Today marks the 90th anniversary of the birth of the motion picture legend, Angela Lansbury, the notable actress who is primarily remembered for her memorable portrayal of Jessica Fletcher in the long running television series, Murder She Wrote.
Angela Bridget Lansbury, made her star-studded debut in this world on October 16th, 1925, in Poplar, East London, to parents Moyna MacGill and Edgar Lansbury. Angela wasn’t the first child born, she had an older half sister Isolde, who was Moyna’s child with her previous husband Reginald Denham. In January 1930, when Angela was only four, her mother gave birth to twin boys, Bruce & Edgar. Now with two sons on their hands, Moyna & Edgar realized that the house wasn’t big enough to cater for more babies, so they moved to a house in Mill Hill, North London. Every weekend, the family would pack up & vacate to a farm outside Oxford. Angela has vivid memories of those weekends the family spent together on the farm.
On May 28th, 1935, Angela’s father passed away after battling Stomach Cancer. This left nine year old Angela distraught, so for comfort she retreated into playing characters as a coping mechanism. Edgar’s death left Moyna in debt. Facing financial difficulties, she became engaged to Leckie Forbes. Shortly after the family moved into Forbes home in Hampstead. This would help Moyna support her family and give her children the education they required. In 1934, Angela enrolled at South Hampstead High School, where she continued her studies through to 1939.
It’s no wonder Angela became interested in acting. Her mother Moyna was a qualified Irish actress, who appeared in several films, along with the stage show of “West End”. At a young age Angela became a complete movie enthusiast. She was always studying books on the theatre and movies and was a frequent visitor at the local cinema. She would identify herself with the stars on the screen and imagine herself as that character.
In 1940, Angela enrolled at the Webber Douglas School Of Singing And Dramatic Art, in Kensington, West London. Here Angela would be able to gain more experience and learn the basic techniques of drama and stage acting. She flourished at acting school and started involving herself with several of their plays. She made her first stage debut appearing on stage in the schools production of Maxwell Anderson’s, “Mary Of Scotland”. A play that was adapted from the 1936 movie starring Katharine Hepburn.
In 1940, with the onset of the London Blitz, the family were forced to locate to the United States, leaving Isolde in England with her husband Peter Ustinov. To help support the family, Moyna secured a job supervising sixty British children who were being evacuated to North America aboard the Duchess Of Athol. Once in New York, she was financially sponsored by the Wall Street businessman Charles T. Smith, and moved in with a family at East 94th Street. Angela still wanted to pursue a career in acting and acquired further training, so she attained a scholarship from the American Theatre Wing, which allowed her to study at the Feagin School Of Drama And Radio. After graduating from the Feagin School in March 1942, she relocated with her family to a flat on Morton Street in Greenwich Village.
In 1942, Angela secured her first theatrical job as a nightclub act at the Samovar Club. In order to be eligible for the job she stated her age as nineteen, when she was only sixteen. For her act she was required to sing songs by Noel Coward, which would really test her singing ability, but of course Angela proved to be commendable.
Returning to New York in August 1942, Angela found that her mother had moved to Hollywood to resurrect her career in motion pictures. Without her mother, Angela knew that there was not much in New York for her, so she relocated to Hollywood with her brothers & moved into a bungalow in Laurel Canyon. Once in Hollywood, Lansbury and her mother secured employment over Christmas at the Bullocks Wilshire Department Store. After a couple of days Moyna was fired and Angela was left to support her family with her paycheck for $28 a week.
It was at a party hosted by her mother that Angela was considered for the role of Nancy in “Gaslight”. Druten thought Lansbury was perfect for the role and was soon put under consideration. A few days later Angela received the news that she had been accepted for the part of Nancy. Starring alongside Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, she was now on her way.
Gaslight gave Angela her first big break and her first Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. After the release the film proved to be a triumphant success, garnering six Academy Award nominations.
After “Gaslight” Angela went on to appear in “National Velvet” starring Elizabeth Taylor & Mickey Rooney. Though only a minor role, Lansbury received a plethora of accolades for her performance and landed the part of Sybil Vane in “The Picture Of Dorian Gray” 1945. On it’s official release the film was of moderate acclaim, but Angela’s fine portrayal of Sybil Vane, earned her a Golden Globe Award and another nomination for best supporting actress nomination at the Academy Awards.
Followed by her previous success, Lansbury was cast in several more films including “The Harvey Girls” starring Judy Garland, and “State Of The Union” starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Angela will forever display deep gratitude towards Katharine Hepburn. On landing the part of Kay Thorndyke, she went on stating of how Hepburn had seen the test & was impressed of what she saw. She knew that Angela was the one for the role and began championing for her by saying, “Sign that girl, she is the one for this role. You couldn’t do better.” It’s a great thing they took notice of Kate because”State Of The Union” was considered Lansbury’s strongest film of the period.
On September 27th, 1945, Lansbury married Richard Cromwell. Sadly the marriage never lasted and the two divorced a year later, remaing friends until his death. Angela married a second time in August 1949, to Peter Shaw. After the wedding Lansbury and Shaw enjoyed a honeymoon in France.
In 1951, Angela’s MGM contract was terminated, so Angela went on to pursue work in the theatre, by joining the touring productions of two former-Broadway plays, “Remains to be Seen” and “Affairs of State“.
In 1952, Angela gave birth to her first child Anthony Peter, and in 1953, gave birth to a daughter Deidre Angela. Following the birth of both children she returned to motion pictures as a freelance actress, often appearing in minor roles, which never received much recognition and praise at the box office, apart from a few films which drew her critical acclaim.
During the sixties and seventies, Angela appeared in several stage productions and films, some which were of notable success. In 1984, she took on the character of Jessica Fletcher in “Murder She Wrote”, which is now regarded as Lansbury’s most famous role. “Murder She wrote” ran for twelve years and after the completetion of the series, Angela returned to the theatre in 1997, appearing in several more stage productions.
Angela’s husband, Peter Shaw passed away on January 29th, 2003, after a long struggle with heart failure. Following Peter’s death, Angela underwent knee replacement surgery in 2005, which caused her to rest for a while.
In June 2013, Angela toured Australia in the Broadway production of “Driving Miss Daisy”. I was lucky enough to see Angie, live on stage in “Driving Miss Daisy” . That was a night not to be forgotten. She delivered a phenomenal performance & was absolutely outstanding. I was thrilled just being in the same theatre with Hollywood Royalty. It was after the show that I discovered that Angie is also amiable with fans. I was fortunate enough to meet her twice & on both occasions she was very down to earth. She was more than happy to sign our programme book & pose for a photo with me the second time.
A few weeks later I wrote to Angela’s home address, thanking her for such a great show. You can only imagine how thrilled I was when I checked the mail about two weeks later & discovered an envelope from Angela Lansbury in the box. She had received my mail & autographed a few more photos for me.
In 2013, Angela Lansbury attained an Honorary Oscar for her myriad of lifetime achievements. A year later in 2014, she was promoted to Dame Commander for her services to drama, charitable work and philanthropy.
With a career spanning over seventy years, Angela remains one of the brightest stars from Hollywood’s golden days. While many of her co-stars have long passed, Lansbury is one of the few stars that hold the key to the Silver Screen.
Happy 90th Birthday Angela and here’s to many more.