With Energy and a Comic Soul, Angela Lansbury Fills in the One Gap in Her Résumé: a Hit Series

updated 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/17/1984 AT 01:00 AM EST

Angela," says Peter S. Fischer, co-creator and executive producer of the CBS hit Murder, She Wrote, "is a class act." At this point such a judgment seems almost redundant. Each time Angela Lansbury steps onto the set, there is a moment when starlets stop giggling, lighting men scurry to work and the director snaps to attention. Not only is Lansbury a consummate pro who brings the highest standards of theatrical craft to every appearance before the camera, she brings out the best in the people who work with her.

If Angela, with her Broadway record of four Tonys for Best Actress in a Musical, seems a bit out of place winning the hearts and minds of Nielsen families as Jessica Fletcher, the sleuthing mystery novelist from Cabot Cove, Maine, well, sometimes she thinks so herself. Throughout her career—now more than four decades long—Lansbury has remained wary of television, appearing only in a few miniseries and specials, such as Little Gloria...Happy at Last and Lace. "The theater has always had first call on my talents," she says. "I genuinely thrill to the excitement of a live audience, and I have had very little desire to do television or films in recent years."

Yet here she is, sweltering in the unseasonable 105-degree heat of downtown Los Angeles, trying to play a courtroom scene with an uncooperative beagle. Ancient Patriotic Hall has been redecorated to look like a county courthouse, and the only cooling system is the one provided—or in this case not provided—by God. Despite the coaxing of Angela and Lynn Redgrave, the animal misses its cue for the sixth time, and the director calls for a break. Heading out to her dressing-room trailer, Angela stops before a large fan blowing across chunks of dry ice. "My God, this is the old Joan Crawford trick!" she cries. "She insisted on having her sets ice cold, and this is how they did it before air-conditioning!"

Sinking into a comfortable chair in her cool trailer, Angela lets out a huge sigh. "I have been running from location to location, from Seattle to Mendocino and all over Southern California," she says. "Everyday I get up at 5:45 a.m. and start learning new lines to replace the ones I fell asleep memorizing the night before. This is such an insular existence—constantly thinking about this series and the lines I have to learn—that I get bored with myself."

Hardly likely. She rushes around like a terrier, chasing after every element of the show, checking the sets, changing the scripts. A model of self-sufficiency, she does her own makeup and, remarkably enough, cuts her own hair—though a hairdresser prepares her before every shot. Her personal entourage—consisting of her manager husband, Peter Shaw, who checks the dailies, handles the personal affairs and even cooks dinner; her son, Anthony, who is dialogue coach for the production; and Dolores Childers, her assistant and dresser since 1966—hustles to keep up with her. But as she flies through the trailer in her lucky dressing robe embroidered with good wishes from the cast of the 1974 Broadway production of Gypsy, she insists over her shoulder: "I have no social life and I am rarely alone with my husband. Heavens, I'm a nun for television! Why am I doing this to myself?"

A year short of 60, with plenty of laurels to rest on and a comfortable bank account, why, indeed, would she tackle the chancy and backbreaking chore of a TV series? "Well, to begin, I had no idea how all-absorbing the work would be," she explains. "No idea. But primarily I was motivated by ego. Attempting to bring off my own show is a great challenge. If I can do it, at the age of 59, it will be a small miracle. I felt that it would have been a gap in my acting experience if I had never done a television series. I wanted to play to that huge audience just once.

"There was nothing exciting for me on Broadway at the moment," she adds (leaving tactfully unmentioned last year's disappointing Mame revival, which closed after a short Broadway run, and a musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard that never got off the ground). "But within the same week, I was sent two television scripts. One was a situation comedy from Norman Lear and the other was the two-hour pilot for Murder, She Wrote. Peter Fischer had originally written it for Jean Stapleton, but she had just lost her husband and didn't want to do anything. When I read it, I felt that Peter's script could have been written for me. Besides, there are so few decent roles for women on television, and I was immediately taken by Jessica. After all, I represent a huge chunk of the viewing audience: the middle-aged woman. She's not very often represented as a vital and intelligent being."

