The new year is often a time for reflection and contemplation. It is a time that we often look back on the people that we lost over the year and how that loss has affected us. As I was deciding what shows I should write about for the January Live Performance / Broadway article, I realized that I had to spotlight one very special actress whose passing in October really affected me. She was an old time Hollywood star whose body of work spans decades and whose legacy was not only her artistry but her warm and compassionate personality. I am, of course, talking about Angela Lansbury.
Although you may not immediately think of Angela as a sci-fi / horror genre actress, she has starred in many genre classics. Most people probably know her as the meddling widow with a penchant for solving murders in the CBS drama, Murder, She Wrote. The show ran from 1984 to 1996 and continued with made for television movies up until 2003. Or possibly you know her as Mrs. Potts, the singing teapot in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. She was also the grandmother in the horror / werewolf anthology film The Company of Wolves. Readers of a certain age, like myself, may remember her as the lead in another Disney film, the live action mixed with animation 1971 production Bedknobs and Broomsticks, where she played a young woman who uses witchcraft to foil a German invasion of Britain during World War II. Going even further back. Lansbury was critically acclaimed for her role in the 1966 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate with many people believing this was her finest performance. And if you want to go back even further, her very first movie role in 1944 starring alongside Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight as the cockney maid, which garnered her first of three Oscar nominations. In addition to those three Oscar nods, her career in film and television gave her six Golden Globe Awards, an Academy Honorary Award and a whopping eighteen Primetime Emmy Awards, along with a Grammy Award.
Although her breadth of work in television and films is expansive, her work on stage is even more impressive. She has won five Tony Awards, six if you include her “Lifetime Achievement Award”. Although already having been a stage actress, her first foray into musical theater was Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle. The show was panned by critics and ran only nine performances, and although she had issues with Laurents, this started a lifelong friendship with Sondheim. Her big breakthrough came when Rosalind Russell passed up the role of Auntie Mame in the Jerry Herman musical based off of the novel. Lansbury actively sought the role and got it, but this was risky as she was not as well known. The show was a huge success and brought Angela her first Tony win, plus Mame was already a gay icon, so this show gave Lansbury a cult gay following and catapulted her to stardom. She continued to work on stage staring as Mama Rose in the West End production of Gypsy. In 1979 she took the part of Nellie Lovett in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street along side Len Cariou. The show, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, is one of the best horror musicals ever produced. The story of a revenge-filled barber who slits the throats of his patrons, and his victims are then turned into “meat pies” to be sold in Mrs. Lovett’s shop is one of my all-time favorite shows. The show garnered her fourth Tony and solidified her status as a Broadway star.
In 2003, Angela’s life dipped a little when her husband, Peter Shaw passed away, they had been married for over fifty years. She continued to work, but only in cameos and smaller parts, like her Emmy nominated turn on an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit or as Aunt Adelaide in the 2005 film Nanny McPhee. She did eventually return to the stage first in Terrence McNally’s Deuce and then in Blithe Spirit where her performance as Madame Arcati gave her the fifth Tony.
She continued to work both on stage and in film with her final role being in the recently released sequel to Knives Out, Glass Onion, playing herself in a cameo alongside longtime friend Stephen Sondheim, who passed away in late 2021. Angela Lansbury died on October 11th, 2022, at the age of 96. She was remembered by all who had worked with her as a compassionate woman who was kind, but also tough as nails and expected everyone to give it their all. She was a class act all around. One of my favorite facts about Angela is that during the many years she worked on Murder, She Wrote, she made it a practice of hiring guest actors of the golden age that had “aged out” of the game. By hiring them, it allowed the actor to earn the union points necessary to keep their insurance and pensions. This included Madlyn Rhue, who suffered from MS and was wheelchair bound. This made finding work very difficult, and when Lansbury heard this, she had a part created specifically for Madlyn and made sure she had at least one speaking line in every episode she was in so she could keep her insurance. That was the type of person Angela Lansbury was! And the type of person we all need to strive to be.
Angela Lansbury: Broadway Dims the Lights
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