A British-American actress and singer in theatre, television and films. Her career has spanned seven decades and earned an unsurpassed number of performance Tony Awards (tied with Julie Harris and Audra McDonald), with five wins.
Born in East London to actress Moyna MacGill and politician Edgar Lansbury, in 1940 she moved to New York City, where she studied acting. Moving to Hollywood, Los Angeles in 1942, she secured her first cinematic roles, Gaslight (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), earning two Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe Award. She expanded her repertoire to Broadway musicals and television in the 1950s and was particularly successful in Broadway productions of Gypsy, Mame and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Among her other films are The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Anastasia (1997). Lansbury is perhaps best known to modern audiences for her twelve-year run starring as writer and sleuth Jessica Fletcher on the American television series Murder, She Wrote(1984–1996). Her recent roles include Lady Adelaide Stitch in the film Nanny McPhee (2005), Leona Mullen in the 2007 Broadway play Deuce, Madame Arcati in the 2009 Broadway revival of the play Blithe Spirit and Madame Armfeldt in the 2010 Broadway revival of the musical A Little Night Music.
Lansbury has won five Tony Awards, six Golden Globes and has been nominated for numerous other industry awards, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress on three occasions, and various Primetime Emmy Awards on eighteen occasions.
Angela Brigid Lansbury was born to an upper middle class family in Poplar, East London, on 16 October 1925. Her mother was the Irish actress Moyna MacGill, who regularly appeared on stage in the West End and who also starred in several films. Her father was the wealthy English timber merchant and politician Edgar Lansbury, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and former mayor of the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar. Her paternal grandfather was the Labour Party leader and prominent pacifist activist George Lansbury, a man she felt "awed" by, considering him "a giant in my youth". Angela had an older step-sister, Isolde, who was the offspring of Moyna's previous marriage to Reginald Denham. In January 1930, when Angela was four, her mother gave birth to twin boys, Bruce and Edgar, leading the Lansburys to move from their Poplar flat to a house at 7 Weymouth Avenue in Mill Hill, North London; at weekends they would retreat to a farm outside Oxford. Her cousin was the academic and novelist Coral Lansbury, whose son Malcolm Turnbull became a noted Australian politician.
"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."
When Angela was nine, her father died from stomach cancer; she retreated into playing characters as a coping mechanism.. Facing financial difficulty, her mother became engaged to Leckie Forbes, a Scottish military colonel, and moved into his house in Hampstead, with Angela receiving an education at South Hampstead High School from 1934 until 1939. She nevertheless considered herself largely self-educated, learning from books, theater and cinema. She became a self-professed "complete movie maniac", visiting the cinema regularly and imagining herself as certain characters. In 1940 she began studying acting at the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art in Kensington, West London, first appearing onstage as a lady-in-waiting in the school's production of Maxwell Anderson's Mary of Scotland.
That year, Angela's grandfather died, and with the onset of The Blitz, MacGill decided to take Angela, Bruce and Edgar to the United States; Isolde remained in Britain with her new husband, actor Peter Ustinov. MacGill secured a job supervising sixty British children who were being evacuated to North America aboard the Duchess of Athol, arriving in Montreal, Canada, in mid-August. From there, she proceeded by train to New York City, where she was financially sponsored by the Wall Street businessman Charles T. Smith, moving in with a family at East 94th Street. Angela gained a scholarship from the American Theatre Wing allowing her to study at the Feagin School of Drama and Radio, from which she graduated in March 1942, by which time the family had moved to a flat on Morton Street, Greenwich Village.
McGill secured work in a Canadian touring production of Celebrity Parade; in Montreal, Angela gained her first theatrical job as a nightclub act at the Samorvar Club. Having gained the job by claiming to be 19 when she was 16, her act was co-produced with Arthur Bourbon and consisted of her singing songs by Noël Coward. She returned to New York City in August 1942, but her mother had moved to Hollywood, Los Angeles, in order to resurrect her cinematic career; Lansbury and her brothers followed. Moving into a bungalow in Laurel Canyon, both Angela and her mother obtained Christmas jobs at the Bullocks Wilshiredepartment store in Los Angeles; Moyna was fired for incompetence, leaving the family to subsist on Angela's pay check of $28 a week.
