Angela Lansbury, Beloved Star of Murder, She Wrote, Dies at 96

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Angela Lansbury, the effervescent actor and singer who entertained generations of fans on the stage and screen during her eight decades in show business, has died. She was 96.

Lansbury is perhaps best known for her 12-year stint as Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. The Hollywood veteran was nearly 60 when the long-running CBS show debuted in 1984—an uncommon feat for an actress of a certain age—and a testament to her considerable charm that devoted fans were able to overlook the implausible number of homicides in fictional Cabot Cove, Maine.

Although the Broadway star and Disney darling once described herself as “dull as a dishwasher”—her hobbies included gardening and mundane tasks like pool maintenance— she also had a saucy side, according to longtime friend Bea Arthur.

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“When I first met her I thought I was meeting this patrician, classically trained actor, but she has a mouth like a longshoreman. No kidding,” Arthur told The Independent in 2003. “She loved telling dirty limericks. She started in British music halls and taught me ‘What Can You Get A Nudist For Her Birthday’ and it’s really saucy.”

British acting roots

Lansbury was introduced to the British acting world literally from birth. Her mother, Moyna Macgill, was an Irish actress performing on London’s West End when she met Edgar Lansbury, a prominent socialist politician. The pair married in 1924 shortly after Macgill divorced her first husband; Angela arrived the following year, on Oct. 16, 1925. Her twin brothers Edgar and Bruce arrived five years later.

It was initially an enchanted childhood, with a house full of actors, intellectuals, and artists who made an indelible impression on Angela and her brothers. But her idyllic youth was tragically interrupted by her father’s death from stomach cancer when she was just 9 years old. Young Angela said his passing pushed her toward acting, disappearing into characters as an outlet for her grief. The tragedy also brought her closer to her paternal grandfather, famed social reformer and women’s rights activist George Lansbury, who led U.K.’s Opposition Labor Party from 1932 to 1935, and she spiraled into grief again following his death when she was 14.

World War II upended life for young Angela yet again, and in 1940 her mother moved her teenage daughter and young sons to New York City to escape the blitz. They quickly became immersed in the theater world there, but several years later pulled up stakes again—this time to Hollywood. A teenage Angela was working in a department store selling cosmetics when she landed her first big break, explaining to Australia’s Studio 10 in 2018 that “it was from there that I was taken by a young friend of mine to MGM on the off-chance that they might consider me, a young British actress, for a role in some of the movies they were doing at that time.”

An Oscar-nominated debut

Angela Lansbury opens the door for Dame May Whitty and Joseph Cotten in a scene from the film 'Gaslight', in 1944.
Angela Lansbury opens the door for Dame May Whitty and Joseph Cotten in a scene from the film 'Gaslight', in 1944.Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Striking gold in her Hollywood debut, Lansbury was just 19 when she received an Oscar nomination for her role as a cheeky Cockney maid in Gaslight opposite Ingrid Bergman. She followed it up with another Oscar-nominated performance, this time as a victimized music hall singer in The Picture of Dorian Gray. But the critical acclaim didn’t translate into a slew of starring roles, which she and others attributed to her unconventional beauty. Indeed, while still in her 20s and 30s she was often cast as a middle-age mother or dowdy professional, often supporting bigger female stars including Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor.

In 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, 37-year-old Lansbury was just three years older than the actor who played her adult son. TIME’s former film critic Richard Corliss deemed Lansbury’s Mrs. Iselin, the icy puppeteer in the political-conspiracy thriller, one of the Top 25 Greatest Villains of All Time. It was also the role that earned her a third and final Oscar nomination. “She was the most evil woman I could possibly imagine, and for that reason I relished playing her,” Lansbury told A&E in 1998.

Still, she told Parade in 2018 that “I regret terribly the years that I wasted playing a bunch of women who weren’t me at all. It wasn’t until I went to Broadway and became Mame that I became a woman who was about as close to myself as I could be. Life hands us different things to do and you make the best of it. I wasted a lot of years, certainly those early years at MGM.”

