Dame Angela Lansbury was probably the most talented and successful British actress of her generation, with a career spanning eight decades across film, theatre and television that brought her a host of awards.
Her prolific output included more than 50 films – many of them classics such as Gaslight, The Picture Of Dorian Gray and Bedknobs and Broomsticks – and a string of successes on Broadway and on television. Late in her career her role as crime-solving author Jessica Fletcher in the hit television series Murder, She Wrote gained her millions of new fans across the world. So popular was her 12-year stint on the show from 1984 that she became an executive producer as well as the star. The boost to her career from the TV hit as she entered her sixties also brought vigour to her film and stage work.
Dame Angela, who was born in London in 1925, left England as a teenage evacuee to become a leading light in Hollywood and on Broadway but despite her seemingly unstoppable success, she was essentially a family person. It was that devotion to her family that saw both Lansbury and her husband Peter Shaw temporarily abandon successful careers in the 1970s to help two of their children overcome drug addiction.
Her grandfather was George Lansbury, the Labour Party leader at the time of her birth, while her father Edgar, also a staunch Socialist, was mayor of Poplar in the East End of London.
When war broke out Dame Angela was evacuated to the United States with her actress mother Moyna MacGill, a flamboyant Irish beauty.
In New York she studied drama and then worked as a shop assistant and in a nightclub doing impressions of Wagnerian singers and the comedic performer Beatrice Lillie.
The two moved to Hollywood where Moyna hoped to find work in films but it was her 17-year-old daughter who was spotted by the director George Cukor when she went along to watch a friend doing a screen test at MGM studios. Hollywood mogul Louis B Mayer signed her to a seven-year contract in 1943 and in 1944 Dame Angela appeared in her first role, as Charles Boyer’s cockney maid in Cukor’s film Gaslight, which brought her an Oscar nomination.
The next year she played Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister in National Velvet, and then earned another Oscar nomination the same year for her role as a music hall singer in The Portrait Of Dorian Gray.
There was nothing of the conventional glamour girl about Dame Angela and in her early films she seldom played the heroine who got her man, but the movie makers quickly realised that she was a high-class character actress. At one time it seemed she was playing everyone’s mother – Elvis Presley’s in Blue Hawaii, Warren Beatty’s in All Fall Down and Laurence Harvey’s in The Manchurian Candidate even though he was 34, just two years her junior.
In 1945, Dame Angela married the American actor Richard Cromwell, when she was 19 and he was 35. Unknown to her, Cromwell was bisexual and the marriage was dissolved after a year, but the two remained friends.
In 1949, she wed British-born actor and businessman Peter Shaw, a former boyfriend of Joan Crawford. He died in 2003.
When Dame Angela’s contract with MGM ran out she set off for New York and had to start at the bottom of the ladder again. Settling in the city with their two children she suffered long separations from Shaw, a theatrical agent who remained in Hollywood.
Then in 1966 she became a musical comedy star overnight with her role in Mame alongside future Golden Girls star Bea Arthur. The Broadway show earned Dame Angela the first of her five Tony Awards.
Three years later she got her second Tony for Dear World before disaster struck her family. Both her teenage children had become hooked on heroin and hospital and psychiatric treatment had no success. Matters were brought to a head when their Malibu home burned down in 1970.
Dame Angela and Shaw decided to buy a farmhouse in 20 acres of land in Co Cork to get Anthony and Deirdre and their elder step-brother, David, to a drug-free environment. The couple put their careers on hold while they helped their children overcome their addictions and rebuilt their family unity in Ireland, with Dame Angela not returning to work until she felt her children were on the road to recovery.
In 1972 she was in two films, including Bedknobs and Broomsticks, made by the team behind Mary Poppins.
After five years she returned to New York and found herself taking Broadway by storm again in the lead role of Gypsy, which brought her another Tony Award.
Then in 1975 she spent time in England where she appeared as Gertrude in Hamlet with the National Theatre and Edward Albee’s play All Over with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
On her return to Broadway Dame Angela won further acclaim in The King And I and in Sweeney Todd, winning yet another Tony. In 1980 she made the film The Mirror Crack’d in which she took on the role of Miss Marple and for the first time since National Velvet played alongside Elizabeth Taylor.
The film was a turning point because it alerted television makers to her possibilities for a new detective-style series. At first Dame Angela was doubtful about taking the role of Jessica Fletcher as it meant returning to California, but with her husband’s encouragement she took the part.
Jessica Fletcher became a role model for women worldwide – so much so that Dame Angela even brought out an exercise, diet and beauty video for the older woman.
The programme proved a positive move for her family and they moved back to the States.In the 1990s Dame Angela launched her own production company together with her husband and sons and almost immediately clinched a lucrative deal with Disney.
In 2007, at the age of 81, she returned to the Broadway stage for the first time in more than 25 years, in Deuce a play by Terrence McNally, at the Music Box Theatre. She received a Tony nomination in the category of leading actress for her performance.
At age 88, Dame Angela, already a CBE, received her damehood at Windsor Castle in recognition of a lifetime in acting and for charity work.
In 2002, she was awarded a lifetime achievement award by Bafta, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and having been nominated three times for an Academy Award she was finally presented with an honorary Oscar in 2013.
Her West End return was capped with an Olivier Award in 2015 for Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud Theatre which saw her follow in the footsteps of her mother, who had made her debut on the same stage almost a century earlier.
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