At a party hosted by her mother, Angela met John van Druten, who had recently co-authored a script for a film known as Gaslight (1944), a mystery-thriller based on Patrick Hamilton's 1938 play, Gas Light. Set in Victorian London, the film was being directed by George Cukor and starred Ingrid Bergman in the lead role of Paula Alquist, a woman being psychologically tormented by her husband. Druten suggested that Lansbury would be perfect for the role of Nancy Oliver, a conniving cockney maid; she was accepted for the part, although because she was 17, a social worker had to accompany her on the set. Obtaining an agent, Earl Kramer, she was signed to a seven-year contract with MGM, earning $500 a week. Upon release, Gaslight received mixed critical reviews, although Lansbury's role was widely praised; the film earned six Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Supporting Actress for Lansbury.
Her next cinematic appearance was as the boy-crazy Edwina Brown, a minor character in National Velvet (1944), where she appeared alongside Elizabeth Taylor, who became her lifelong friend. Lansbury next starred in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), a cinematic adaptation of Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel of the same name, which was again set in Victorian London. Directed byAlbert Lewin, Lansbury was cast as Sybil Vane, a working-class music hall singer who falls in love with the protagonist, Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield). Although the film was not a critical success, Lansbury's performance once more drew praise, earning her a Golden Globe Award, and she was again nominated for a Best Supporting Acress Nomination at the Academy Awards, losing to Anne Revere, her co-star in National Velvet.
On 27 September 1945, Lansbury married Richard Cromwell, an artist and decorator whose acting career had come to a standstill. Their relationship was strained, for Cromwell was a homosexual, and it was later suggested that he had married her in order to resurrect his acting career; she filed for divorce on 11 September 1946 under the grounds of extreme cruelty, but they remained friends. In December 1946, she was introduced to Peter Pullen Shaw at a party held by Hurd Hatfield in Ojai Valley. Shaw was an aspiring actor, also signed to MGM, and had recently left a relationship withJoan Crawford. He and Lansbury entered into a relationship, living together before Lansbury proposed marriage. They were married at St. Columba's Church, a Church of Scotland-owned building in London, England in August 1949, followed by a honeymoon in France. Living in her Malibu home overlooking the ocean, purchased before the wedding, Lansbury played a part in raising Shaw's son from his previous marriage, and in 1951, she became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Following on from the success of Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray, MGM cast Lansbury in 11 further films until her contract with them ended in 1951. Keeping her among their B-list stars, they used her far less than their similar aged actresses; biographers Edelman and Kupferberg believing that the majority of these films were "mediocre", doing little to further her career. This view was echoed by Cukow, who believed Lansbury had been "consistently miscast" by MGM. MGM themselves suffered from the post-war slump in cinema sales, slashing film budgets and the number of staff that they hired as a result; repeatedly being made to portray older characters, who were often villainesses, Lansbury was increasingly dissatisfied with working for them, commenting that "I kept wanting to play the Jean Arthur roles, and Mr Mayer kept casting me as a series of venal bitches." 1946 saw Lansbury play her first American character as Em, a honky-tonk saloon singer in the Wild west musical The Harvey Girls. She played Mabel Sabre in If Winter Comes (1947), a film that she despised, and then Kay Thorndyke in State of the Union (1948), often considered her strongest role of the period. She appeared as a maidservant in Kind Lady (1951), as a French adventuress in Mutiny (1952) and as a villainess in Remains to Be Seen (1953). Turning to radio, in 1948 Lansbury appeared in an audio adaptation of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage for The NBC University Theatre, and the following year starred in their adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Also interested in television, she appeared in a 1950 episode of Robert Montgomery Presents adapted from A.J. Cronin's The Citadel.
