Angela Lansbury

Angela Lansbury

In 1925, Angela Lansbury was born in Regent’s Park, one of the Royal Parks of London. The park was developed by John Nash (1752-1835), James Burton (1761-1837), and Decimus Burton (1800-1881), with construction starting c. 1818. It was first opened to the general public in 1835. It was named after the Prince-Regent George, later king George IV (1762-1830, regent 1811-1820, reigned 1820-1830). The park is located in Inner London, and administratively divided between the City of Westminster and the Borough of Camden.

Lansbury was born in a prominent family of the upper middle class. Her father was socialist politician Edgar Isaac Lansbury (1887-1935), a member of both the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the Labour Party. Edgar served as Honorary Treasurer of the East London Federation of Suffragettes (term 1915), and Mayor of Poplar (term 1924-1925). He was the second Communist mayor in British history, with the first being Joe Vaughan (1878-1938). Lansbury’s mother was Irish film actress Moyna Macgill (1895-1975), originally from Belfast. During the first five years of Angela’s life, the Lansbury family lived in a flat located in Poplar. In 1930, they moved to a house located in Mill Hill, a suburb currently located in the London Borough of Barnet. They spend their weekends vacationing in a rural farm located in Berrick Salome, a village in South Oxfordshire.

In 1935, Edgar Lansbury died from stomach cancer. Angela reportedly retreated into “playing characters”, as a coping mechanism to deal with the loss. The widowed Moyna Macgill soon became engaged to Leckie Forbes, a Scottish colonel. Moyna moved into his house in Hampstead.

From 1934 to 1939, Angela was a student of South Hampstead High School. During these years, she became interested in films.. She regularly visited the local cinema, and imagined herself in various roles. Angela learned how to play the piano, and received a musical education at the Ritman School of Dancing.

In 1940, Lansbury started her acting education at the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art, located in Kensington, West London. She made her theatrical debut in the school’s production of the play “Mary of Scotland” (1933) by Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959). The play depicted the life of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587, reigned 1542-1567), and Lansbury played one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting.

Also in 1940, Lansbury’s paternal grandfather George Lansbury died from stomach cancer. When the Blitz started, Moyna Macgill had reasons to fear for the safety of her family and few remaining ties to England. Macgill moved to the United States to escape the Blitz, taking her three youngest children with her. Isolde was already a married adult, and was left behind in England.

Macgill secured financial sponsorship from American businessman Charles T. Smith. She and her children (including Angela) moved into Smith’s house in Mahopac, New York. Mahopac is a hamlet within the town of Carmel. Lansbury was interested in continuing her studies, and secured a scholarship from the American Theatre Wing. From 1940 to 1942, Lansbury studied acting at the Feagin School of Dramatic Art, located in New York City. She appeared in performances organized by the school.

In 1942, Lansbury moved with her family in a flat located in Morton Street, Greenwich Village. She soon followed her mother in her theatrical tour of Canada. Lansbury secured her first paying job in Montreal, singing at the nightclub Samovar Club for a payment of 60 dollars per week. Lansbury was 16-years-old at the time, but lied about her age and claimed to be 19-years-old in order to be hired.

Lansbury returned to New York City in August, 1942, but Moyna Macgill soon moved herself and her family again. The family moved to Los Angeles, where Moyna was interested in resurrecting her film career. Their first home there was a bungalow in Laurel Canyon, a mountainous neighborhood located in the Hollywood Hills.

Lansbury helped financially support her family by working for the Bullocks Wilshire department store in Los Angeles. Her weekly wages were only 28 dollars, but she had a secure income while her mother was unemployed. Through her mother, Lansbury was introduced to screenwriter John Van Druten (1901-1957) who had recently completed his script of “Gaslight” (1944). He suggested that young Lansbury would be perfect for the role of Nancy Oliver, the film’s conniving cockney maid. This helped secure Lansbury’s first film role at the age of 17, and a seven-year contract with the film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She earned 500 dollars per week, and chose to continue using her own name instead of a stage name.

