Simply put, Angela Lansbury is one of the legends in the field of the performing arts. For over eight decades, she has been a star on film, the stage, and on television. Before embarking on the role of Jessica Fletcher on the global hit television series Murder, She Wrote, she made her name in a string of well-received Broadway smashes, and before that, she was in a series of films for MGM.
Even in her 90s, Lansbury continues to make appearances in movies, television series, and even the occasional theatrical production. Here are some facts that you may not have known about one of Hollywood’s most beloved actresses.
Facts About Angela Lansbury
1. A Star is Born
Angela Brigid Lansbury was born on October 16, 1925, in the Regent’s Park area of London, England. Lansbury was her parents’ first-born child. The couple later had twin boys named Bruce and Edgar. Lansbury also has an older half-sister named Isolde from her mother’s previous marriage.
2. Mum & Dad
Lansbury’s parents were Moyna Macgill and Edgar Lansbury. Lansbury seemed to have inherited the acting gene from her Belfast-born mother, who was a regular fixture on the stages of London’s West End and would later have a few film credits as well. Lansbury’s father was from a wealthy family with interests in the timber industry. He would serve as a local politician representing both the Labour and Communist parties.
3. Solid Picks
While her show Murder She Wrote was a juggernaut hit in the 80s and 90s, ending in 1996, Lansbury’s tastes ran toward some other 90s favorites: she’s said that her favorite shows are Roseanne and Seinfeld.
4. Descended From Greatness
Lansbury is linked to two prominent figures in the British suffragette movement. Her father’s first wife Minnie and her grandfather Edgar were both instrumental in various campaigns to help women be granted the right to vote in the United Kingdom. Both Minnie and George were also imprisoned for their roles in the tax protest known as the Poplar Rates Rebellion.
5. Coming to America
1940 proved to be a pivotal year for Lansbury and her family. That year saw the death of her paternal grandfather and the beginning of the Blitz—the Nazi bombing campaign of London. Seeking safety, Lansbury’s mother moved with her three youngest children to the United States. They had originally boarded a ship that brought them to Montreal before taking the train to New York. They settled in Mahopac, New York before moving and taking up residence in Greenwich Village in New York City.
6. Bienvenue à Montreal
Lansbury accompanied her mother to Canada, where she had a role in a touring production of the play Tonight at 8:30. During this time, Lansbury was able to secure her first paid gig at the Samovar Club in Montreal. Lansbury’s nightclub act consisted of her singing songs originally penned by Noël Coward. Interestingly, Lansbury had to lie and say that she was 19 to get the $60 a week gig; she was actually only 16.
7. Further Education
Upon arriving in the United States, Lansbury was able to attain a scholarship from the American Theatre Wing. With the scholarships, she enrolled at the Feagin School of Drama and Radio. At the school, Lansbury performed in productions of William Congreve’s The Way of the World and Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. She graduated in 1942.
8. La La Land
Hoping to revive her movie career, Lansbury’s mother decided to move out west to Los Angeles. Angela and her siblings followed suit. In order to make ends meet between acting gigs, Lansbury and her mother both took holiday help positions at a high-end department store. Lansbury’s mother was fired not too long after, leaving Lansbury to be the family’s primary breadwinner.
Thanks to a party hosted by her mother, Lansbury was able to run into screenwriter John van Druten, who had been working on film adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s play Gaslight. Sure enough, Lansbury would make her film debut in the 1944 film version of Gaslight. The MGM film was directed by George Cukor and also starred Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotton. Gaslight was well received and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including a Best Supporting Actress for Lansbury—quite the feat for a first-time movie role!
10. Lucky 13
Gaslight led Lansbury to sign a 7-year, $500 a week contract with MGM. She would go onto star in films like National Velvet, State of the Union, The Red Danube, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, which led to another Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination. In all, Lansbury appeared in 13 films for MGM during the course of her original contract.
11. Butting Heads
Lansbury decided not to renew her contract with MGM when it was up in 1952. Not only had she just given birth to her first child, but also she had grown dissatisfied with how MGM was using her. Lansbury felt that she was repeatedly miscast—a sentiment shared by director George Cukor—in smaller parts often playing much older characters and villainous roles that did not help further her career.
12. Put Me In, Coach
One sticking point between Lansbury and MGM was the film studio’s decision to dub her singing voice in the film The Harvey Girls. MGM felt that Lansbury’s singing voice did not match her character, so they brought in Virginia Rees to dub her vocals over Lansbury’s. Considering Lansbury’s singing background and her future Broadway career, MGM’s decisions seems pretty ridiculous.