After the termination of her MGM contract, Lansbury turned to the theatre, joining the touring productions of two former-Broadway plays: Howard Lindsayand Russel Crouse's Remains to be Seen and Louis Verneuil's Affairs of State. In a break from touring, in 1952 her first child, Anthony Peter, was born, followed by the 1953 birth of Deirdre Angela. Returning to cinema as a freelance actress, she found herself typecast as an older, maternal figure, appearing in this capacity in most of the films in which she appeared during this period. She obtained minor roles in such films as A Life at Stake (1954) and The Purple Mask (1955), later describing the latter as "the worst movie I ever made". She then played Princess Gwendolyn in comedy film The Court Jester (1956), before taking on the role of a wife who kills her husband in Please Murder Me (1956). From there she appeared as Minnie Littlejohn, the girlfriend of a character played by Orson Welles in The Long Hot Summer (1958), and as the overbearing mother Mabel Claremont in romantic comedy The Reluctant Debutante (1958). Returning to theater, in 1957 she debuted on Broadway at the Henry Miller Theatre in Hotel Paradiso, a French burlesqueset in Paris, France that was directed by Peter Glenville. Starring as Marcel Cat, her appeareance gained good reviews; she later stated that had she not appeared in the play, her "whole career would have fizzled out." She followed this with an appearance in 1960's Broadway performance of A Taste of Honey directed by Tony Richardson and George Devine. Lansbury played Helen, the mother of main character Josephine, remarking that she gained "a great deal of satisfaction" from the role.
After a well reviewed appearance in the film Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) and a minor role in A Breath of Scandal (1960), in Blue Hawaii (1961) she played the conservative mother of a character played by Elvis Presley. Her role as the widow Mavis in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960) drew critical acclaim, as did her appearance in All Fall Down (1962) as the mother Annabella. In 1962 she appeared in The Manchurian Candidate as Eleanor Iselin, the mother of the main character Raymond Shaw, casted for the role by John Frankenheimer. Biographers Ederlman and Kupferberg considered this role "her enduring cinematic triumph", and it earned her her third Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Academy Awards.
She followed this with a performance as the sarcastic wife Sybil Logan in In the Cool of the Day (1963)–a film she renounced as awful–before appearing as the wealthy Isabel Boyd in The World of Henry Orient (1964) and the widow Phyllis in Dear Heart (1964). Her first appearance in a theatrical musical was the short-lived Anyone Can Whistle (1964), written by Arthur Laurents andStephen Sondheim. An experimental work, it opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway, but was critically panned and closed after nine performances. Lansbury had played the role of crooked mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper, but had personal differences with Laurents and was glad that the show had been cancelled. She appeared in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), a cinematic biopic of Jesus, but was almost entirely cut from the final edit, following this with an appearence as Mama Jean Bello in Harlow (1965), as Lady Blystone in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), and as Gloria in Mister Buddwing (1966). Despite her well received performances in a number of films, "[c]elluloid superstardom" evaded her, and she became increasingly disattisfied with these minor roles, feeling that none allowed her to explore her potential as an actress. Throughout this period, she continued making appearences on television, and during this period she starred in episodes of Revlon Mirror Theatre, Ford Theatre, and The George Gobel Show, and became a regular on game show Pantomime Quiz.
In 1966, she took on the title role of Mame Dennis in the musical Mame, Jerry Herman's musical adaptation of the novel Auntie Mame. The director's first choice for the role had been Rosalind Russell, but she had declined, with Lansbury actively seeking the role in the hope that it would mark a change in her career. When she was chosen for the role, it came as a surprise to theatre critics, who believed it would go to a better known actress; Lansbury was forty years old, and this was her first major role. Mame Dennis was a glamorous character, with over twenty costume changes throughout the play, and Lansbury's role involved a number of songs and dance routines. First appearing in Philadelphia and then Boston, Mame opened at the Winter Garden Theatreon Broadway in May 1966. Reviews of Lansbury's performance were largely positive, and in The New York Times, Stanley Kauffmann wrote that "Miss Lansbury is a singing-dancing actress, not a singer or dancer who also acts...In this marathon role she has wit, poise, warmth and a very taking coolth."
