British Icon of the Week: Dame Angela Lansbury, the Gracious Actress with Over 75 Years in the Game
It's no exaggeration to call Dame Angela Lansbury one of the most beloved actors around. From her early, Oscar-nominated performances in 1944's Gaslight and 1945's The Picture of Dorian Gray, to her 264 episodes of Murder, She Wrote in the '80s and '90s, and onto more recent roles in the Nanny McPhee movies and last year's Mary Poppins Returns, her screen career is a feat of endurance stretching over 75 years.
Along the way, she's won five competitive Tony Awards – more than any other performer bar Audra McDonald and Julie Harris – and has received highly prestigious accolades including Kennedy Center Honors, an Honorary Academy Award, and a Damehood. As she celebrates her 95th birthday Friday, here's a reminder of just some of the reasons to admire her.
1. She holds British, Irish, and American citizenship.
Lansbury was born in London on October 16, 1925 to Irish actress Moyna MacGill and British politician Edgar Lansbury. She and her family moved to the U.S. in 1940 to escape the Blitz, which allowed Lansbury to pursue acting first in New York City and then in Hollywood. She and husband Peter Shaw moved with their two sons to Cork, Ireland, in 1970, but following Shaw's passing in 2003, Lansbury has said that she mainly lives at her home in Brentwood, Los Angeles.
2. She was typically gracious when Queen Elizabeth II made her a Dame for services to drama in 2013.
She told the BBC at the time: "I'm joining a marvelous group of women I greatly admire like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. It's a lovely thing to be given that nod of approval by your own country and I really cherish it."
3. She was also gracious when she learned that reggae duo Chaka Demus & Pliers had scored a '90s hit with a song called "Murder She Wrote."
When told by CBC radio host that the duo are "legends in reggae music," Lansbury replied: "Oh, reggae. Oh, I’m thrilled to be part of reggae, of course.”
4. She made sure her Murder, She Wrote character wasn't written reductively.
During an interview on Australian TV show Studio 10, she recalled that crime writer and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher was originally written as "rather a kooky character." "And I thought no – let's make her a smart woman," Lansbury continued. "And by the time we were finished, she had gotten back her sense of purpose as a woman, she was attractive, she had boyfriends and she had a nice wardrobe." She had become the sharp, classy Jessica Fletcher that Murder, She Wrote fans know and love.
5. She doesn't dwell on the fact that she's never won an Emmy, despite racking up no fewer than 18 nominations over the years.
She was nominated 12 years in a row for Murder, She Wrote but somehow never won. "The reason was the people of Hollywood never watch Murder, She Wrote and they are the people who are voting, whereas across the country it was the most popular show on television," she said in 2014.
6. She was lifelong friends with The Golden Girls star Bea Arthur, with whom she starred in the original 1966 Broadway production of comedy musical Mame.
In 1988, they reunited at the Tony Awards to perform the song "My Bosom Buddy" from Mame.
In an oral history of The Golden Girls, one of the show's writers, Stan Zimmerman, said he once spotted the old friends catching risqué 1998 rom-com The Opposite of Sex at an L.A. movie theater. "Ahead of us in line was Bea Arthur and Angela Lansbury. And we were like, “Holy f**k – we’re sitting right behind them," he recalled. "And they were laughing at the dirtiest stuff in that movie. And it was Mame. That was everything. We were like, ‘Who drove? How many cocktails did they have on the way over?'”
7. During the '80s home workout video craze, she made a very zen example: Angela Lansbury's Positive Moves.
Well, you wouldn't want Dame Angela Lansbury to get too hot and sweaty, would you?
8. Her Murder, She Wrote looks are so iconic that they've spawned a cult Instagram account.
It's called @murdershelook and it's totally joyous.
9. In 2016, she gave a supremely touching surprise performance of "Beauty and the Beast."
Lansbury delighted fans at a 25th anniversary screening of the animated Disney classic when she sang its title song accompanied by composer Alan Menken on piano. Try not to well up when she delivers a cute snippet of dialogue that her character, Mrs. Potts, spoke in the movie.
10. She won her first Olivier Award - the top accolade in West End theater – at the age of 89.
She won her award for portraying offbeat medium Madame Arcati in a revival of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit, the same role she'd won her fifth Tony Award for a few years earlier. Lansbury's acceptance is typically charming. "Here I am creeping up to 90 and feeling like a million dollars because I'm in London and I'm here in this magnificent hall with you, my roots, where I began" she says. "And I'm still with you!"
What are your favorite Dame Angela Lansbury moments?