Angela Lansbury has enjoyed a career without precedent. Her professional career now spans over seven decades during which she has flourished, first as a star of motion pictures, then as a five-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical star, and most recently as the star of Murder, She Wrote, the longest running detective drama series in the history of television.
Angela Brigid Lansbury was born in London on October 16, 1925. Her father, Edgar Isaac Lansbury, was a timber merchant. Her mother, Moyna Macgill, was a popular actress. At age ten, Angela saw John Gielgud as Hamlet at the Old Vic and vowed that someday she would become an actress. She attended the Webber-Douglas School of Dramatic Art in London.
The great influence on Angela’s young life was her grandfather, the Right Honorable George Lansbury, a prominent pacifist, and leader of the British Labor Party form 1931-35. “He was a fierce pacifist, and great friend of Gandhi’s, yet all his desperate efforts to seek peace came to naught. He went to see Hitler personally. He came to America to see Eleanor Roosevelt. He died in 1940, really of a broken heart.”
That same year, to escape the London Blitz, her mother Moyna (who had driven an ambulance during the early days of the aerial Battle of Britain) evacuated fourteen-year-old Angela and her younger twin brothers, Edgar and Bruce, to the United States. (Their father had died in 1934 when Angela was nine.) Together with 600 other young refugees, they escaped with the last boatload of children to leave the British Isles before German submarines made further Atlantic crossings impossible.
The family lived in Putnum County for a year, during which time Angela commuted to the Feagin School of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Her first professional job was at age sixteen when she was booked to perform a cabaret act at the Samovar in Montreal.
Eventually the family relocated to Los Angeles, where Moyna Macgill hoped to find work in the movies. Instead, it was seventeen-year-old Angela who landed a seven-year contract at MGM after director George Cukor cast her as Nancy, the menacing maid, in Gaslight (1944). Her cunning performance won her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The following year she received a second nomination, again as Best Supporting Actress, as the doomed Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). That poignant role earned her a Golden Globe Award.
Lansbury has appeared in nearly 60 motion pictures to date. They include such classics as National Velvet (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946), Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948), Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), The Court Jester (1955), The Long Hot Summer (1958), THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962, for which she received a second Golden Globe Award, the National Board of Review Award and her third Academy Award nomination), The World of Henry Orient (1964) and Death on the Nile (1978, a second National Board of Review Award). In 1991 she was the voice of Mrs. Potts in the Disney animated feature, Beauty and the Beast, and in 1997 she was the voice of the Grand Duchess Marie in the animated movie, Anastasia. In 2005, she was in Emma Thompson’s Nanny McPhee and in 2011, she starred with Jim Carrey in Mr. Popper’s Penguins.
The actress made her Broadway debut in 1957 when she starred as Bert Lahr’s wife in the French farce, Hotel Paradiso. In 1960, she returned to Broadway as Joan Plowright’s mother in the season’s most acclaimed drama, A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney.
In March 1963, Lansbury told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, “This sounds corny as hell, but I really have an enormous amount of dancing and rhythm in me. This is going to come out one of these days—then watch out. I’ve never been an entertainer, and I want to be. I’ve done the acting; now I want to entertain.”
One year later in 1964, she starred on Broadway in her first musical, Anyone Can Whistle, which closed after only nine performances. But Lansbury returned to New York in triumph in 1966 as Mame. She played the role for two years on Broadway and later to sellout audiences in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Mame earned Lansbury the first of her four Tony Awards as Best Actress in a Musical. She received the others as the Madwoman of Chaillot in Dear World (1968), as Mama Rose in the 1974 revival of Gypsy and as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd (1979). In 1978 she starred as Mrs. Anna for a limited engagement of The King and I.
Concurrent with her musical ventures, Lansbury continued to act in serious dramas. In 1971 she returned to London to appear in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Edward Albee’s All Over. In 1975, again in London, she played Gertrude to Albert Finney’s Hamlet in the National Theater production. In 1976 she acted in two Albee one-act plays: Counting the Ways and Listening, at the Hartford Stage Company. As the actress once told an interviewer, “If you want to keep revitalizing yourself as an artist, you have to go where the work is. That’s the way to continue to find new audiences.”
