Angela Lansbury, Versatile Old Hollywood Star Iconic on Stage and Screen, Dies @ 96

When news broke of Angela Lansbury's death on October 11, 2022, Harvey Fierstein tweeted, "She, my darlings, was EVERYTHING!"

Her film career lasted from 1944-2022, but will she always be Jessica? (Image via CBS)

It would be hard to think of a better, more succinct way of summarizing the career of a woman who made indelible marks in film, on TV and in theater across nine decades.

The beloved actress's family released a statement that read:

"The children of Dame Angela Lansbury are sad to announce that their mother died peacefully in her sleep at home in Los Angeles at 1:30 AM today, Tuesday, October 11, 2022, just five days shy of her 97th birthday."

Lansbury was a rare talent, and her experiences as an entertainer would be difficult to compare to the experiences of even other greats. Who else was directed by Cecil B. DeMille, debuted on Broadway in the '50s, won five Tonys, anchored an iconic TV series, sang an Oscar-winning Disney song, made a movie musical with Lena Horne and acted with no less than Judy Garland, Hepburn & Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor?

Lansbury was born in London on October 16, 1925. She moved to the U.S. to escape the Blitz in 1940, first to NYC and then it was on to Hollywood, where she secured a seven-year contract with MGM.

She found immediate success in film, debuting in director George Cukor's classic 1944 thriller Gaslight, from which the popular term was (much) later born. Leading lady Ingrid Bergman won a Best Actress Oscar, and a 19-year-old Lansbury received her first of three Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominations, for her performance as a precocious Cockney maid caught up in a murderous plot.

A picture from The Picture of Dorian Gray (Image via MGM)

Lansbury was nominated the very next year for her performance in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).

Though she would later pooh-pooh her early film work as being comprised of "ridiculous" roles, her other films during these early years nonetheless included National Velvet (1944), The Harvey Girls (1946), the lavish musical Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), State of the Union (1948), and the Biblical epic Samson and Delilah (1949), the latter of which was the biggest hit of 1950 — at the time the third-highest-grossing film in history.

In the phenomenally successful Samson & Delilah (Image via MGM)

Everything was not as idyllic as it would seem. Lansbury was a reluctant ingénue, and the camera did not favor her round features. Her contract with MGM ended unceremoniously, and she was left to ponder life as a freelancer.

On the personal front, the 19-year-old wed Richard Cromwell, an actor nearly twice her age — who was secretly gay. The marriage ended the very next year, but they remained close until his premature death in 1960. She went on to marry producer Peter Shaw in 1949 — her "soulmate" — staying with him until his death in 2003. It was with him she gave birth to a son, Anthony Shaw, now 70, and a daughter, Deirdre Shaw, now 69.

Lansbury, always happier in character parts, filled her time with early-TV assignments. She excelled in dramas presented by series like Robert Montgomery Presents (1950 & 1953), Lux Video Theatre (1950-1954), The Revlon Mirror Theater (1953), The Ford Television Theatre (1953), Fireside Theatre (1955), and many more. Some of these — thanks to gay fan Alan Eichler, a one-man repository of TV history, exist on YouTube:

In her late thirties, a time when many actresses of the period were facing career slides, Lansbury's heated up — in film and on the stage — thanks, in part, to the double-edge sword of being a woman who often read as far older than her years on the screen.

When it came to movie parts, she would later recount she was always offered "bitches on wheels or somebody's mother," so she elected to play them like nobody's business, even as some of her peers turned them down out of vanity.

For starters, she had a hit with Blue Hawaii (1961), in which she played Elvis Presley's mom — in spite of being just 10 years his senior. Her next big splash came as the mother of Laurence Harvey's character in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) when she was merely two years older than Harvey. For her work in the Cold War classic — in which she was both a bitch on wheels ("You are to shoot the presidential nominee through the head") and somebody's mother — she was honored with her third and final Oscar nomination, in 1963.

Other films of note in this period include The World of Henry Orient (1964), Dear Heart (1964), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and Harlow (1965).

Lansbury had made an uneventful Broadway debut in 1957's Hotel Paradiso, and followed it up with A Taste of Honey (1960). Her first foray into musicals was Stephen Sondheim's infamous flop Anyone Can Whistle, which played for 12 previews and nine performances in 1964 before closing.