Lansbury received her first Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, commenting on her success by stating that "Everyone loves you, everyone loves the success, and enjoys it as much as you do. And it lasts as long as you are on that stage and as long as you keep coming out of that stage door." The stardom achieved through Mame allowed Lansbury to make further appearances on television, such as on Perry Como's Thanksgiving Special in November 1966, and an episode of CBS-TV show What's My Line? where she made a plea for the Muscular Dystrophy Association fund-raising drive. She was invited to star in a musical performance for the 1968 Academy Awards ceremony, and co-hosted that year's Tony Awards with former brother-in-law Peter Ustinov. That year, Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Club elected her "Woman of the Year." When the film production of Mame was put into production, Lansbury hoped to be offered the part, but it instead went to Lucille Ball, an established box office success; Lansbury considered it "one of my bitterest disappointments".
Lansbury followed the success of Mame with a performance as Countess Aurelia, the 75-year old Parisian eccentric in Dear World, a musical adaptation of Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot. The show opened at Broadway's Mark Hellinger Theatre in February 1969, but Lansbury found it a "pretty depressing" experience. Reviews of her performance were positive, and she was awarded her second Tony Award on the basis of it. Reviews of the show more generally were critical however, and it ended after 132 performances. She followed this with an appearance in the title role in the musical Prettybelle, based upon Jean Arnold's The Rape of Prettybelle. Set in the Deep South, it dealt with issues of racism, with Lansbury as a wealthy alcoholic who seeks sexual encounters with black men. A controversial topic, it opened in Boston but received poor reviews, being cancelled before it reached Broadway. In 1982, a recording of the show was released by Varèse Sarabande.
In 1973, the first revival of Gypsy opened in London's West End, with Lansbury starring as Rose. In September 1974, the same production opened at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre.Lansbury received her third Tony for her performance in Gypsy. In December 1975, she portrayed Gertrude in the Royal National Theatre, London, production of Hamlet, directed by Peter Hall.
During the summer of 1976, she repeated the title role in Mame at the Muny, St. Louis, Missouri. She was a three-week replacement for the role of Anna in the Broadway revival of The King and Iin April 1978.
Lansbury starred as Mrs. Lovett in the original 1979 production of Stephen Sondheim's musical thriller Sweeney Todd. The New York Times reviewer noted that "Her songs ... are awesomely difficult and she does them awesomely well. Her voice is a visible voice; you can follow it amid any confusion". She later played the role in the first U.S. tour, from 1980 to 1981, which was taped for television while playing in Los Angeles and broadcast on September 12, 1982. She won another Tony Award for Actress in a Musical for this role.
Signing autographs for fans after performing in Blithe Spirit
After many years performing mostly on the stage, Lansbury returned to film in Death on the Nile (1978) and then portrayed Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack'd (1980). She began doing character voice work in the years that followed in animated films such as The Last Unicorn (1982) and Anastasia(1997), and as the singing teapot Mrs. Potts in the 1991 Disney hit, Beauty and the Beast, in which she performed the title song. The song later won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song and Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media She reprised this role in Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997) and in the video game Kingdom Hearts II (2006). Lansbury made her first theatrical film appearance since The Company of Wolves (1984) as Aunt Adelaide in Nanny McPhee in 2005.
Lansbury starred opposite Laurence Olivier in a BBC adaptation of the Broadway play, A Talent for Murder (1983), which she described as "a rushed job" in which she participated solely to work with Olivier. Afterwards, Lansbury continued to work in the mystery genre and achieved fame as mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher on the U.S. television series Murder, She Wrote (1984–96). It became one of the longest-running detective drama series in television history. She assumed ownership of the series and acted as executive producer for the last four seasons. Her brother Bruce became the supervising producer, her son Anthony and step-son David were executive producers, and her husband assisted in running the production company, Corymore Productions.
On July 5, 1986, she co-hosted (with Kirk Douglas) the New York Philharmonic's tribute to the 100th anniversary of theStatue of Liberty, which was televised live on ABC Television.
Angela Lansbury in Deuce
, New York City, 2007
Although she was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she has never won; nor did she win any of the 18 Emmy Awards for which she was nominated over a 33-year period. She holds the record for the most Primetime Emmy losses by a performer, Reflecting on this in 2007, she stated that she was at first "terribly disappointed, but subsequently very glad that [she] did not win", because she believes that she would have otherwise had a less successful career. However, she has received Golden Globe and People's Choice awards for her television and film work.