Not that she views her role with ponderous seriousness. First and foremost she considers herself a comedienne. "That's the reason I was able to segue from movies into the musical theater," she says. "I think most good tragedians are also good comedians. Laurence Olivier is a good example. He played many of the Shakespeare comedies. To be really tragic, you also have to be a clown. In fact, in Murder, She Wrote I often think of myself as Bugs Bunny: I have to run in and grab the evidence, race out in a cloud of dust and return to say, 'That's all, folks.' " Actually, that's Porky Pig's line, but the point's the same.

From earliest childhood in London, Angela Brigid Lansbury was singing, dancing and hamming it up. Her mother, actress Moyna MacGill, was a flamboyant figure on the London stage, her grandfather, George Lansbury, a leader of the British Labour Party. But Angela, her half-sister Isolde (who later married and was divorced from Peter Ustinov) and her younger twin brothers, Edgar and Bruce (now Hollywood producers), fell on hard times when their father, a lumber merchant, died in 1934. She was 14 years old when the family was evacuated to the U.S. in 1940 during the London blitz.

In New York she enrolled in drama school with the help of a scholarship from the American Theater Wing. Soon she had a musical comedy act that she performed at clubs, among them Roseland and the Blue Angel. Summoned to Hollywood by her mother, who was looking for work there, she spent the 1942 Christmas season with Moyna behind the counters of Bullocks department store. A year later, after George Cukor spotted her in a screen test, Angela was signed by Louis B. Mayer to a seven-year MGM contract. Her first role, as Charles Boyer's Cockney maid in Gaslight (1944), earned her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. The same year she played Elizabeth Taylor's older sister in National Velvet, and in 1945 a music-hall singer in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a role that made her again an Academy Award nominee. Of her performance, James Agee wrote, "She is touching and exact in her defenseless romanticism and...evocative of milkmaids in 18th-century pornographic prints."

Whatever she may have thought of that, Lansbury lost the defenseless look early. "I kept wanting to play the Jean Arthur roles, and Mr. Mayer kept casting me as a series of venal bitches," she recalls. At 22, she played the spiteful 35-year-old wife of Walter Pidgeon in If Winter Comes and a haughty 45-year-old publisher in State of the Union. "I played so many hags 20 years older than myself in those early films that now everyone thinks I'm 80 years old!" she moans. "I never had those chocolate-box looks they wanted for romantic leads in those days. But as a character actor I achieved two things. First, a healthy sense of my offscreen self and my private life, which I learned to keep separate from my screen characters. And second, a longevity of career that has outlasted many of the leading ladies who relied on their looks."

In 1949 Lansbury married Peter Shaw, who later became an agent and MGM executive. She has been with him ever since. In addition to raising his son, David, now 40, Lansbury had two children with him, Anthony in 1952 and Deirdre in 1953. Motherhood barely slowed her film career, though there are times when she believes that it should have. "Frankly I wish I had spent more time with my family and less time making mediocre movies in those days," she laments. By that time she was playing everybody's mother: Elvis Presley's in Blue Hawaii( 1961), Warren Beatty's in All Fall Down (1962) and even Laurence Harvey's in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), though at 34 he was only three years her junior.

Then, stunningly, after more than two decades of second-magnitude stardom, Angela became an instant supernova on Broadway with her dazzling portrayal of Mame in 1966. No one who saw those busting-loose performances will forget how she danced her way through some 20 costume changes, a tango, a cakewalk and a Charleston without missing a step or a laugh line. Sardi's gave her the ultimate accolade, moving her caricature from its Siberian habitat to a conspicuous spot near the entrance. Though she had appeared in three Broadway shows a few years before, Mame literally put her name in lights.

