponsor families, they settled in New York and lived on $150 a month. To add to their income, 16-year-old Angela landed a job at a nightclub in Montreal doing impersonations and songs.

“The only thing I ever had confidence in was my ability to perform,” she said. “It’s been the grace note in my life sonata, the thing that has absolutely seen me through thick and thin.”

Moyna moved the family to Hollywood, hoping to find acting work. Failing that, she and Angela packed packages and sold clothes at a department store. An actor friend suggested that Angela would be ideal for the role of Sybil Vane in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” which was in the works at MGM. She tested, and studio boss Louis B. Mayer ordered, “Sign that girl!”

She was just 19 when her first film, ‘Gaslight,’ earned her an Oscar nomination, but MGM didn’t know what to do with the new contract player. She appeared as Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister in “National Velvet”, Judy Garland’s nemesis in “The Harvey Girls”, Walter Pidgeon’s villainous wife in “If Winter Comes” and Queen Anne in ” The Three Musketeers”.

Tired of playing roles twice her age, she left MGM to go independent, but the results were much the same: Warren Beatty’s mother in “All Fall Down”, Elvis Presley’s in “Blue Hawaii”, by Carroll Baker in “Harlow,” and by Laurence Harvey in “The Manchurian Candidate,” in which she unforgettably manipulates her son and helps spark a killing spree.

In the mid-1940s Lansbury had a disastrous nine-month marriage to Richard Cromwell, a moving young star of the 1930s. In 1949, she married Peter Shaw, a Briton who had been under an acting contract with MGM, then becomes studio manager and agent. He assumed the role of manager of Lansbury. They had two children; he had a son from a previous marriage.

The 1950s were a troubled time for the Shaws. Angela’s career slowed; his mother died after a battle with cancer; Peter underwent hip surgery; the children were drugged; the Malibu family home burned down.

Lansbury later said of the fire, “It’s like cutting off a branch, a big succulent branch from your life and sealing it with sealant so it won’t bleed, that’s what you do. This is how the human mind deals with these things. You have to pick up the pieces and move on. »

Tired of 20 years of typography, Lansbury tried her luck on Broadway. His first two shows – “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Hotel Paradiso” (with Bert Lahr) – failed.

Then came “Mame”. Rosalind Russell declined to repeat her classic role as Patrick Dennis’ giddy aunt in a musical version. Just like Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. Others Considered: Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Beatrice Lillie, Judy Garland. Composer Jerry Herman chose Lansbury.

The opening on May 24, 1966 caused a sensation. One reviewer wondered if “the movie’s worn, plump old harridan with a snake pit for a mouth” might turn out to be “the liveliest woman to get noticed since Carol Channing in ‘Hello, Dolly'”.

After her “Sweeney Todd” triumph, Lansbury returned to Hollywood to try television. She was offered a sitcom with Charles Durning or “Murder, She Wrote.” The producers had wanted Jean Stapleton, who refused. Lansbury agreed.

Over the show’s long run, she’s managed to star in TV movies, host Emmy and Tony shows, and even provide the voice for a Disney animated feature. She played Mrs. Potts in “Beauty and the Beast” and sang the title track. “It was really a breakthrough for me,” she said of her young clientele. “It introduced me to a generation that I might not have been able to contact.”

In 2000, Lansbury pulled out of a planned Broadway musical, “The Visit,” because she needed to help her husband recover from heart surgery. “The type of commitment required of an artist carrying a multi-million dollar production must be 100%,” she said in a letter to producers.

Her husband died in 2003.

She was back on Broadway in 2012 in a revival of “The Best Man,” sharing a stage with James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack, Michael McKean and Kerry Butler. She also recently co-starred in Emma Thompson’s “Nanny McPhee” and with Jim Carrey in “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.”

At the 2022 Tony Awards, Len Cariou — his “Sweeney Todd” co-star — accepted the life Tony gave Lansbury. “There’s no one I’d rather run a ruthless business with,” Cariou said.

In 1990, Lansbury philosophized: “I sometimes took a step back from my career. To what? House. Home is the counterweight to work.

Besides her three children, Anthony, Deirdre and David, she is survived by three grandchildren, Peter, Katherine and Ian, as well as five great-grandchildren and her brother, producer Edgar Lansbury.


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