In 1945, Lansbury married actor Richard Cromwell (1910-1960), who was 15-years-older than her. The troubled marriage ended in a divorce in 1946. The former spouses remained friend’s until Cromwell’s death.

In 1946, Lansbury started a romantic relationship with aspiring actor Peter Shaw (1918-2003), who was 7 years older than her. Shaw had recently ended his relationship with actress Joan Crawford (c. 1908-1977). The new couple started living together, while planning marriage. They wanted to be married in the United Kingdom, but the Church of England refused to marry two divorcees. They were married in 1949, in a Church of Scotland ceremony at St. Columba’s Church, located in Knightsbridge, London. After their return to the United States, they settled into Lansbury’s home in Rustic Canyon, Malibu. In 1951, both Lansbury and Shaw became naturalized citizens of the United States, while retaining their British citizenship.

Meanwhile, Lansbury continued appearing in MGM films. She appeared in 11 MGM films between 1945 and 1952. MGM at times loaned Lansbury to other film studios. She appeared in United Artists’ “The Private Affairs of Bel Ami” (1947), and Paramount Pictures’ “Samson and Delilah” (1949). In 1948, Lansbury made her debut in radio roles, followed by her television debut in 1950.

In 1952, Lansbury requested the termination of her contract with MGM, instead of its renewal. She felt unsatisfied with her film career as an MGM contract player. She then joined the East Coast touring productions of two former-Broadway plays. By 1953, Lansbury had two children of her own and was also raising a stepson. She and her family moved into a larger house, located on San Vincente Boulevard in Santa Monica. In 1959, she and her family moved into a house in Malibu. The married couple were able to send their children to a local public school.

Meanwhile she continued her film career as a freelance actress, but continued to be cast in middle-aged roles. She regained her A-picture actress through well-received roles in the drama film “The Long, Hot Summer” (1958) and the comedy film “The Reluctant Debutante” (1958). She also appeared regularly in television roles, and became a regular on game show “Pantomime Quiz” (1947-1959).

In 1957, Lansbury made her Broadway debut in a performance of “Hotel Paradiso”. The play was an adaptation of “L’Hôtel du libre échange” (1894-French for “Free Exchange Hotel”), co-written by Maurice Desvallières (1857-1926) and Georges Feydeau (1862-1921). Lansbury’s role as “Marcel Cat” was critically well-received. She continued appearing in Broadway over the next several years, most notably cast as the verbally abusive mother in “A Taste of Honey”. She was cast as the mother of co-star Joan Plowright (1929-), who was only four years younger than her.

In the early 1960s, Lansbury was cast as an overbearing mother in “Blue Hawaii” (1961). The role of her son was played by Elvis Presley (1935-1977), who was only 10 years than her. The film was a box office hit, it finished as the 10th top-grossing film of 1961 and 14th for 1962 on the “Variety” national box office survey. It gained Lansbury renewed fame, at a difficult point of her career.

Lansbury gained critical praise for a sympathetic role in the drama film “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” (1960), and the role of a manipulative mother in the drama film “All Fall Down” (1962). Based on her success in “All Fall Down”, she was cast in a similar role in the Cold War-themed thriller “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962). She was cast as Eleanor Iselin, the mother of her co-star Laurence Harvey (1928-1973), who was only 3 years younger than her. This turned to be one of the most memorable roles in her career. She received critical acclaim and was nominated for a third time for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. The award was instead won by rival actress Patty Duke (1946-2016).

Lansbury made a career comeback in the starring role of Mame Dennis in the musical “Mame” (1966), co-written by Jerome Lawrence (1915-2004) and Robert Edwin Lee (1918-1994). The play was an adaptation of the novel “Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade” (1955) by Patrick Dennis (1921-1976), and focused on the life and ideas of eccentric bohemian Mame Dennis. The musical received critical and popular praise, and Lansbury won her first Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Lansbury gained significant fame from her success, becoming a “superstar”.

