Angela Lansbury, award-winning star of films like "The Manchurian Candidate," TV's "Murder, She Wrote" and the Broadway musical "Sweeney Todd," died Tuesday. She was 96.
Lansbury was a force in the entertainment business in a career that spanned eight decades and garnered her an Oscar, five Tonys and 18 Emmy nominations, although she never won one for CBS's "Murder."
“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 a.m. today, Tuesday, October 11, 2022, just five days shy of her 97th birthday," her family said in a statement. She is survived by three children, Anthony, Deirdre and David, and her brother, producer Edgar Lansbury. Peter Shaw, her husband of 53 years, died in 2003.
Celebs grieve:'A true giant': Kevin McKidd, Piper Perabo, more remember actress Angela Lansbury
Most actors would be happy to have just one of Lansbury’s three careers, let alone all of them.
Aspiring stars need not panic. All they’ll they need to match her success is Lansbury’s talent, grace, class, craft, beauty, brains, dedication, perseverance and professionalism. So good luck with that.
It’s right to grieve over what our culture has lost with Lansbury’s death. She was a great actor and a class act, and that combination does not come along every day. But we should also celebrate what she accomplished while she was alive, over a remarkable career.
Lansbury became a movie star at 19, garnering an Oscar nomination in 1944 for her first film, "Gaslight," and following that with nods for "The Picture of Dorian Gray" in 1946 and "Manchurian" in 1963 before finally being awarded an honorary Oscar in 2014 “for her extravagant achievements.” And so they were.
The actress reflected on "Gaslight," which she said was one of her favorite roles of her long career.
"I was just young enough to be able to absorb so much from the actors I was working with," Lansbury said. "I was only 17 when I started it. I became 18 on the set, and everybody gave me a cigarette. Those things you never forget."
In the ‘60s, when her film work became less satisfying, she reinvented herself as a Broadway musical star – moving from well-respected film actor to extravagantly praised stage icon in almost an instant. She won the Tony for best actress in a musical for "Mame," "Dear World," "Gypsy" and "Sweeney" before adding a late-in-life award for best featured actress in a play in 2009 for "Blithe Spirit."
That’s five performance Tonys, one less than the record, plus two more nominations for Lansbury, who also hosted the Tonys five times.
Were that not career enough, there’s the TV show she started when she was approaching 60: CBS’s "Murder, She Wrote," one of the most popular and longest-running dramas in TV history. It never won her an Emmy, despite 12 straight nominations, but it gave her financial independence and made her a household name for the first time in her career. And not just a name — a beloved one, as everyone favorite, slightly nosy, electronic aunt.
Has any actor had more, or a more diverse set, of great roles and iconic performances? With most stars, you can point to a particular play and movie and say “She’s playing against type in that one” — but what “type” could you choose for Lansbury? The snooty, dismissive maid in "Gaslight?" The manipulative, power-mad mother in "Manchurian"? The bon vivant bohemian in "Mame"? The happily murderous piemaker in "Sweeney"? The sweet but unrelenting crime-solver in "Murder"?
This is an actor whose talents knew no bounds. And a woman who, when one door closed on her, pushed through another one.
Of course, she might not have had to push had Hollywood made better use of her gifts. She had those great, Oscar-nominated roles, but far too many times on screen, she was cast as the “other” sister or in some variation of “the brittle-girl-who-doesn’t-get-the-guy.” Even in those roles, she could shine: If you haven’t seen her hilarious turn as the self-absorbed princess in "The Court Jester" or her nuanced portrayal of a bitter, unhappy wife in "The World of Henry Orient," you must do so. Then throw in some of the more popular performances she gave later in life, like the dotty charlatan in "Death on a Nile" or the voice of Mrs. Potts in the 1991 animated "Beauty and the Beast."
Even TV did not treat her as well as it might have. "Murder" was a great gift, to her and to viewers, but no one would say it exactly taxed her talents. It’s a shame that, when she was at the height of her popularity, CBS did not let her re-create any of her great Broadway triumphs in a TV movie – but she did, at least, get to shine in such TV work as "The Blackwater Lightship," "Little Gloria," "Happy at Last," and "Mrs. Santa Claus."
Still, it’s Broadway that really made the best use of Lansbury, in a string of legendary star-turns capped, perhaps, by her work in "Sweeney." If that was her peak, we can be thankful, because it’s the only one of her stage performances that was preserved on film, as a TV special.
Lansbury continued working into her 90s, playing the rich Aunt March in the 2017 PBS adaptation of "Little Women" and making a welcome cameo in 2018's "Mary Poppins" sequel, "Mary Poppins Returns." Her unnamed balloon lady character barely graced the screen, but her presence instantly elevated the Disney musical.
In January 2019 she offered words of wisdom to a room of hopefuls at the annual AFI Awards, reflecting on her long career in Hollywood. "I took my first steps in the business on Stage 25 at the MGM lot," she recalled. "I remember the first day I arrived there … and I never felt so alone in my life."
Speaking to the likes of Bradley Cooper, Emily Blunt and Henry Winkler, she added: "As you leave here today and are invited to endure a seemingly endless parade of programs that label you a 'winner' or a 'loser' – I've been there, I've done that," she said, to laughter. "Remember this room, when we are all together as one."
In all, Lansbury's career is one to celebrate and remember. And how you remember her – whether as the Nazi-fighting witch in "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" or as the smiling, beautifully dressed grand dame hosting the Tonys – is up to you. Only one thing is certain: It will be hard not to miss her, and impossible to replace her.
Odds are few actors would be foolish enough to try.
Contributing: Kelly Lawler