13. Onto Broadway
Feeling that her movie career was not going the way she had hoped, Lansbury turned to the stage. In 1957, she made her Broadway debut in the play Hotel Paradiso, which was staged in New York’s Henry Miller Theatre. Although the play did not have long run, Lansbury did receive acclaim for her performance as Marcel Cat. She made her Broadway musical debut in 1964 with Anyone Can Whistle. The musical was not well-received, though it did introduce her to Stephen Sondheim, the show’s co-writer, who she would work with in the future to much greater success.
14. Finding Fame With Mame
Lansbury’s big moment on Broadway was when she was cast as the title role in the original musical production of Mame in 1966. Mame was a smash hit and Lansbury earned rave reviews for her performance. She even won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. Mame kickstarted Lansbury’s run as one of the leading ladies of the Great White Way.
15. First Love
Lansbury’s first marriage was to fellow actor Richard Cromwell. She was only 19 at the time of their small 1945 wedding, while Cromwell was 35. The wedding, however, did not last long; as the couple divorced the following year. Despite the breakup of their marriage, Lansbury and Cromwell remained good friends until his death in 1960.
16. Love of Her Life
Lansbury got married for the second time in 1949 when she wed actor Peter Shaw. Like Lansbury, Shaw was also from Britain and had moved to the United States in the 1940s to start a career in the movies, where he’d been contracted to MGM. The two decided to marry in London and then honeymooned in France. They would be married for 54 years, until Shaw’s death in 2003.
17. Party of Five
Lansbury and Shaw had two children together, a son named Anthony and a daughter named Deirdre. Lansbury was also granted legal custody to David, Shaw’s son from his first marriage.
18. Driving Miss Daisy Down Under
Despite being well into her 80s, in 2013 Lansbury appeared in an Australian touring production of Driving Miss Daisy with fellow acting icon James Earl Jones. The performance was also filmed and released in theaters for special limited screenings. It was also screened as part of the PBS series Great Performances in 2015.
19. Taking on the Bard
Feeling that she wanted to mix it up from her regular roles in musicals, in 1975 Lansbury appeared in a National Theatre Company production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where she played the role of Gertrude. Lansbury received mixed reviews for her performance and later remarked that she hated the role, as it restrained her qualities as an actress.
20. Lady Liberty
The Statue of Liberty is one of the great symbols for immigrants to the United States, hoping for new opportunities and a better life. Therefore it was only fitting for Lansbury, an immigrant, and actor Kirk Douglas, the son of immigrants, to host a special tribute by the New York Philharmonic celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. In 2012, Lansbury received a Heritage Award from the Statue of Liberty Ellis Island Foundation, which celebrates one of the most integral and storied immigrant processing centers in the US.
21. Whoa, Nellie!
Lansbury played the role of Nellie Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street when it debuted on Broadway in 1979. The Stephen Sondheim musical was an enormous success and would lead to many future revivals and a film adaptation. For originating the role of Nellie, Lansbury won a lot of critical praise and once again won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical.
22. A Gift for the Grandkids
After years of being better known for her work on the stage and television, Lansbury was once again cast in a high profile film role in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. In the Disney animated film, Lansbury voiced the singing teapot, Mrs. Potts. She decided to take the role as a way to treat her three young grandchildren.
23. One Take Wonder
Lansbury was unsure whether she had the vocal chops to pull off the title song in Beauty and the Beast. Lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken convinced Lansbury to perform at least one take of the song. That one take brought the entire crew to tears and was eventually used for the film. The song would win Best Original Song honors at the Oscars, Golden Globes, and Grammys. Lansbury even performed the song live at the Academy Awards ceremony, where she was accompanied by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson.
24. In Good Company
In 2000, Lansbury was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, which celebrates individuals that have had a profound contribution to the performing arts in the United States. Her fellow honorees in 2000 were actor and director Clint Eastwood, opera tenor Placido Domingo, rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry, and ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.
25. Her Biggest Role
Lansbury truly became a household name in the 1980s when she starred in the wildly popular television series Murder, She Wrote. On the show, she played Jessica Fletcher, a mystery novelist who also assists in solving real-life crimes. The show premiered in 1984 on CBS and ran for 12 seasons and 264 episodes, with a series finale in 1996. During its peak of popularity, the show averaged more than 30 million viewers. After the show ended its original run, Lansbury reprised her role as Fletcher in four made-for-television movies.
26. Test Run for Jessica Fletcher
Jessica Fletcher has been often called the “American Miss Marple”, after the similar character appearing in many novels by Agatha Christie. Interestingly, Lansbury actually appeared as Miss Marple in the 1980 British film The Mirror Crack’d. Despite featuring an all-star cast including Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Curtis, Kim Novak, and Rock Hudson, the film was not a success and the planned sequels were not made. However, they did perhaps give Lansbury some preparation for her performance on Murder, She Wrote.
