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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Helen William

Angela Lansbury: Celebrated star of stage and screen who put her family first

PA Wire

The sad news of the death of Angela Lansbury, just a few days shy of her 97th birthday, brought to an end one of the longest and most storied careers in Hollywood history. While she will perhaps be best remembered for the 265 episodes (and four feature-length movies) she spent playing best-selling mystery writer Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, a stint that earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most prolific amateur sleuth”, Lansbury packed her eight decades on stage and screen with a host of memorable roles. To each of them, she brought a whimsical humour and gentle warmth which could sometimes mask her deceptively sharp wit.

Born on 16 October 1925 in Regent’s Park, London, Lansbury left Britain with her family after the onset of the blitz in 1940. Her mother, the Belfast-born actor Moyna Macgill, moved Lansbury and her brothers Bruce and Edgar to New York, and then to Los Angeles. Her father, also named Edgar, was a British communist who had been Mayor of Poplar before his death from stomach cancer in 1935. While Lansbury’s time at school was cut short by the war, she would later say that her real education began when she signed a seven-year contract with MGM in 1944 at just 17.

She made her screen debut that same year, appearing opposite Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in Gaslight. The film was a hit and went on to introduce the phrase “gaslighting” to the popular vernacular as a term for the sort of malicious manipulation depicted. Lansbury was perfectly cast as the conniving cockney maid Nancy Oliver, and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress at her first attempt.

The following year she played a music hall singer in Albert Lewin’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a role for which she was again Oscar-nominated. A third nod followed in 1962 for her role in The Manchurian Candidate, alongside Frank Sinatra. While she didn’t win on any of those three occasions, she did receive an Honorary Academy Award for her lifetime achievement in film in 2013. During the ceremony, actor Geoffrey Rush described her as the “living definition of range”, a reflection on performances in film noirs such as 1956’s Please Murder Me, as well as in musical comedies like 1955’s The Court Jester with Danny Kaye. In 1961, she played Elvis Presley’s mother in Blue Hawaii. “Obviously I was awed by being in his presence,” Lansbury later remembered, “But he was an awfully nice young man in those days.”

For many fans, their first introduction to Lansbury came from her long association with Disney movies. Her magical starring role in 1971 musical fantasy Bedknobs and Broomsticks saw her mesmerise audiences of all ages as apprentice witch Eglantine Price. Two decades later, her immediately recognisable voice brought to life the charming Mrs Potts in 1991’s animated version of Beauty and the Beast. Even well into her Nineties, she still retained the ability to steal scenes, as she demonstrated when she appeared in a cameo to sing the closing number of 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns. Her Disney roles, alongside performances in films for children such as 1997’s Anastasia and 2005’s Nanny McPhee, made her a familiar presence for generations of viewers.

Off-screen, Lansbury’s life was just as eventful. Her first marriage, to the actor Richard Cromwell in 1945, ended in divorce after a year when she learnt he was gay. In 1949, she married another actor, Peter Shaw, and they were together for 54 years until his death in 2003. They raised their two children, Anthony and Deirdre, in Malibu during the Sixties and saw first-hand the darkness embedded in the city’s emerging counterculture. For a time, Deirdre fell in with associates of cult leader Charles Manson, while Lansbury also dealt with the distress of seeing Anthony fall into a coma induced by a heroin overdose. He recovered and went on to be an acclaimed director whose credits include 68 episodes of Murder, She Wrote.

Lansbury spent 12 years from 1984 to 1996 starring in the much-loved crime series. It’s little wonder that Jessica Fletcher became her signature role, not just because of the show’s longevity but because the chatty, charming and curious character chimed so recognisably with Lansbury’s own persona. The success of Murder, She Wrote pushed Lansbury to a new level of worldwide fame at the age of 59. “It’s a lovely thing to have that recognition in countries all over the world,” she once said. “Although it was really as simple as A-B-C for an actress who’s assayed so many extraordinary roles in her career.” In a nod to her famous character, Lansbury’s final screen appearance is set to be a cameo in Knives Out whodunnit sequel Glass Onion this November. Even now, after eight decades playing everyone from youthful naifs to doting dowagers, Angela Lansbury still has secrets left to reveal.

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