Happy Birthday Angela Lansbury! The evergreen actress, born Oct 16th, has reached the age of 94. Her achievements over a lengthy career are iconic and nothing short of impressive.
For some, she’s the undercover witch in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Others know her best from her numerous musical roles, in dark fare like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Then, as she was reaching retirement age, she found a whole new audience on the small screen as author-turned-sleuth Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote.
However she’s viewed, one fact is clear – she’s now spent an amazing 75 years in the spotlight.The British-American-Irish star and Dame was born in 1925 to Edgar Lansbury, a British Labour politician (his father George led the Party), and actress Moyna Macgill.
They lived in the comfortable surroundings of Regent’s Park in London, though Lansbury also had links to the working class area of Poplar (made famous partly by BBC drama Call The Midwife).
Edgar died young of cancer, and as a teenager Lansbury found herself in Los Angeles after a family move across the pond. It wasn’t long before Hollywood stardom landed in her lap, when she met writer John Van Druten through her mother.
Classic psychological thriller Gaslight – co-written by Van Druten from the play by Patrick Hamilton – saw her cast in the role of Nancy at his recommendation. The website Shared describes the character as “a sullen but flirtatious maid”. And she was in great company. Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten were the main players in this dark tale of manipulation.
Dame Angela is still surprised at how quickly it all happened. “I’d been a cashier in a shop, wrapping Christmas presents,” she told Saga Magazine in 2014, “and now here I was in a film with Ingrid Bergman. I was under age when I made Gaslight… But, like quite a lot of young people, I was confident.” She was cool, calm and collected, qualities that have stood her in good stead over the decades.
It was the days of the thriving but all powerful studio system. Lansbury became a contract player at Gaslight’s studio MGM. She went on to appear in some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking films ever made, from Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester (1956) to explosive thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962). There she acted alongside Frank Sinatra. The previous year she’d played Elvis Presley’s mother in Blue Hawaii.
In terms of her normal life, she married actor and friend Richard Cromwell in 1945, though the union barely lasted a year. Producer and performer Peter Shaw was her second husband, and that ran a lot more smoothly. They were together between 1949 and his passing in 2003.
While she might have been expected to slow down as the Eighties rolled around, the work just kept on coming. She began the decade starring as Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack’d, and in 1984 appeared in dark fantasy A Company of Wolves.
The same year she started playing Jessica Fletcher. Murder, She Wrote ran for over 20 years and cemented her in the minds of viewers worldwide as the best-selling busybody. Looking back in 2016, she said she took the part because the money was good.
Though she did appear to enjoy the experience. Interviewed by the Mirror, she said “When this came on the horizon I thought, ‘That’s interesting… I think I can make something of this’.” Created by Peter S. Fischer with Columbo’s Richard Levinson and William Link, the series racked up 264 episodes.
Lansbury won 4 Golden Globes for her performance. She also received Globes for 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Manchurian Candidate. An Oscar eluded her until 2013, when she was given the Academy Honorary Award.
Her stage work has earned her 5 Tonys, for productions such as Gypsy and Blithe Spirit. As recently as 2015 she won the Olivier Award for the latter. Dame Angela’s association with the House of Mouse has lasted decades, with her providing the voice of Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast (1991) and most recently her role as Balloon Lady in last year’s Mary Poppins Returns.
The secret to her longevity is not so different to anyone else’s, according to the legend herself. “I take calcium to help keep my bones strong as well as handfuls of vitamins every day,” she told Saga. “I’m sure I’d rattle if you turned me upside down. I’m also Bionic Woman with two artificial hips and two artificial knees – I set off every imaginable alarm when I go through airport security – but they’ve been marvellous”.
It’s obvious the decorated but down to earth Dame Angela Lansbury isn’t ready to throw in the towel yet.