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Angela Lansbury, Tony winner and ‘Murder, She Wrote’ star, dead at 96

Throughout her eight-decade career, Lansbury, who was made a dame in 2014, played countless roles in theatre, film, and TV

By Jon Blistein


Angela Lansbury, the revered actor who won five Tony Awards and anchored the long-running smash TV series Murder, She Wrote, died on Tuesday, Oct. 11. She was 96.

Lansbury’s family confirmed her death in a statement, though a cause was not given. Lansbury was just five days away from her 97th birthday.

A star on both the stage and screen, Lansbury picked up multiple Oscar nominations and won five Tony awards over the course of her remarkable career. Lansbury began acting professionally when she was a teenager, and was still working well into her nineties (her recent movie credits include a small spot in 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns, as well as a cameo as herself in the upcoming Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery).

Lansbury was born in London on Oct. 16, 1925, her mother the Irish actress Moyna MacGill, and her father, Edgar Lansbury, a timber merchant and politician. Though she grew up in relative comfort, Lansbury’s father died when she was 9, and in 1940, her family relocated to the United States to escape the German bombing of England early in World War II.

Though her first theatrical jobs were in nightclubs, Lansbury swiftly made her mark in Hollywood. She was just 18 when she landed her first film role in the 1944 thriller Gaslight, and the performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She was nominated again for her turn in The Picture of Dorian Gray the following year, and once more, in 1962, for The Manchurian Candidate. (Though Lansbury lost all three times, she was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2013.)

While Lansbury enjoyed a successful run in Hollywood, first under contract with MGM, and later as a freelancer, she struggled with typecasting. Whether she was playing a cutthroat newspaper magnate with presidential ambitions for her son in 1948’s State of the Union, or Elvis Presley’s overbearing mother in 1961’s Blue Hawaii, Lansbury once summed up the kind of roles she was given as, “bitches on wheels and peoples’ mothers.”

As her movie career chugged along, Lansbury also worked on the stage, making her Broadway debut in 1957. In 1966, she earned her first Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her starring performance in the smash production Mame. The show made Lansbury one of Broadway’s most unrivaled stars, and she won the Best Actress Tony again in 1969, 1975, and 1979 for her respective performances in Dear WorldGypsy, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

For all her success and accolades in film and on stage, Lansbury’s biggest role arguably came in 1984, when she was tapped to play Jessica Fletcher, a mystery novelist turned actual detective on Murder, She Wrote. The wildly successful whodunit series may not have been as decade defining as, say, Miami Vice, but Murder, She Wrote was a massive hit, ultimately running for 12 seasons (Lansbury was also nominated for 12 Emmy awards for her work on the series but never won).

For Lansbury, playing Jessica Fletcher had a clear appeal — the chance to play “a sincere, down-to-earth woman,” as she told The Times in 1985. “Mostly, I’ve played very spectacular bitches,” she added. “Jessica has extreme sincerity, compassion, extraordinary intuition. I’m not like her. My imagination runs riot. I’m not a pragmatist. Jessica is.”

In 1991, Lansbury endeared herself to another, much younger, generation, with Disney’s animated hit, Beauty and the Beast. Along with voicing Mrs. Potts in the film, Lansbury sang the film’s title song, which went on to win an Oscar, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy.

Lansbury’s career continued apace with several Murder, She Wrote TV movies throughout the Nineties, and a return to both film and stage in the mid-2000s. She turned in memorable performances in everything from episodes of Law and Order to films like Nanny McPhee, though her career always seemed to lead back to the stage. In 2007, she returned to Broadway for the first time since a revival run of Mame in 1983, starring in a production of Deuce. Two years later, at the age of 83, she won her fifth Tony for her performance in Blithe Spirit. To boot, just this past June, Lansbury was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tonys. 

In a 2018 interview with Larry King, Lansbury spoke about what kept her going, saying, “I think that I’m interested in every part of life. In other words, not just acting, but everything that is given to us as human beings to indulge ourselves in our lives — that’s what interest me. My grandchildren, my life, cooking, driving, being independent, I think, is very much a part of my credo.”

When King asked if she ever thought about retiring, Lansbury scratched her head and quipped, “Oh, I don’t think so. I’ll probably pass away with one hand on my script.

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