Angela Lansbury: still a star at 90

The veteran actor, best known for playing Jessica Fletcher in ‘Murder, She Wrote’, credits Cork with saving her family. It’s just one of many plot twists in her extraordinary life

One might imagine that Angela Lansbury has had her fill of awards and gleaming statuettes. Today she’s in New York, walking down the red carpet as an honouree at the 50th-anniversary gala of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. After that she’ll make her way to Dublin, where she’ll receive a Volta lifetime- achievement award from the Audi Dublin International Film Festival, in recognition of seven decades on stage and screen.

“If you’re around long enough you suddenly become of interest,” the 90-year-old says, laughing. “I don’t mean that in any kind of derogatory sense. It’s lovely to be honoured. I’ll have to have a good wash and brush and come through for everyone in Dublin. But this is what happens. You’re suddenly important. It’s marvellous.”

It hasn't always been such a bauble-strewn profession for the much-loved star. She was nominated three times for an Oscar for supporting performances – for Gaslight (1944), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – but had to settle for an honorary Oscar in 2013. She holds the record for the most prime-time Emmy losses by a performer, having missed out on gongs for the 18 Emmy Awards for which she was nominated over 33 years.

She says cheerfully that she's glad of the oversight. "I was driven, because I missed out in every instance where I was nominated. And that's okay. I was always very hard to place in some people's minds. I didn't become an actress to get awards. It's lovely for me at my age to get recognition for the body of work. Oddly enough the pieces that I'm best known for today are films like Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the lovely Disney picture."


Even without that body of work Lansbury's pedigree would mark her out as extraordinary. Her parents were the Northern Irish actor Moyna Macgill and the prominent English communist Edgar Lansbury; one cousin was the social activist and Bagpuss creator Oliver Postgate; another is the novelist Coral Lansbury (mother of the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull); her paternal grandfather was the British Labour Party leader and anti-war activist George Lansbury.

“My father’s father was an extraordinary character in my life,” she says. “We were awed by him as children, and we didn’t quite know why. It was only later I realised what an extraordinary man he was, that he had travelled all over the world as a peacemaker. It was very affecting being brought up with all of this going on around me.”

She believes that she inherited her singing chops from her Belfast family: her maternal grandfather, a solicitor, was active in local recitals. Still, the Lansbury parliamentarians would prove equally inspiring. “Going to the House of Commons gave me a tremendous push. Because I used to come home and give speeches. I felt it was very dramatic. It had a great effect on me as an individual, and it encouraged me to take on strong roles.”

Lansbury’s immediate family relocated to the US to escape the Blitz: the youngster had already begun training at Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art, in Kensington, and quickly gained a scholarship from the American Theatre Wing, the foundation that also runs the Tony awards. The second World War would disrupt her schooling, yet it would not deter her from her calling.

"I left school at 13. My education was really pretty dreadful. But, my goodness, life and this world of ours has educated me since – sometimes more than I would have wished. We were given the opportunity to travel to America. My sister Isolde had married Peter Ustinov, the great actor. My father had died years earlier. So we were free to go and were taken care of by an American family. And I continued my training.

“Acting was what I was always going to do. My mother realised it. She had been a very well-known West End actress. She recognised in me the ability to characterise and be funny and all those things that help.”

Having relocated to Greenwich Village, in New York, Lansbury would meet and befriend such notable folks as the spiritual guru Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley and the Gaslight screenwriter John van Druten, who suggested her for role of Nancy Oliver, opposite Ingrid Bergman. As Lansbury was just 17, a social worker had to accompany her to the set. MGM snapped her up for a seven-year contract that began with Gaslight, National Velvet and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Character actor

“They all came one after the other. I was shot to the top and then – boom – brought right back down to the ground. I ended up playing some of the most ridiculous roles at MGM. Roles I had to play because I was under contract. They were paying me. My brothers were going to school, so my pay cheque was very important.

"I was playing women who were much, much older than myself. But what I was in those days was a character actor. And while there were a very few exceptions, like Agnes Moorehead, who made that work, movie studios didn't really know how to deal with character actors. So after eight or nine years I left, and I went to the theatre – and that's when I was able to realise my talent as an actress."

