By Laurence Lerman / New York City
In a career that began nearly eight decades ago with rarely more than a few weeks or months of downtime between projects, Angela Lansbury's most popular and enduring work was arguably the television show Murder, She Wrote–which she began at the age of 60!
But I've got to admit that it was Dame Angela's equally extensive film and stage work with which I was most enamored.
Lansbury died Tuesday, October 11, at her home in Los Angeles, Calif. She was 96. According to a statement from her family, she died peacefully in her sleep.
Lansbury starred as bestselling mystery writer and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher in a staggering 265 episodes of Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996). Each one found always game Ms. Fletcher getting involved in solving murders taking place in her fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine and, later, across the U.S. and abroad.
I only saw one episode of Murder, She Wrote over the course of its 12-season run on CBS Television. It was from the third season and concerned a boxer’s manager turning up murdered. The local police are baffled, but the intrepid Fletcher uses her noggin and is able to identify the culprit.
I remember the episode as being suitably entertaining, if not really up to my snobby tastes at that time. But what I really grooved on was the cast of familiar faces who guest-starred in that episode, including Ernest Borgnine, Jerry Orbach, John Amos, Bradford Dillman and, TV’s Batman himself, Adam West!
I later learned that Murder, She Wrote was known as the land of a million guest stars, a show that tapped talents from both recent years and decades past and put them to work. It was a move that struck me as sweet, smart and dynamic, with the network having nothing to lose by filling the supporting parts with recognizable names. And the myriad guest stars, many of whom had nothing left to prove even as their roles would have been lofty by that time in their careers, chose to do what came naturally opposite the grand Angela Lansbury, who herself could be described as sweet, smart and dynamic, too.
And so much more.
My first encounter with Lansbury was when I saw her as a preteen in Disney’s live-action, animated musical-comedy mash-up Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). She shined as Eglantine Price, a charming but strong witch-in-training, who takes in children abandoned during WWII’s London blitz, while also wielding her powers to smash the Nazis. Eglantine was definitely cooler than Mary Poppins, that’s for sure, plus she got to sing “Substitutiary Locomotion,” the movie’s best number.
I saw Lansbury again in a few Agatha Christie movie adaptations in my teen years. The best was 1978’s Death on the Nile—before I had my doors blown off when I was lucky enough to see the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It starred Len Cariou as the titular murderous hair stylist and Lansbury as his equally deranged meat-pie-making paramour Mrs. Lovett.
It was a large-scale, fully rigged production, with a big cast, towering sets, a large orchestra and an inspiringly demented storyline—and in the middle of it all, a crazed, wonderful Angela Lansbury, whose hysterical and tragic over-the-top performance and interpretation of Sondheim’s rich, weighty songs were a simply a wonder to behold.
After 17-year-old me gave my parents a review of the production, they offered me a quick primer on the remarkable Ms. Lansbury’s history on Broadway. They had seen her shine in Gypsy a few years earlier and Mame back in the mid-Sixties. She won the first of five Tony Awards for Mame, another for Gypsy and then one for Sweeney. She also picked up a pair for the play Blithe Spirit (2009) and the musical A Little Night Music (2010), as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year.
Truly, Lansbury had a wealth of talent that traversed the decades and all manner of theater and film genres that cross her path.
It was around the time of Sweeney Todd that I learned—with the help of my parents—of Lansbury’s history in the movies, which dated back to a star turn in George Cukor’s 1944 classic Gaslight, which garnered her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the age of 18. That same year, she appeared as Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister in the beloved National Velvet.
The London-born daughter of an Irish actress, Lansbury arrived in Los Angeles with her mother at 17 to break into the movie business. She was under contract to MGM for the next decade. But her broad gifts were sadly never utilized to their full potential. Perhaps because she wasn’t a traditional, studio-built starlet–not at all!–MGM and subsequent studios frequently cast her in roles playing older and often villainous women. While she was very good at it, the movies were, generally, pretty bad. (Check out the 1951 film noir Kind Lady for an example of this.)
“I was never going to get to play the girl next door,” said Lansbury in an interview in 2013. “And I was never going to be groomed to be a glamorous movie star. And I sort of realized that.”
Until her arrival in the 1957 Broadway farce Hotel Paradiso and subsequent starring roles in 14 plays and musicals over the next half-century—not to mention Murder, She Wrote—Lansbury’s film career was a mixed bag. There were busy years and some dry times as well. But through it all, she was always top-notch, and was particularly well-received in such films as the musical The Harvey Girls (1945), the comedy The Reluctant Debutante (1958), the drama All Fall Down (1962) and the dark comedy Something for Everyone (1970).
To a generation that came of age unaware of her film, theater and TV resume, Lansbury will always be recognized as the voice of Mrs. Potts in Disney’s animated smash Beauty and the Beast (1991).
I left out one movie, because it definitely warrants its own paragraph. That would be John Frankenheimer’s classic 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, which finds Lansbury portraying Eleanor Iselin, the truly evil mother of a soldier who was captured and brainwashed during the Korean War.
In an effort to further the political career of her Joe McCarthy-like second husband, Iselin serves as her son’s U.S. handler for the Koreans and exploits him to the point where she manipulates him into attempting to assassinate a presidential nominee.
If Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher were around, she would have spotted the premeditated crime and stopped it. But she wasn’t. so we’re left watching her Eleanor Iselin do a terrifying number on her son.
Either way, the audience wins, because it’s all about Angela Lansbury.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.