Her newfound fame led to other high-profile appearances by Lansbury. She starred in a musical performance at the 1968 Academy Awards ceremony, and co-hosted the 1968 Tony Awards. The Hasty Pudding Club, a social club for Harvard students. elected her “Woman of the Year” in 1968.

Lansbury’s next theatrical success was in 1969 performances of “The Madwoman of Chaillot” (1945) by Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944). The play concerns an eccentric Parisian woman’s struggles with authority figures. Lansbury was cast in the starring role of 75-year-old Countess Aurelia, despite her actual age of 44 years. The show was well received and lasted for 132 performances. Lansbury won her second Tony Award for this role.

In 1970, Lansbury’s Malibu home was destroyed in a brush fire. Lansbury and her husband decided to buy Knockmourne Glebe, an 1820s Irish farmhouse, located near the village of Conna in rural County Cork.

Her film career reached a new height. She was cast in the starring role of benevolent witch Eglantine Price in Disney’s fantasy film “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971). The film was a box-office hit, it was critically well-received, and introduced Lansbury to a wider audience of children and families.

In 1972, Lansbury returned to the British stage, performing in London’s West End with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1973, Lansbury appeared in the role of Rose in London performances of the musical “Gypsy” (1959) by Arthur Laurents. It was quite successful. In 1974, “Gypsy” went on tour in the United States. with the same cast. For her role, Lanbury won the Sarah Siddons Award and her third Tony Award. The musical had its second tour in 1975.

Tired from musicals. Lansbury next sought Shakespearean roles in the United Kingdom. From 1975 to 1976, she appeared as Queen Gertrude in the National Theatre Company’s production of Hamlet. In November 1975, Lansbury’s mother Moyna Macgill died at the age of 79. Lansbury arranged for her mother’s remains to be cremated, and the ashes scattered near her own County Cork home.

In 1976, Lansbury returned to the American stage. In 1978, Lansbury temporarily replaced Constance Towers (1933-) in the starring role of Anna Leonowens (1831-1915) in The King and I. While Towers was on a break from the role, Lansbury appeared in 24 performances.

In 1978, Lansbury appeared in her first film role in seven years, cast as the novelist and murder victim Salome Otterbourne in the mystery film”Death on the Nile” (1978). The film was an adaptation of the 1937 novel by Agatha Christie (1890-1976), while Otterbourne was loosely based on real-life novelist Elinor Glyn (1864-1943). The film was a modest box office hit, and Lansbury befriended her co-star Bette Davis (1908-1989).

In 1979, Lansbury was cast in the role of meat pie seller Mrs. Lovett in the musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (1979), co-written by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (1912-1987). The musical was loosely based on the penny dreadful serial novel “The String of Pearls: A Domestic Romance” (1846-1847), which first depicted fictional serial killer Sweeney Todd. Lansbury remained in the role for 14 months, and was then replaced by Dorothy Loudon (1925-2003). Lansbury won her fourth Tony Award for this role. She returned to the role for 10 months in 1980.

Lansbury’s next prominent film role was that of Miss Froy in “The Lady Vanishes” (1979), a remake of the 1938 directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). She was next cast in the role of amateur sleuth Miss Jane Marple in the mystery film “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980), an adaptation of the novel “The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side” (1962) by Agatha Christie.The novel was loosely inspired by the life of Gene Tierney (1920-1991). The film was a modest commercial success. There were plans for at least two sequels, but they ended in development hell.

In 1982, Lansbury was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, She appeared at the time in the new play “A Little Family Business” and a revival of “Mame”, but both shows were commercial failures. In film, Lansbury voiced the witch Mommy Fortuna in the animated fantasy film “The Last Unicorn” (1982). The film was critically well-received, but was not a box office hit.

Lansbury played Ruth in the musical comedy “The Pirates of Penzance” (1983), a film adaptation of the 1879 comic opera by William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900). The film was a box office bomb, earning about 695,000 dollars at the box office.