She had been cast in the lead role in the 2001 Kander and Ebb musical The Visit, but she withdrew from the show before it opened because of her husband's declining health. Lansbury returned to Broadway after an absence of twenty-three years in Deuce, a play by Terrence McNally. The play opened at the Music Box Theatre in May 2007 in a limited run of eighteen weeks. Lansbury received a nomination for Best Leading Actress in a Play for her role.
She played the role of Madame Arcati in the 2009 Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit, at the Shubert Theatre in March 2009. The New York Times praised her performance, for which she won several awards, including the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play (her fifth Tony, tying her with Julie Harris, although all of Harris's wins were as Best Actress).
Lansbury starred as Madame Armfeldt in the first Broadway revival of A Little Night Music, which opened in December 2009 at the Walter Kerr Theatre. She left the show on June 20, 2010. For this role, she received a 2010 Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, but lost to Katie Finneran.
Lansbury starred in the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man, alongside James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen and Eric McCormack. The show opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on April 1, 2012, with Lansbury leaving on July 22, 2012. The play had positive reviews, with critics such as The New York Times and Variety giving positive reviews for Lansbury's performance as Mrs. Sue-Ellen Gamadge, chair of the party's Women's Division. For her role in this production Lansbury was nominated for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play.
Lansbury co-starred in Mr. Popper's Penguins, opposite Jim Carrey, released in June 2011. She is also scheduled to appear in another film,Adaline. In November 2012, she hosted the PBS Thanksgiving special "Downton Abbey Revisited", a documentary retrospective of the Downton Abbey television series.
Lansbury and her The Best Man co-star James Earl Jones will star in an Australian tour of Driving Miss Daisy, beginning at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane on February 5, 2013. The tour will also visit Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, finishing in June 2013.
Lansbury reprised her role as The Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia in the reading of a new musical based on the 1997 Fox Animation Studios feature film Anastasia during the week of July 23, 2012. "The work is currently in development for a future European premiere."
She has written books including co-authoring, with Mimi Avins, Angela Lansbury's Positive Moves – My Personal Plan for Fitness and Well-Being(1990).
As a young actress, Lansbury was a self-professed home body, commenting that "I love the world of housekeeping." She preferred spending quiet evenings inside with friends to the Hollywood night life. Her hobbies included reading, horse riding, playing tennis, cooking, and playing the piano, also having a keen interest in gardening.
In 1945, Lansbury married American actor Richard Cromwell when he was 35 and she was 19. The marriage dissolved after a year, but the two reportedly remained friends. In 1949, Lansbury married British-born actor and businessman Peter Shaw. She had two children, Anthony Peter Shaw (born January 7, 1952) and Deidre Angela Shaw (born April 26, 1953). Shaw was instrumental in guiding and managing Lansbury's career. They were married for 54 years until his death in January 2003.
She is the mother of two, stepmother of one and a grandmother. A fire destroyed the family's Malibu, California, home in September 1970, prompting a move to a rural area of County Cork in Ireland. Her daughter and son-in-law, a chef, are restaurateurs in West Los Angeles. Her son Anthony Shaw, after a brief fling with acting, became producer/director of Murder, She Wroteand currently is a television executive and director.
Lansbury's half-sister Isolde was married to Peter Ustinov for some years, but they divorced in 1946. Lansbury and Ustinov appeared together once in Death on the Nile (1978). She is related by marriage to actress Ally Sheedy, ex-wife of her nephew David Lansbury. Both her brothers, twins Bruce and Edgar, are successful theatre producers: Edgar was instrumental in bringing Godspell to Broadway, and Bruce Lansbury was a television producer for such shows as The Wild Wild West and Mission: Impossible and Murder, She Wrote.
Lansbury was a long-time resident of Brentwood, a neighbourhood of Los Angeles, California, where she supported various philanthropies. She had knee-replacement surgery on 14 July 2005. She has had two hip replacement surgeries. In 2006, she moved to New York City, purchasing a condominium at a reported cost of $2 million. The following year, she returned to Broadway in Deuce, opposite Marian Seldes. Lansbury's papers are housed at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University.