27. A Dubious Record
Despite portraying one of the most beloved characters in television history, Lansbury never won an Emmy for her performance as Jessica Fletcher. In fact, Lansbury holds the record for most Emmy acting nominations without a win. She has been nominated for 18 Emmy Awards, with 12 of them for her work on Murder, She Wrote.
28. Award Show Host
Although she never won an Emmy Award, Angela Lansbury did host the 1993 Emmy Award ceremony. She has also hosted the Tony Awards a record five times, one more than actors Neil Patrick Harris, Hugh Jackman, and the late Robert Preston.
29. Well-Deserved Recognition
Lansbury has a far better track record with the Tony Awards, as she has won five awards from seven nominations. She has won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical four times for her work in Mame, Dear World, Gypsy, and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. She has also won the Best Featured Actress in a Play award for her role in Blithe Spirit.
30. Angela and Oscar
Lansbury has been nominated for three Academy Awards in her career, all in the Best Supporting Actress category for the films Gaslight, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Manchurian Candidate. Although she did not win any of those awards, she did receive an Honorary Oscar in 2013.
31. Dame Angela
In 2014, Lansbury was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She received the honor from Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle and remarked, “It is a very proud day for me to be recognized by the country of my birth, and to meet the Queen under these circumstances is a rare and lovely occasion.”
32. Let’s Get Physical
In 1988, the then-63-year-old Lansbury released a fitness video that outlined her personal exercise regimen. The video, titled Angela Lansbury’s Positive Moves: My Personal Plan for Fitness and Well-Being, also resulted in a book of the same of the name, which she dedicated to her mother.
33. Aging Ain’t Easy
In her later years, Lansbury has experienced a few health-related setbacks. In the 1990s, Lansbury was diagnosed with arthritis. In 1994 she underwent a hip replacement surgery and in 2005 she underwent knee replacement surgery.
34. She’s Back
In 2017, Lansbury returned to the small screen as she played the role of Aunt March in a new miniseries adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s celebrated novel Little Women. The miniseries first debuted on the BBC during the holiday season before it premiered on American television in 2018 as part of PBS’s Masterpiece anthology series.
35. Lansbury Returns
Lansbury will be making appearances in two major films to be released during the holiday season in 2018. She will first be heard in the new version of The Grinch, where she will provide the voice for the Mayor of Whoville. She will then appear in the long-awaited film Mary Poppins Returns, where she will be the playing role of Balloon Lady.
36. Still Going Strong
In addition to her appearances on Broadway, Lansbury has also appeared in productions in London’s West End. However, there was a long gap between appearances, as she only returned to the West End in 2014, where she performed in Blithe Spirit. This was her first stage appearance in London in nearly four decades.
37. Citizenship Times 3
In 1951, both Lansbury and her husband Peter became naturalized citizens of the United States. In addition to her British citizenship by birth, Lansbury and her husband also received Irish citizenship, owing to their many years of maintaining a home in the Irish countryside.
38. Six Degrees of Separation
Lansbury’s half-sister Isolde was married for a short while to famed actor Peter Ustinov. In fact, her marriage to Ustinov was the reason why Isolde did not accompany her family to the United States. Lansbury would actually end up co-hosting the 1968 Tony Awards with her now-former brother-in-law.
Lansbury had a long-lasting friendship with fellow actress Bea Arthur. The two co-starred in the production of Mame, which resulted in both Lansbury and Arthur winning Tony Awards for their respective performances. Coincidentally, the two would both become major television stars in their later years in the ‘80s—Lansbury for Murder, She Wrote and Arthur for The Golden Girls.
40. A Tragic Loss
Sadly, when Lansbury was only 9 years old, her father died from stomach cancer at the age of 48. In a recent interview, Lansbury described the heartbreaking event as “the defining moment of my life. Nothing before or since has affected me so deeply.”
41. The Family
Although Lansbury was a dedicated mother, in the 60s, her children flirted with some of the more dangerous elements of the counterculture movement. Her daughter Deirdre knew many members of the Manson family and spent time with them, occasionally dabbling in substance use while the family used her credit cards. She was thankfully not involved on the fateful night of their murderous rampage.
42. The Emerald Isle
In 1970, Lansbury suffered some pretty serious setbacks. Her son Anthony suffered a heroin overdose and went into a coma and her home in Malibu was destroyed by fire. Lansbury and her husband decided to move to a country home in Ireland. Anthony later followed in an effort to help his recovery process from drug addiction. Anthony was able to recover and would go onto become an actor and director.