Musical theatre, in particular, was kind to Lansbury, giving her some of her most highly praised turns and a sizable LGBT following. She speaks very fondly of her time in Jerry Herman's Mame and the Stephen Sondheim musicals Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Gypsy.

"Mame may have had plenty of song and dance, but it had substance. Gypsy is a great, great role. It's running in London right now with Imelda Staunton, and she's marvellous. Musical theatre gave me the most wonderfully interesting roles requiring a great deal of voice. Which thankfully I have. I've never run out of steam. I've never lost my voice. It was never just sticking your legs out."

She was disappointed when Lucille Ball was cast in the film production of Mame, but the late 1960s would bring further unpleasant complications. In 1970 the family's Malibu home was destroyed in a forest fire. Her husband Peter Shaw had a hip replacement. Her children became embroiled in the less savoury elements of the counterculture: her son, Anthony, got addicted to heroin, and her daughter, Deirdre, fell in with the Manson family. A fresh start was required: they moved to Knockmourne Glebe, a farmhouse outside the village of Conna, in Co Cork.

"We had lost our home; we had lost everything in fact. We were living on the west coast and my children were running into bad, bad habits with drugs. I had just closed in a show called Prettybelle, which wasn't very good. So I said to Peter, my husband, 'Let's go home. Let's go to Ireland.' "

The family sold Knockmourne Glebe when Sweeney Todd brought her back to Broadway a decade later. But they missed east Cork and subsequently built a house in Ballycotton, in 1992. "I'm there every summer," Lansbury says. "I'll be there this summer. I'll always go. It's a wonderful place."

Sweeney Todd brought offers of work. Against the advice of her agent Lansbury plumped for a detective series called Murder, She Wrote. The show would run from 1984 to 1996 and make her the highest-paid woman actor in television. Several commentators have noted how canny Lansbury was in retaining the rights as a producer: the series would become an unprecedented global smash.

Jessica Fletcher

“I wasn’t being canny,” she says, laughing. “I had no idea it would become such an enormous favourite. Of course it still plays all over America. But I’m amazed how huge it was in Europe. When I did Blithe Spirit in London, two years ago, I was treated like a rock star. It was astonishing to me. I’m so pleased that people loved Jessica Fletcher. She was a great character. I managed to get the writers to move away from making her a cute woman. I didn’t want her to be cute. I wanted her to be a real individual who cared about youth, who was fascinated by crime and who got along with the police. I could have gone on playing her forever. But I had to pull the plug some time.”

Lansbury’s biographers have described her as meticulous and detailed. A keen letter writer, she makes copies of all her correspondence by hand. Perhaps her super-sleuth alter ego was a smash hit because she reflects so many of Lansbury’s own characteristics. “I’ve surprised myself at times by how much I enjoy taking on the characteristics that belong to someone other than myself. But I did bring a certain practicality to Jessica.”

It remains the part she’s most recognised for on the street. “Of course as I get older they have to look twice or maybe three times. I don’t have any illusions. It is, after all, many, many years since I stopped playing Jessica. She remains. She’s still the same. I’m the same. But I look a little different.”

Angela Lansbury: A Celebration is at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on February 21st, as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival

Conspiracy theories: ‘The Manchurian Candidate’

This year’s Audi Dublin International Film Festival is screening The Manchurian Candidate at the Light House Cinema, at Smithfield in Dublin, on February 21st.

The 1962 film (which was remade in 2004), stars Angela Lansbury and Frank Sinatra. Set during the cold war, it follows an international communist plot to assassinate a US politician using brainwashed American POWs. "Such a strange life, that film had," Lansbury says. "It came out around the time of John F Kennedy's assassination. Frank Sinatra was, in some way, a producer – I don't know the details. But he seemed to have access to the film, and he literally took it off the market and put it in a cupboard somewhere. He was so concerned people would think the idea might have come from that film.

“He had been a great friend of Kennedy’s, and he hated that. So the film was taken out of circulation. It wasn’t until much later that it gained a reputation. And it was kids who found it. At colleges and universities. They were the ones who made it a hit. They recognised it as one of the great films of its time.”