Not just anyone could whistle — but Lansbury and Lee Remick could! (Image by Bob Deutsch)

Still, her first of two great career rejuvenations arrived when she was cast — after a hard-fought battle, because she was nowhere near first choice! — in the title role of the Broadway musical Mame (1966). Based on the 1958 hit film Auntie Mame, the musical about a bohemian '20s Manhattanite attempting to raise her orphan nephew was an enormous smash, one for which she and co-star Bea Arthur won their first Tonys, and which opened audiences' eyes to her musical-theater prowess.

Mame was made into a big-budget movie musical, but Lansbury was passed over in favor of Lucille Ball, a bigger star with a fraction of the voice. It flopped.

Meanwhile, Lansbury had won a second Tony for Dear World in 1969.

Fleeing the destruction of her Malibu home in a 1971 fire, and hoping to find a sanctuary for her children, who were battling drug abuse — her daughter was even under the sway of Charles Manson — Lansbury moved her family to County Cork, Ireland.

It worked, and her professional life was affected only in that she spent more time on the stage rather than on far-flung film sets.

Lansbury put her musical chops to good use in the Disney film Bedknobs & Broomsticks (1971), playing a benevolent witch, and in a long break from the cinema won a third Tony, as Mama Rose in the 1974 revival of Gypsy.

Lansbury knocked 'em dead (and made 'em into pies) as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd (1979), for which she won another Tony. The performance was captured in a 1982 telefilm.

With the movie Death on the Nile (1978), Lansbury began a long association with the mystery genre, one that continued with The Lady Vanishes (1979), The Mirror Crack'd (1980), and the TV film A Talent for Murder (1984).

Camping it up in Death on the Nile (Image via EMI)

But it was her casting as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote that offered the actress — who was not yet 60 — a chance to renew her household-name status, rake in millions, finally play a down-to-earth woman, and make TV history. Fletcher became a beloved character, albeit one with altogether too many run-ins with murder most foul.

She was nominated for the Emmy a dozen times for playing Jessica Fletcher, always losing (she lost at the Emmys a total of 18 times), but she stuck with the series long past her desire to keep at it, and was even lured back for four TV movies based on the character, from 1997-2003.

In the midst of the juggernaut that was Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury found the time to add another classic performance to her résumé, voicing Mrs. Potts in 1991's Beauty and the Beast. She sweetly revived her most famous song from the film in 2016.

Later in her career, Lansbury appeared on TV on Law & Order: Trial by Jury (2005) and Law & Order: SVU (2005), in the film Nanny McPhee (2005), on Broadway in Deuce with Marian Seldes, won a fifth and final Tony for playing Madame Arcarti in Blithe Spirit (2009), and voiced the Kingdom Hearts video games (2005 & 2007).

Along with playing Aunt March in the 2017 miniseries Little Women and providing Mayor McGerkle's voice in The Grinch (2018), her final live-action films were Mr. Popper's Penguins (2011) and Mary Poppins Returns (2018), in which she played the Balloon Lady.

Her touching Balloon Lady was a suitable last impression for Lansbury's fans; she had signed up for and then balked at returning to Broadway one final time in The Chalk Garden in 2017, saying she wanted to devote more time to her family.

Up, up and away ... (Image via Disney)

Rumors circulated (including on Wikipedia) that she had shot a cameo for the Netflix film Glass Onion, due for release in November 2022, but that remains publicly unconfirmed.

In June, fans feared the worst when Lansbury — honored with a Lifetime Achievement Tony — failed to appear at the ceremony in NYC, or to send a video acceptance speech. It turned out to be one final honor for a woman revered by many as one of the all-time greats.

She is survived by her two children, by her stepson David Shaw, by her brother Edgar, and by eight grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Fellow acting luminary Viola Davis remembered Lansbury on Instagram, writing what so many others thought upon hearing the news of her death:

"Thought you would live forever. What an absolutely beautiful legacy you've left. You have influenced generations of actors to aspire to excellence. Rest well!!! May flights of angels.....❤️❤️❤️💕💕."

Lansbury with a fan in 2021 (Image via Instagram)

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