Angela Lansbury, best known for her roles in “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Murder, She Wrote,” and the Broadway musical “Sweeney Todd,” died on Tuesday. She was 96 years old.
Lansbury was a force in the entertainment industry for eight decades, garnering an Oscar, five Tonys, and 18 Emmy nominations, though she never won one for CBS’s “Murder.”
“Dame Angela Lansbury’s children are saddened 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. Her three children, Anthony, Deirdre, and David, as well as her brother, producer Edgar Lansbury, survive her. Her husband of 53 years, Peter Shaw, died in 2003.
Most actors would be content with one of Lansbury’s three careers, let alone all three.
Aspiring celebrities should not be concerned. Lansbury’s talent, grace, class, craft, beauty, brains, dedication, perseverance, and professionalism will be all they need to match her success. So best of luck with that.
It’s natural to be saddened by what our culture has lost with Lansbury’s d3ath. She was a great actor as well as a class act, which is a rare combination. But we should also remember what she accomplished during her remarkable career.
Lansbury became a movie star at the age of 19, receiving an Oscar nomination for her first film, “Gaslight,” in 1944, and going on to receive nominations for “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in 1946 and “Manchurian” in 1963 before finally receiving an honorary Oscar in 2014 “for her extravagant achievements.” And so it was.
The actress reflected on “Gaslight,” one of her favorite roles in her long career.
“I was just young enough to absorb so much from the actors I worked with,” Lansbury explained. “I started it when I was 17 years old. On set, I turned 18 and everyone gave me a cigarette. Those are the things you never forget.”
When her film work became less satisfying in the 1960s, she reinvented herself as a Broadway musical star, going from well-respected film actor to lavishly praised stage icon in an instant. She won Tony Awards for best actress in a musical for “Mame,” “Dear World,” “Gypsy,” and “Sweeney” before adding a late-career award for best featured actress in a play for “Blithe Spirit” in 2009.
That’s one less than the previous record, plus two more nominations for Lansbury, who also hosted the Tonys five times.
If that wasn’t enough, she started a TV show when she was 60 years old: CBS’s “Murder, She Wrote,” one of the most popular and longest-running dramas in television history. Despite 12 consecutive Emmy nominations, it never won her an Emmy, but it gave her financial independence and made her a household name for the first time in her career. Not just a name, but a well-known one as everyone’s favorite, slightly nosy, electronic aunt.
Has any other actor had a larger or more diverse range of great roles and iconic performances? You can point to a specific play or film and say, “She’s playing against type in that one,” but what “type” could you choose for Lansbury? In “Gaslight,” who is the snooty, dismissive maid? In “Manchurian,” who is the manipulative, power-hungry mother? “Mame’s” bon vivant bohemian? In “Sweeney Todd,” who is the happily murderous piemaker? In “Murder,” who is the sweet but unyielding cr1me solver?
This is an actor whose abilities were limitless. And a woman who pushed through another door after one closed on her.
Of course, if Hollywood had made better use of her talents, she might not have needed to push. She had those great, Oscar-nominated roles, but she was cast far too often as the “other” sister or in some variation of “the brittle-girl-who-doesn’t-get-the-guy.” Even in those roles, she had the potential to shine: You must watch her hilarious performance as the self-absorbed princess in “The Court Jester” or her nuanced portrayal of a bitter, unhappy wife in “The World of Henry Orient.”
Throw in some of her more popular roles later in her career, such as the dotty charlatan in “D3ath on a Nile” or Mrs. Potts in the 1991 animated “Beauty and the Beast.”
Even television did not treat her as well as it could have. “Murder” was a wonderful gift for both her and the audience, but no one would say it tested her abilities. It’s a shame that CBS didn’t let her recreate any of her great Broadway triumphs in a TV movie when she was at the peak of her popularity – but she did get to shine in TV roles like “The Blackwater Lightship,” “Little Gloria,” “Happy at Last,” and “Mrs. Santa Claus.”
Still, it was Broadway that made the best use of Lansbury, with a string of legendary star turns perhaps capped by her work in “Sweeney Todd.” If that was her peak, we should be grateful because it is the only one of her stage performances that has been captured on film, as a TV special.
Lansbury worked into her 90s, portraying the wealthy Aunt March in the 2017 PBS adaptation of “Little Women” and making a brief appearance in the 2018 “Mary Poppins” sequel, “Mary Poppins Returns.” Her unnamed balloon lady character appeared briefly on screen, but her presence immediately elevated the Disney musical.
She spoke to a room of hopefuls at the annual AFI Awards in January 2019, reflecting on her long career in Hollywood. “I started in the business on Stage 25 at the MGM lot,” she recalled. “I recall the first day I arrived… I’ve never felt more alone in my life.”
She added, to laughter, “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 Bradley Cooper, Emily Blunt, and Henry Winkler. “Keep this room in mind when we’re all together as one.”
Overall, Lansbury’s career is one to remember and celebrate. And it’s up to you whether you remember her as the Nazi-fighting witch in “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” or as the smiling, beautifully dressed grand dame hosting the Tonys. One thing is certain: it will be difficult not to miss her, and it will be impossible to replace her.
Few actors would be foolish enough to attempt it.