Her joy in Broadway stardom was soon clouded by troubles at home. "Both of my children, but particularly my son, became involved with drugs," she says. "Malibu, where we lived in the 1960s, was a hotbed of youthful drug abuse—to these kids it was as common as bubble gum. Peter and I were the typical Eisenhower-years couple during the '50s. But the 1960s were shattering to us as a family." Hospitals and rehabilitation clinics failed to cure Anthony of his heroin addiction. Then in cruel, rapid succession, Angela's mother died of throat cancer and, in 1970, the family's Malibu home burned to the ground in a brushfire.

"Everything was telling me to take my family and get away, so I did," she recalls. She fled to a house in a tiny village in County Cork, Ireland. "It was one of the happiest decisions of my life. It was one of the last places on earth that was fairly drug free," she says. "It was also a spiritual home for me. I bought an old stone house, on 20 acres of land, that had been built for a vicar in 1825. There were elm trees 300 years old, a river running down in back and lovely Victorian gardens all around. We had a wonderful life. Anthony regained his health, and in 1972 Peter got tired of commuting from Los Angeles to see us and just retired so that we could all be together.

"They say that you love best the era when you were a child. Well, I was a child in the 1930s and it was a time of innocence—a sort of swan song for civilization and the prelude to World War II. There was a romance and a drama that to me was idyllic. In 1971 I was able to step back in time, because Ireland was 40 or 50 years behind the rest of Europe. No one, including my dear loving husband, understood exactly what I was doing. But I was reliving childhood fantasies. Paddy O'Brien and I planted new gardens every season, and I took long walks with my children in the lovely Irish countryside. I seriously thought I would give up my career and just enjoy life."

Angela releases another long sigh. "Of course, it was an unrealistic and childlike desire on my part," she says sternly, as if in self-reprimand. "And I was offered some exciting artistic opportunities." After commuting to London to perform in Edward Albee's All Over with the Royal Shakespeare Company and to play Gertrude to Albert Finney's Hamlet at the National Theater, she was asked by Arthur Laurents to star in the revival of Gypsy in 1973. "Mama Rose is a great character," says Lansbury. "The show has one of the best librettos ever written for a musical. How could I refuse?"

She couldn't, and the successful West End production of Gypsy moved to Broadway in 1974. Obviously her days in bucolic isolation were numbered. "I knew that I would never get back to leisurely life in Ireland when Hal Prince called in 1978 to ask me to do Sweeney Todd," she says. Her amazing operatic portrayal of Todd's bloody inamorata, Mrs. Lovett, helped the show sweep eight Tony awards, including Best Musical of 1979. She and Peter sold the house in Ireland the following year.

"Since then, he and I have been slightly displaced persons," she admits with a nervous laugh. "We have a beautiful apartment on the 44th floor of the Manhattan Plaza and a farmhouse in upstate New York. But we haven't really put our roots back down in the U.S.A. Right now we are living in a rented house in Brentwood until we hear about the fate of the show."

Whenever Angela does have a spare moment away from Murder, She Wrote, it is usually devoted to getting back to the soil. "I love to read gardening books and seed catalogues because right now all I have are three potted plants," she explains. Her penchant for privacy has not kept her out of touch. "The area where I am involved in social causes is child abuse and violence in the home," she says. "I am on the board of the Family Rescue shelter for battered women and children in Chicago. Five years ago those of us who were concerned about domestic violence could not get any attention. Now, thank God, the problems of child abuse and wife beating are out in the open."

Angela's levelheaded approach to life won't allow her to admit that her series is already a hit. "It looks good, but let's see if we last for a year," she says. And if it doesn't? "Oh, I'll be acting in something else, somewhere else. I can't help it, I love it. When I die, they're going to carry me off a stage." But her driving passion, her secret longing? "My last great ambition in life is to create a garden from scratch," she says. "I want to prepare the soil and just watch my flowers grow. One of the problems in my business is that we are all gypsies. But stability is the thing I yearn for most. To be a good gardener you have to stick with your plants."

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