In 2006, Lansbury appeared in a one-woman show, This is on Me: An Evening of Dorothy Parker the first appearance in Los Angeles and the second show in New York. In May 2007, Lansbury returned to the Broadway stage in New York in Terrence McNally’s play Deuce and co-starred with Marian Seldes. She received a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Leading role. In January 2009, Lansbury appeared as Madame Arcati in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit on Broadway at the renowned Shubert Theatre for which she was honored with her 5th Tony award as for Best Featured Actress in a Play. In December of that year she opened on Broadway in the role of Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, and in 2012, she returned to Broadway in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. In June 2013, she concluded a highly acclaimed 6-month Australian tour of Alfred Uhry’s play Driving Miss Daisy, also starring James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines. It was so successful that it was filmed as a live theatre performance and was released in movie theatres later that year. In 2015, it also aired on American Public Television and was released on DVD. Reprising the role of Madame Arcati at the Gielgud Theatre in March 2014 marked her return to London’s stage for the first time in nearly 40 years and she received an Olivier Award for the performance. Following the success of the production, it toured in North America from December 2014-March 2015 doing sellout business in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington, D.C.
She was to find her largest audience on television. Although Lansbury had acted in live dramas during “the golden age of television” in the 1950s in such shows as Robert Montgomery Presents and Lux Video Theatre, when she starred as Mrs. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in the 1982 mini-series Little Gloria…Happy at Last, she had not acted on television in seventeen years. She followed that Emmy-nominated performance with roles in the mini-series Lace (1984) and The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story (1983).
From 1984-1996 she starred as Jessica Fletcher, mystery-writing amateur sleuth, on Murder, She Wrote. In 1992, Lansbury added to her responsibilities by becoming the series’ executive producer.
She has also found time to star in the motion picture-for-television, Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris (1992, directed by Anthony Shaw), Shootdown (1988), The Love She Sought (1990) and the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, The Shell Seekers (1989). In 2004, she was in the Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie The Blackwater Lightship, for which she was nominated for an Emmy for her role as Dora. In 2005, she was nominated for an Emmy for her guest role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
In 1990 she developed a video and co-wrote a book, both titled Positive Moves, about fitness and well being.
After Murder She Wrote concluded its twelve-season run in May 1996, Lansbury returned to her theatrical roots by starring in Mrs. Santa Claus (1996), the first original musical for television in four decades.
In 1997 Lansbury appeared in South by Southwest, the first of a series of two hour Murder, She Wrote movies for CBS. In 1998 she completed The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, which also aired on CBS. In spring of 2000, Angela completed the second of the Murder, She Wrote movies, A Story to Die For. In 2001, the third Murder, She Wrote, The Last Free Man was completed. The 2003 Celtic Riddle was the latest Murder She Wrote movie for television.
She has been unstinting of her time with scores of civic involvements, ranging from the American Red Cross to the Salvation Army. As a member of the AmFAR National Council, her energies in the war against AIDS have raised several millions of dollars. She was the National spokesperson for Childreach. She is involved with ALS research and with the Neuropathy Association. In 2006 she participated at an AAOS (American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons) medical convention in Chicago in March 2006 for a public education campaign on Joint Replacement. In 2008, she became the National spokesperson for ALS Association also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and she continues to be an active participant. With Lansbury’s involvement in the “Cure ALS” campaign; the organization continues to make great strides to find a cure. She has served as national chairperson for Career Transition for Dancers (CTD) and honorary national chairperson for the American Theatre Wing, founder of the Tony Awards, as well as for The Actors Fund of America.
In 1982 she was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame. She has received honorary doctorates in the arts and humanities from Boston University and the University of Miami. In 1992 she received the Silver Mask for Lifetime Achievement from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. In 1994 she was made a Commander of the British Empire. In 1996 she was inducted into the T.V. Hall of Fame, and in 1997 she was given a Lifetime Achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild. She has been nominated for 18 Emmy Awards (twelve for Murder, She Wrote). She has won six Golden Globe Awards (four for Murder, She Wrote) and has been nominated for an additional eight. In September 1997 President Clinton presented her with the National Medal of the Arts. In November of 1999, Meadows School of the Arts at Texas’ Southern Methodist University presented Angela with their Lifetime Achievement Award. In December of 2000, Angela was recipient of a Kennedy Center Honor in Washington D.C. She is recipient of the Silver Mask for Lifetime Achievement from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, as well as a BAFTA/LA Britannia Award for Lifetime Achievement in Television and Film. She has also received the Stephen Sondheim Award from the Signature Theatre in Washington D.C., and the Oscar Hammerstein Award from the York Theatre Company. In 2013 she was awarded an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in Motion Pictures. She was named a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II and invested at Windsor Castle on April 15, 2014, and in 2016 she received the Volta Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Dublin International Film Festival, presented by Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.
Angela and her husband Peter were married in 1949. Peter enjoyed a successful career both as an agent at the William Morris Agency and as a top production executive at M-G-M. In 1972 he resigned to form their own company, Corymore Productions. They worked together until Peter’s death in January 2003. Angela has three children, Deirdre, Anthony and David and three grandchildren.