Actor Angela Lansbury dies at the age of 96

Angela Lansbury
File Photo: Angela Lansbury (Flickr)

| Reuters

Actor Angela Lansbury, whose career spanned eight decades and produced indelible portraits of a wide range of characters from villainesses to sleuths and light comic roles in movies, on stage and on television, died at age 96, her family said on Tuesday.

Angela who played a crime-solving mystery writer in the long-running US television series Murder, She Wrote, “died peacefully in her sleep” at home in Los Angeles, according to a statement from her children. The actor was just five days shy of her 97th birthday, the statement said.

In movies, Angela turned in riveting supporting performances, including her film debut as a teenager playing the conniving Cockney maid in Gaslight in 1944, as the doomed Sibyl in The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1945 and as Laurence Harvey’s evil, manipulative mother in The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. All three roles earned her Academy Award nominations.

Nearly seven decades after her first film, she was awarded an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement at age 88 in November 2013. Academy Award winners Geoffrey Rush and Emma Thompson offered a tribute to Lansbury at the ceremony.

Geoffrey lauded her as the “living definition of range,” while Emma recalled tossing a pie at Angela during the filming of the 2005 comedy Nanny McPhee. “I feel really undeserving of this gorgeous chap,” Angela said, referring to the golden Oscar statuette she was given.

Her other movie credits included National Velvet (1944), The Dark At the Top of the Stairs (1960), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) and The Mirror Crack’d (1980).

Angela won five Tony awards for Broadway performances as the original Mame, Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother Mama Rose in Gypsy, the baker of human meat pies in Sweeney Todd, Countess Aurelia in Dear World and the clairvoyant Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit.

She maintained a gruelling acting schedule well into her 80s, appearing on Broadway in 2012 in The Best Man with fellow octogenarian James Earl Jones.

Angela reached her broadest audience in Murder, She Wrote as retired English teacher-turned-mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, who week after week found herself at the scene of a homicide. The series, which ran from 1984 to 1996, brought her 11 of her 18 Emmy nominations. She never won an Emmy, however.


She said she most enjoyed playing the rotter, such as the malevolent Eleanor Iselin, who pulls the levers on her brainwashed assassin-in-waiting son in The Manchurian Candidate. “There’s nothing like a good villainess. You can go to town and chew on great chunks of scenery,” she had said.

The role brought Angela the best reviews of her career. “Not since the heyday of Bette Davis had there been an actress of this range and accomplishment,” wrote critic David Shipman.

Angela was born in London in 1925 and went to the United States in 1940 to avoid the war with her mother-actor Moyna McGill, who appeared in several Hollywood films.

She studied drama and her movie career got off to a quick start. She had an MGM contract her first three movies were Gaslight, National Velvet, in which she played Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

But competition from other MGM starlets left Lansbury in smaller roles in such movies as The Harvey Girls (1946), The Three Musketeers (1948) and Samson and Delilah (1949).

In 1957, after a series of low-budget pictures and time off to have children, Angela starred on Broadway in Hotel Paradiso with Burt Lahr, which rejuvenated her career.

Returning to film, she won applause as Orson Welles’ mistress in The Long Hot Summer (1958), Robert Preston’s friend in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960), Elvis Presley’s mother in Blue Hawaii (1961) and Warren Beatty’s mother in All Fall Down (1962).

In 1966, she became Broadway’s reigning queen in Mame. High praise continued for Dear World, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd.

Angela also performed on stage in England before returning to such films as Death on the Nile (1978), The Lady Vanishes (1979) and The Mirror Crack’d (1980), in which she played Agatha Christie’s spinster sleuth Miss Marple and the film musical The Pirates of Penzance (1983).

Angela, who lived in Los Angeles, married actor Richard Cromwell in 1945 but the union lasted less than a year. In 1949, she married Peter Shaw, who became her manager and the father of her son, Anthony, and daughter, Deirdre. Peter died in 2003.

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