British character actress Angela Lansbury (b. London, England, October 16, 1925), over her long career in the United States, has starred in fourteen Broadway shows and chalked up well over a hundred movies and television episodes. She has won five Tony Awards® as Best Actress (in a Musical: Mame 1966, Dear World 1969, Gypsy 1975, Sweeney Todd 1979; in a Play: Blithe Spirit 2009), three Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Actress (in a Musical: Gypsy 1975, Sweeney Todd 1979; in a Play: Blithe Spirit 2009), and received other nominations for a Tony® (Deuce 2007) and a Drama Desk (The King and I 1978). In the field of film and television, she has won six Golden Globes, and has been nominated for three Academy Awards® and eighteen Emmys®. Lansbury is most widely known for her role as the mystery writer Jessica Fletcher on the television series Murder, She Wrote, which ran from 1984 until 1996 (and in which she had a hand as producer).
Daughter of an actress, and granddaughter of a British Labour Party leader, Angela Lansbury studied dancing, singing, and acting as a child. With her mother and siblings she left England for the United States – destination Hollywood – at the beginning of the Second World War. While still a teenager she signed a contract with MGM and debuted in Gaslight (with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer 1944), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award®. She was nominated again in 1945 for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).
Her long career as “the other woman” in feature films had begun; she also often played older women, since her unusual features gave her an air of maturity beyond her years. During the 1950s she worked mostly in television (Your Show of Shows, General Electric Theatre, Fireside Theatre, Four Star Playhouse, Studio 57, Playhouse 90, etc.), while still making movies (The Court Jester 1955, The Reluctant Debutante 1958, The Long, Hot Summer 1958, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs 1960, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse 1962, The Manchurian Candidate 1962, The World of Henry Orient 1964).
Lansbury’s first Broadway appearance was in 1964 in a short-lived Sondheim musical, Anyone Can Whistle. Two years later she had a major triumph in the title role of Jerry Herman’s Mame, a show that ran for 1508 performances and won her her first Tony®. Lansbury also made a lifelong friend in the course of the run, her co-star Bea Arthur, who played Vera Charles. But the role for which, as she said, she would “most like to be remembered” came in 1979, with Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.
(Nonetheless, it is hard to forget her starring title role as Mrs. Santa Claus in the 1996 made-for-TV musical by Jerry Herman, or her voice-over as the teapot, Mrs. Potts, in the 1991 Disney animation of Beauty and the Beast.)
In the 1980s Angela Lansbury won her greatest and farthest-reaching success on television in Murder, She Wrote, one of the longest-running detective drama series in history. She also became oddly notorious for being nominated for an Emmy Award® almost every year without ever winning one.
Lansbury’s first marriage, at the age of nineteen, was dissolved within a year. Her second, begun in 1949, turned out to be one of the longest and happiest in the annals of show business. It ended after fifty-four years with the death of her husband, British-born actor and businessman Peter Shaw (a former boyfriend of Joan Crawford), who had helped to manage Lansbury’s career.
In the early 1990s, Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom appointed Lansbury a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Among her other formal honors have been being named a Disney Legend in 1995, receiving Kennedy Center Honors in 2000, and having a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Lifetime Achievement Awards have come from the Screen Actors Guild (1996), New Dramatists (2000), The Acting Company (2002), BAFTA (2003), and the Actor’s Fund of America (2004). The University of Miami gave her an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in May 2008.
In February 2009, Angela Lansbury returned to the Broadway stage, eight times a week, playing the eccentric, bicycle-riding medium Madame Arcati in a revival of Noel Coward’s great comedy Blithe Spirit. It was, says Lansbury, “the one role I’ve always wanted to play,” and it won her another Tony®. She was nominated again, at eighty-four, in 2010 for her brilliant performance on Broadway as Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music.