Angela Lansbury, the big-eyed, scene-stealing British actor who kicked up her heels in the Broadway musicals Mame and Gypsy and solved endless murders as crime novelist Jessica Fletcher in the long-running TV series Murder, She Wrote, has died aged 96.
Lansbury died on Tuesday at her home in Los Angeles, according to a statement from her three children. She died five days shy of her 97th birthday.
Lansbury won five Tony Awards for her Broadway performances and a lifetime achievement award. She earned Academy Award nominations as supporting actress for two of her first three films, Gaslight (1945) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1946), and was nominated again in 1962 for The Manchurian Candidate and her deadly portrayal of a Communist agent and the title character’s mother.
Her mature demeanour prompted producers to cast her much older than her actual age. In 1948, when she was 23, her hair was streaked with grey so she could play a fortyish newspaper publisher with a yen for Spencer Tracy in State of the Union.
Her stardom came in middle age when she became the hit of the New York theatre winning Tony Awards for Mame (1966), Dear World (1969), Gypsy (1975) and Sweeney Todd (1979).
She was back on Broadway and got another Tony nomination in 2007 in Terrence McNally’s Deuce, playing a scrappy, brash former tennis star, reflecting with another ex-star as she watches a modern-day match from the stands. In 2009 she collected her fifth Tony, for best featured actress in a revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and in 2015 won an Olivier Award in the role.
But Lansbury’s widest fame began in 1984 when she launched Murder, She Wrote on US TV network CBS. Based loosely on Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories, the series centred on Jessica Fletcher, a middle-aged widow and former substitute school teacher living in the seaside village of Cabot Cove, Maine. She had achieved notice as a mystery novelist and amateur sleuth.
The actress found the first series season exhausting.
“I was shocked when I learned that had to work 12-15 hours a day, relentlessly, day in, day out,” she recalled. “I had to lay down the law at one point and say, ‘Look, I can’t do these shows in seven days; it will have to be eight days’.”
CBS and the production company, Universal Studio, agreed, especially since Murder, She Wrote had become a Sunday night hit. Despite the long days – she left her home at Brentwood in West Los Angeles at 6am and returned after dark – and reams of dialogue to memorise, Lansbury maintained a steady pace. She was pleased that Jessica Fletcher served as an inspiration for older women.
“Women in motion pictures have always had a difficult time being role models for other women,” she observed. “They’ve always been considered glamorous in their jobs.”