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Angela Lansbury Appreciation: This Titan of Stage, Film and TV Moved Generations of Fans

From her early work at MGM through Broadway stardom and ”Murder, She Wrote“ immortality, Lansbury stayed vibrant and creative throughout a long life

What role you remember first when you think of Angela Lansbury speaks to how old you are — with an extraordinary career spanning more than 80 years, Lansbury brought indelible performances to generations of filmgoers, stage fans, and TV watchers.

Perhaps your go-to is Jessica Fletcher, the TV sleuth she played from 1984-1996. Or maybe you get a shiver of delight thinking of her Broadway turns as the madcap Mame Dennis of “Mame” or the duplicitous Mrs. Lovett of “Sweeney Todd.” Some fans embrace her as the loving mother-turned-teapot in the animated “Beauty and the Beast” while others get a cold sweat recalling her ruthless mommy in the original “The Manchurian Candidate.”

There are no wrong answers here; for most of the 20th century and a decent chunk of the 21st, Angela Lansbury did it all — drama, comedy, musical, stage, screen, warm, terrifying — and she did it brilliantly.

Born in London in 1925, she fled the Blitz in 1940 and came to New York to study acting. By 1942, she’d signed with MGM in Los Angeles and immediately appeared in three films that remain classics to this day: “Gaslight” and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (both of which earned her Oscar nominations) as well as “National Velvet.” She was anything but sweetness and light during her years at the studio, playing the yin to Judy Garland’s wide-eyed yang in “The Harvey Girls” as well as the unfaithful Queen Anne in “The Three Musketeers” (1948), but she ultimately felt disappointed in the roles offered her and dissolved her contract in 1952.

The rest of the decade involved having children, doing some stage and TV work, as well as roles in a smattering of films, the most memorable being “The Court Jester,” “The Long Hot Summer” and “The Reluctant Debutante.” But Lansbury’s screen career burned hot anew in the 1960s, since her level of poise and intensity made her a favorite for filmmakers who cast her as characters older than she was. In 1962 alone, John Frankenheimer cast the then 37-year-old Lansbury as the mother of 25-year-old Warren Beatty (in “All Fall Down”) and the mother of 34-year-old Laurence Harvey (in “The Manchurian Candidate”).

That latter performance earned Lansbury her third and final Academy Award nomination (she earned an honorary Oscar in 2014) and remains one of the cinema’s all-time terrifying mothers. Eleanor Iselin is grasping and withholding, brashly condescending and manipulative, bigoted yet brilliant — and that’s before the plot twist. And because Lansbury embraced playing older women at a relatively young age, she didn’t have to worry about the difficult transition many screen ingenues have faced when moving into more mature roles in the notoriously sexist film industry.

The 1960s also saw Lansbury’s stage career take off; she played the lead in Stephen Sondheim’s 1964 “Anyone Can Whistle” (it flopped then but is beloved now) and most famously dazzled in the title role of Jerry Herman’s “Mame” in 1966, a role that made her a huge Broadway star (and a Tony winner) at the age of 41. She would find later success with Sondheim, first in a 1973 revival of “Gypsy” and then originating the role of Mrs. Lovett in 1979’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”

She would continue to move back and forth between the stage and the cinema, and while 1980’s “The Mirror Crack’d” wasn’t a game-changer in the pantheon of Agatha Christie adaptations, Lansbury’s turn as legendary sleuth Miss Marple was clearly an a-ha moment for the actress, who would soon sign on for “Murder, She Wrote,” a cozy mystery series created by Peter S. Fischer, Richard Levinson and William Link. (Levinson and Link had previously created “Columbo.”) As the somewhat Marple-esque novelist Jessica Fletcher, constantly discovering corpses and solving murders in the quaint village of Cabot Cove, Maine, Lansbury hit upon a winning formula that tapped into her ability to play sympathetic and shrewd while also providing lots of special-guest-star opportunities for fellow veterans of Hollywood’s golden age.

A long-running series would have provided the perfect golden parachute for retirement, but Lansbury never seemed to slow down. In 1991, she joined the cast of the animated “Beauty and the Beast” — singing the title song for good measure — and spent the early part of the 2000s still working in film (including “Nanny McPhee,” “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” and “Mary Poppins Returns”), stage (earning acclaim for her Broadway work in “Deuce” and “Blithe Spirit,” and having to drop out of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” because of her commitment to an Australian revival of “Driving Miss Daisy” opposite James Earl Jones) and television (she earned an Emmy nomination for a 2005 “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” appearance, delivered a moving turn in the 2004 Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s “The Blackwater Lightship” and made her final small-screen appearance in the BBC’s 2017 production of “Little Women”).

Perhaps her “Sweeney Todd” co-star Len Cariou best summed up Lansbury’s extraordinary longevity when he noted, in 2012, “Ange is classy and elegant, warm and generous, but she’s also tough and expects everyone around her to give their all. As far as she is concerned, there is no challenge that can’t be at least partially met with a ‘cuppa’ very strong Yorkshire Gold. Working on the stage keeps her vibrant. A healthy regimen keeps her beautiful. What keeps her ageless is her immense curiosity, her exuberance for life, and her tremendous gift for holding on to joy.”