The old cliche was “star of stage, screen and radio.”
That of course has to be updated to “star of stage, screen and television” — and even of video games. And no one fills that bill better than the veteran actress Angela Lansbury, who marks her 91st birthday this Sunday (Oct. 16).
Lansbury is undoubtedly best remembered by those under 50 for her spectacularly successful CBS tv series, Murder, She Wrote, cast as mystery writer Jessica Fletcher whose daily life plays out like one of her plots.
The show ran for a dozen years, with Lansbury at the center — one of the few in American tv history to feature a middle-aged woman as the sole lead character. Always a workhorse, Lansbury appeared in all 264 episodes of the series, which may be something of a record.
Not to be overlooked, of course, is Lansbury’s extensive big screen career in Hollywood’s classic period. The grand-daughter of George Lansbury, one-time leader of Britain’s Labor Party, Angela found herself in Los Angeles early in World War II, and being screen tested for a key role in director George Cukor’s superb period drama, 1944’s Gaslight.
As British critic David Thomson observed: It was the start of career as a supporting actress in which, pouting at the thought that she was not pretty enough to be a lead, she stole film after film from their advertised stars.
This may not apply necessarily to Gaslight, which remains a must-see classic costarring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, both of whom are superb. But check out Lansbury’s potent performance as a sexy, sullen domestic definitely up to no good.
Lansbury’s movie career lasted well into the Seventies when television took up more and more of her time. Her range was enormous, from 1944’s National Velvet starring a very young Elizabeth Taylor to 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, in which Angela plays perhaps her most chilling role as Lawrence Harvey’s creepy and controlling mother. (In fact, when she played the part, she was just three years older than “son” Harvey. Similarly, Lansbury played Elvis Presley’s mother in 1961’s Blue Hawaii although she was just nine years The King’s senior.)
During her more than 70-years career, Lansbury has been tantalizingly close to a competitive Oscar wins three times (she was nominated as best supporting actress for Gaslight, 1945’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Manchurian Candidate, but lost out) and multiple Emmy Awards (nominated 18 times but no cigar). Note: Lansbury was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2013.
For her stage work, the best-actress-in-a-musical Tony’s have flowed: for Angela’s performances in Mame, Dear World, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd. What a career!
As Lansbury herself put it: I’ve had a helleva life.