A Broadway smash

As she watched many of her higher-profile contemporaries fade into obscurity once they entered their 40s, Lansbury herself was just hitting her stride. The turning point came when she returned to New York and landed the title role in Jerry Herman’s musical Mame, portraying a roaring-’20s bohemian who refused to let minor inconveniences like the Great Depression get her down. (Her motto was quite literally “life is a banquet and most sons of bitches are starving to death.”) The show opened to rave reviews and sold-out performances in 1966, and earned her a Tony Award for best actress.

“Those were a couple of golden years for me on Broadway. Unbelievable,” she told A&E. “Because I got the chance to be everything I never got to be in movies.”

Problems at home

But while her star was rising, her life at home was becoming increasingly complicated. Happily married to her second husband Richard Shaw since 1949, the two were parents to son Anthony (born in 1952) and daughter Deidre (born 1953) who both fell into drugs when the family lived in Malibu in the 1960s. In 1970, Anthony survived a heroin overdose, while Deidre became involved with the Manson Family in the late ’60s, even using her mother’s credit cards to buy food and clothing for members of the cult. When their Malibu home burned down in 1970, Lansbury and Shaw uprooted the family to County Cork in Ireland and “started a whole new life,” she told Ireland’s Own. “We needed to get away from California and the drug culture and all that. Moving to Ireland was like beginning all over again and it afforded us that time to get back to basics really.”

With her family life back on track, she went back to work and enchanted a set of new young fans in the 1971 Disney hit Bedknobs and Broomsticks. In 1975, she became a Broadway smash once again, earning her third of five Tony Awards as overbearing stage mother Rose in the Broadway revival of Gypsy. Yet unlike Mama Rose, Lansbury expressed a certain degree of regret over having to sometimes choose between her career and her children.

“Juggling work with family can be very difficult,” she told AARP The Magazine in 2018. “There were days that were very hard: Wanting to take the things that are dear and warm and loving to you—my family—and then having to do my job. You’re a breadwinner, you’ve got to do the job. You can’t do it all, but you want to.”

Murder, She Wrote

Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote: South by Southwest" in 1997.
Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote.NBCU Photo Bank—Getty Images

Lansbury was 58 years old and her children were grown when she landed the biggest role of her career: Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote. The show was a surprise smash-hit for CBS after it debuted in 1984, with millions tuning in to see the down-to-earth author solving murder mysteries with pluck and common sense. Though Jessica was initially conceived as a somewhat flighty character, Lansbury said she fought to portray her as a strong, successful single woman.

“In the first place, she was shown as a rather kooky character,” she told Australia’s Studio 10 in 2018. “That’s all right up to a certain point, but I thought, ‘No, let’s make her a smart woman.’ And by the time we were finished she got back her sense of purpose as a woman, she was attractive, she had boyfriends, she had a nice wardrobe. She became much more of an everywoman rather than a kook.”

Lansbury was nominated for an Emmy for all 12 years of the show’s run, but never won, to the shock of many fans. Although the shooting schedule was at times grueling, she often surrounded herself with friends and family on set. Her son Anthony, who had overcome his addiction, directed numerous episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and she often invited friends from her MGM days to guest-star on the show.

Acting into her 90s

Lansbury was in her late 70s when she bid a final farewell to Jessica Fletcher after wrapping the last of the four Murder, She Wrote TV movies in 2003—the same year her beloved husband died—but she was still not close to retirement. Her television, stage, and screen career continued to thrive in her golden years. Highlights included a 2009 Tony Award nomination for her role in Blithe Spirit, portraying Aunt March in PBS’s Little Women mini-series, and a cameo in 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns.

“I’ll probably pass away with one hand on my script,” she quipped to Larry King in 2018, and noted that a great interest in “every part of life” kept her going.

“Not just acting, but everything that is given to us as human beings to indulge ourselves in our lives,” she explained. “Being independent is very much part of my credo.”

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