Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Angela Lansbury

Star of stage, television, and the silver screen, Angela Lansbury was born to an upper-class British family. Her father, a lumber dealer, died when Lansbury was nine, and at ten she saw Sir John Gielgud on stage at the Old Vic as Hamlet, and decided by intermission that she would become an actress. At 14, amid the blitz of London, her mother took Lansbury and her twin brothers to America.

She made her professional stage debut as a cabaret dancer at 16, after telling the club's management that she was 19. She made her Broadway debut playing Bert Lahr's wife in the 1957 bedroom farce Hotel Paradiso, and had her first starring role -- and her first hit -- in the 1960 play A Taste of Honey with Joan Plowright and Billy Dee Williams. She was Broadway's original Mame, and starred in New York productions of The King and I with Yul Brynner, as Gypsy Rose Lee's mother Mama Rose in Gypsy, and as the baker of human meat pies in Sweeney Todd. She won four Tonys over her stage career, winning every time she was nominated. She has been Oscar-nominated three times and Emmy-nominated a remarkable 18 times, and never won either award.

Her widest fame came on television as Jessica Fletcher, the retired English teacher who became a best-selling mystery writer, with a hobby of solving murders on Murder, She Wrote. Over a dozen seasons and hundreds of episodes, Fletcher was suspiciously always in the vicinity when murder most foul was committed, and the show became a haven for old-time movie and TV stars from Linda Blair to Cesar Romero. In very special episodes she traveled to England to assist the Scotland Yard, and to Hawaii to hobnob with Tom Selleck's Magnum, PI, and after the series was cancelled Lansbury returned as Fletcher in several made-for-TV movies.

Lansbury has said that her only regret is that she never had the opportunity to star in films, but she was occasionally a movie star, and turned in some unforgettable supporting roles. In her film debut at age 19, she played the Cockney, saucy maid in the haunting thriller Gaslight with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, and in the classic National Velvet she played 12-year-old Elizabeth Taylor's older sister. In the 1945 film of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray with George Sanders, she played his the music hall singer who became his first conquest. In many of her films while under contract to MGM she played the other woman, the star's best friend, the nagging wife, and other characters that offered little to an actress. In the original Manchurian Candidate she played Laurence Harvey's deliciously wicked mother, and she was undoubtedly the star of Disney's delightful Bedknobs and Broomsticks as an apprentice witch who dazzles young children and dances in mid-air with David Tomlinson. She had the nominal lead as the detective Miss Marple in the all-star adaptation of Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd, and she voiced the teapot, Mrs. Potts, in Disney's animated Beauty and the Beast -- and sang the movie's Oscar-winning theme song.

Lansbury's genealogy features numerous notable names. The family's show business tradition began with her great-uncle, Robert Mantell, a Broadway producer and star from the 1880s to the 1920s, who performed with Ethel Barrymore. Lansbury's mother was Moyna MacGill, a successful actress on the London stage and star of several silent films in the early 1920s. MacGill's first husband, before she married Lansbury's father, was movie director Reginald Denham, best known for directing Vivien Leigh's pre-Gone With the Wind comedy The Village Squire, and writing the thriller Ladies in Retirement starring Ida Lupino and Elsa Lanchester. MacGill and Denham's daughter Isolde Denham, Lansbury's half-sister, married actor Peter Ustinov and spawned well-known British stage actress Tamara Ustinov. After her children were grown, Lansbury's mother resumed her acting career, mostly appearing in small roles as eccentric Englishwomen in films from the 1944 Jane Eyre with Joan Fontaine to My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, and she appeared on Broadway in the 1954 production of The Boy Friend with Julie Andrews.

Her brother is Bruce Lansbury, the long-time Hollywood producer of enjoyably fluffy TV shows such as The Wild Wild West with Robert Conrad, Mission: Impossible with Peter Graves, Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter, and Knight Rider with David Hasselhoff. Bruce Lansbury's twin, Edgar Lansbury, is a very successful stage producer whose biggest hits include the original New York production of Godspell and the Broadway debut of The Subject Was Roses with Jack Albertson and Martin Sheen. He also produced the feature films based on both plays, and won a Tony for The Subject Was Roses.

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