Angela Lansbury, the English born actress, child star in Hollywood and beloved sleuth of “Murder She Wrote” who conquered Broadway relatively late in life, died today at her home in Los Angeles. She was 96.
The daughter of an Irish actress and a British politician, she appeared in her first role on the Rialto at the age of 31, after more than a dozen years as an Oscar-nominated Hollywood actress. and she did not achieve Broadway stardom until age 40, But, if she’s probably best known to the public at large for her 12-year run as amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in the TV detective series “Murder She Wrote,” theatergoers see her as the consummate Broadway performer, appearing in 14 Broadway plays and musicals, nominated for seven Tony Awards for her performances, and winning five of them. Earlier this year, she received a sixth — a Special Award For Lifetime Achievement.
It must be said that her acclaimed performances in such Broadway hits as “Mame,” “Gypsy” and “Sweeney Todd” should not have come as a surprise. Yes, she became a star because of her movie roles in “Gaslight,” “National Velvet,” and “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” but here she is at the age of 21, singing “How’d You Like to Spoon With Me?” in the movie Till The Clouds Roll By
Dame Angela was still performing as late as November 2019, as Lady Bracknell in a one-night benefit of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” She was interviewed at Lincoln Center library that weekend by Irish Rep’s Charlotte Moore as part of the 37th season of The League of Professional Theatre Women’s Oral History Project, recounting her first role in the movies, as the saucy maid in Gaslight at the age of 17. From then on, “I was a utility actress, as far as MGM was concerned. They could put me into almost any role, and I would act it.” Two decades after that first Oscar-nominated screen role, she won her first of five Tony Awards. Three quarters of a century after she began, she was still preparing for roles. “It’s terribly important to get out of yourself and into that character. Leave yourself at home.”
Although she made scores of movies, she loved the theater. “The theater is magical and addictive,” she once said. “Believe me, it jabs you. When you’re on the side of buses and New York loves you, you love to go out there every night. It’s like a race. Curtain opens, out you go, and New York is yours.”
Stephen Sondheim on Angela Lansbury, as recounted in an appreciation by Charle McNulty: “It’s hard to write about her without sounding like her agent. Suffice it to say that every playwright should have her in their play and every theater songwriter should have her in their musical.”