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Actress Angela Lansbury Dies at 96

The ‘Murder, She Wrote’ star had a career that spanned 8 decades in TV, film and stage

spinner image Actress Angela Lansbury
ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Angela Lansbury’s pluck was apparent from her first role, that of the flirtatious maid in George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944).

“On the first day of shooting, even though she was only 17 and had no experience, she was immediately professional,” said the director, as quoted in On Cukor. “She became this little housemaid — even her face seemed to change. Suddenly, I was watching real movie acting.”

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The part won Lansbury, who died on Tuesday at 96 at her home in Los Angeles, her first Oscar nomination.

Her career spanned eight decades and every medium, including the stage. She won four Tony Awards for best actress in a musical, for her roles in Sweeney ToddMameDear World and Gypsy, in the ‘60s and ‘70s; and one for best featured actress in a play, for Blithe Spirit, in 2009. Lansbury also sang the Oscar-winning song “Beauty and the Beast.”

But the British-born actress found her most enduring work in television, primarily as the intrepid detective-novelist Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, which ran for 12 seasons, starting in 1984. She was 59 when the series began, a coup considering that network executives typically courted a younger audience. It was the closest she ever came to playing herself, she said.

“I didn’t want her to be a character — I wanted her to be every woman,” Lansbury explained in 2018. “I think that’s what gave her the longevity. Every woman could connect with her, and every man could. She was a strong, real woman, and men like that in women.”

Lansbury was nominated 12 times for an Emmy, as outstanding lead actress in a drama series. But despite the popularity of Murder, She Wrote (over 30 million viewers watched it every week), she never took home the statue. She held another industry record, the dubious one of receiving the most Emmy nominations — 18 — without a win. 

Born into an upper-middle-class family in London, Lansbury credited both her father’s English heritage and her mother’s Irish one for her natural talent: “I’m eternally grateful for the Irish side of me. That’s where I got my sense of comedy and whimsy. As for the English half, that’s my reserved side. But put me onstage, and the Irish comes out. The combination makes a good mix for acting.”

Her father died when she was 9, and she later said that she lost herself in characters to deal with her grief. In 1940, at 14, she followed the lead of her mother, also an actor, and began attending a London school for the dramatic arts. But later that same year, she moved to the United States with her family to escape the blitz.

Lansbury earned a scholarship to study acting in New York, and after graduation, she moved to Hollywood, in 1942, and landed the widely praised role in Gaslight. She parlayed her success into a seven-year contract with MGM, beginning with National Velvet, in which she played the older sister of Elizabeth Taylor, who became a lifelong friend, in part because of their shared British origins. (Lansbury became an American citizen in 1951.) 

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She nabbed her second Academy Award nod, for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), and with it a record for the youngest actress with two academy nominations by age 20.

After her ingenue years, Lansbury, known for her work ethic, became a durable B actress, playing everything from dowagers to cultured heroines to twisted villains, always second to stars such as Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr and Katharine Hepburn.

A third Oscar nomination came in 1962, for her performance as the calculating mother of Laurence Harvey in the cold war thriller The Manchurian Candidate.

spinner image Angela Lansbury starred as mystery writer and crime solver Jessica Fletcher on the C B S television crime drama series Murder She Wrote
Lansbury was best known for her role as mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher on CBS' ‘Murder, She Wrote.’
CBS via Getty Images

Lansbury often played characters who were older than her years. She was only three years older than Harvey, for example, and 10 years older than Elvis Presley when she played his mother in Blue Hawaii (1961).

After a brief marriage to actor Richard Cromwell, at age 19, Lansbury married English actor-producer Peter Shaw, in 1949, and with him had a son, Anthony (who eventually directed 68 episodes of Murder, She Wrote), and daughter, Deirdre. (Lansbury also reared Shaw’s son, David, from a previous marriage.) The marriage lasted until Shaw’s death, in 2003. 

In 1966, Lansbury began her starring run on Broadway, at age 41, with the musical Mame. A biographer, Margaret Bonanno, would write that it made her a “superstar.” But after a series of personal difficulties, including the destruction of her family’s Malibu home in a brush fire, the Shaws moved to County Cork, Ireland, where, Lansbury said, their gardener had no idea who she was. “Nobody there did. I was just Mrs. Shaw, which suited me down to the ground. I had absolute anonymity in those days, which was wonderful.”

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She continued working from her base in Ireland until moving into television with Murder, She Wrote, set in the fictional Cabot Cove, Maine, but filmed in Mendocino, California. In their book Angela Lansbury: A Life on Stage and Screen, Rob Edelman and Audrey E. Kupferberg called the series “a television landmark” for being centered on an older female character. It opened the door for such senior-centric series as The Golden Girls.

In 2014, Queen Elizabeth formally invested Lansbury as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. The honor came on the heels of American awards including the Kennedy Center Honors and the Governor’s Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

She was still acting into her 90s, portraying Aunt March in the PBS miniseries Little Women in 2017. (Lansbury told AARP she got a kick out of playing the ‘crusty’ matriarch.)

“What keeps her ageless is her immense curiosity, her exuberance for life and her tremendous gift for holding on to joy,” her Sweeney Todd costar Len Cariou said in 2012.

She had a cameo in Mary Poppins Returns in 2018, at 93.

“Don’t ever be ready to, quote, retire,” she said then. “Perhaps one should retire. But I’ve never had the chance! I’m always ready for anything, and I think most actors are. We never stop wanting to get out there and do it.”

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