Lansbury’s next film role was that of Granny in the gothic fantasy film “The Company of Wolves” (1984), based on a 1979 short story by Angela Carter (1940-1992). Lansbury was cast as the grandmother of protagonist Rosaleen (played by Sarah Patterson), in a tale featuring werewolves and shape-shifting. The film was critically well-received, but barely broke even at the box office.

At about that time, Lansbury appeared regularly in television films and mini-series. Her most prominent television role was that of Jessica Fletcher in the detective series “Murder, She Wrote” (1984-1996).Jessica was depicted as a successful mystery novelist from Maine, who encounters and solves many murders during her troubles. The character was considered an American counterpart to Miss Marple. Despite regularly depicting murders, the series followed the “whodunit” format and mostly avoided depictions of violence or gore.

The series was considered a television landmark for having an older female character as the protagonist. It was aimed primarily at middle aged audience, but also attracted both younger viewers and senior citizen viewers. Ratings remained high for most of its run. Lansbury rejected pressure from network executives to put her character in a relationship, as she believed that Fletcher should remain remain a strong single female.

In 1989, Lansbury co-founded the production company Corymore Productions, which started co-producing the television series with Universal Television. This allowed Lansbury to have more creative input on the series. She was appointed an executive producer. By the time the series ended in 1996, it tied with the original “Hawaii Five-O” (1968-1980) as the longest-running detective drama series in television history.

Her popularity from “Murder, She Wrote” made Lansbury a much sought figure for advertisers. She appeared in advertisements and infomercials for Bufferin, MasterCard and the Beatrix Potter Company.

Lansbury’s highest profile film in decades was voicing the character of singing teapot Mrs. Potts in Disney’s animated fantasy film “Beauty and the Beast” (1991). Lansbury performed the film’s title song, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song, and the Grammy Award for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, Lansbury lived most of the year in California. In 1991, she had Corymore House, a farmhouse at Ballywilliam, County Cork, built as her new family home. She spend Christmases and summers there.

Following the end of “Murder, She Wrote”, Lansbury returned to a career as a theatrical actress. She temporarily retired from the stage in 2001, to take care of her husband Peter Shaw, whose health was failing. Shaw died in 2003, from congestive heart failure at the couple’s Brentwood, California home. Their marriage had lasted for 54 years (1949-2003).

Lansbury felt at the time that not take on any more major acting roles, but that she could still make cameos. She moved back to New York City in 2006, buying a condominium in Manhattan. Her first prominent film role in years was that of Aunt Adelaide in the fantasy film “Nanny McPhee” (2005). She credits her performance in the film with pulling her out of depression,a state of mind which had lasted since her husband’s death.

Lansbury returned to performing on the Broadway stage in 2007, after an absence of 23 years. In 2009, she won her fifth Tony Award. She shared the record for most Tony Award victories with Julie Harris (1925-2013). In the 2010s, she continued regularly appearing in theatrical performances,. In 2014. she returned to the London stage, after an absence of nearly 40 years.

In 2015, Lansbury received her first Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress. At age 89, she was among the oldest first-time winners. Also in 2015, November 2015 was awarded the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre.

In 2017, she was cast as Aunt March in the mini-series “Little Women”. The mini-series was an adaptation of the 1868-1869 novel of the same name by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). The series lasted for 3 episodes, and was critically well-received.

In 2018, Lansbury gained her next film role in Disney’s fantasy film “Mary Poppins Returns” (2018), a sequel to “Mary Poppins”. Lansbury was cast in the role of the Balloon Lady, a kindly old woman who sells balloons at the park. The films was a commercial hit, earning about 350 million dollars at the worldwide box office.

In 2019, Lansbury performed at a one-night benefit staging of Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895). a farce satirizing Victorian morals. She was cast in the role of society lady Lady Bracknell, mother to Gwendolen Fairfax.

By 2020, Lansbury was 95-years-old, one of the oldest living actresses. She has never retired from acting, and remains a popular icon.

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