Although she was a highly regarded film star in her younger days, starring in some of the most famous films of all time, she was best known in later life for her role as amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in the American crime drama series, Murder, She Wrote.
Born in Regents Park, London, in 1925, Lansbury moved to New York City during World War II to escape the Blitz. She studied acting at the Feagin School of Dramatic Art, while working at a department store selling cosmetics to pay her bills.
Immediately snapped up by MGM film studios in 1942 for her first role as a maid in Gaslight, the 1944 psychological thriller; friend had persuaded her to go to the studios on spec to see if they wanted a young British actress for any minor roles.
Lansbury never dreamed she would end up as one of the co-stars of her first film! Starring alongside Hollywood royalty including Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten, the teenager earned an Oscar nomination for best-supporting actress.
Based on the 1938 play, Gas Light, by Patrick Hamilton, the film gave Lansbury the big break she needed to launch her Hollywood career.
Angela Lansbury in Gaslight in 1944:
Lansbury’s second film, National Velvet, has been hailed one of the greatest movies of all time and a true Hollywood classic. Filmed in glorious Technicolour and set in Sussex, England, it tells the story of a 12-year-old girl, Velvet Brown, who’s crazy about horses.
After winning a spirited young horse in a raffle, she has the seemingly impossible dream of entering him in the Grand National. She decides to train him to become a racehorse, enlisting the help of a young drifter, Mi Taylor.
Released just before Christmas 1944, the film was a big box office hit, grossing £5.2 million. Not only has National Velvet earned its place in the history books as one of the best “feel good” films ever made, but it also led to Lansbury forming a lifelong friendship with one of the other young stars.
Elizabeth Taylor was 12 when she played the role of Velvet, after making her movie debut at ten in the Universal Pictures’ comedy, There’s One Born Every Minute. After being signed by MGM, National Velvet launched her career as a teenage star.
Lansbury was an 18-year-old playing the role of Velvet’s older sister, Edwina Brown, 14. Fresh from the success of her Oscar-nominated role in Gaslight, she was already a young star too.
Despite the age gap, when Angela Lansbury met Elizabeth Taylor during the filming of National Velvet, it was the start of a lifelong friendship.
A scene from National Velvet featuring Angela Lansbury and Elizabeth Taylor:
In 2003, the Library of Congress selected National Velvet for the prestigious United States National Film Registry on the grounds it was significant “culturally, historically, or aesthetically”.
Angela Lansbury presented the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Elizabeth Taylor for her lifelong charity work at the 65th Academy Awards® in 1993.
At the time, Lansbury spoke of their friendship, telling the audience, “I first met her on the set of National Velvet. We were both quite young, but even then, I knew we were dealing with someone very special.”
Lansbury said the word “special” underestimated Taylor, describing her instead as “unique”. Taylor was one of the first major stars to take up the cause for AIDS victims, giving people hope and inspiring others to support them. Lansbury praised her friend for launching the Elizabeth Taylor Foundation for Patient Care.
Lansbury presents the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Taylor:
The Mirror Crack’d
The two friends starred together again in the 1980 Agatha Christie film, The Mirror Crack’d. Lansbury played the famous amateur sleuth, Miss Jane Marple, while Taylor played Marina Rudd, a movie star making a big comeback after a long illness.
Marina starts receiving death threats and subsequently, a horrific murder takes place at the luxurious Gossington Hall. Miss Marple is called in to help by her nephew, Inspector Dermot Craddock from Scotland Yard.
In an interview in 2018, Lansbury spoke warmly of her lifelong friend Taylor, who had died in 2011, aged 79, following long-term health issues.
Lansbury spoke of how her bond with Taylor had been formed because they were both very young when they shared the experience of working together on National Velvet. “We were kids together and we remained friends all our careers,” she explained.
Speaking of Taylor’s incredible resilience in living her life under intense public scrutiny all the time, Lansbury admitted she “didn’t know how she had coped”.
Despite being in the public eye throughout her career, with the newspapers continually filled with gossip about her marriages, Taylor was always a “terrific mother” who “really cared about her kids” and “always took care of them”, Lansbury said. Taylor had juggled her career and her family life and “always married for love”.
Murder, She Wrote
Lansbury’s role as Miss Marple, alongside Taylor in The Mirror Crack’d, was the forerunner of her most famous role of amateur detective Jessica Fletcher in the US drama series Murder, She Wrote, which ran for 264 episodes and four TV movies from September 1984 to May 1996.
Jessica Fletcher was a widow and a retired English teacher, who launched a new career as a successful mystery writer. However, her career as a writer of fiction gave her a unique insight into the criminal mind and she always proved more successful than the detectives in solving crimes.
During her long career, Lansbury starred in almost 60 films, one of her most popular being the children’s film, Walt Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, in 1971. Lansbury played Miss Eglantine Price, a reclusive woman who is asked to take in refugees during World War II.
Initially reluctant to do so, as she’s a good witch trying to find a spell to end the war; not only does she bond with the children, but she also falls in love with Professor Emelius Browne, who’s running a correspondence course on witchcraft!
In the past decade, Lansbury returned to the stage, receiving her first Olivier Award at the age of 89 in April 2015, for her performance as Madame Arcati in Blythe Spirit on Broadway. In November 2015, she received the Oscar Hammerstein Award for Lifetime Achievement in Musical Theatre.
Her final stage appearance was on 18th November 2019, when she appeared on Broadway as Lady Bracknell in a one-night benefit performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, staged by Roundabout Theatre Company.
Variety Magazine published an editorial about Lansbury’s remarkable career in 2020, saying that throughout her lifetime in show business, “nobody has a bad word to say about her”. She was also appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2014. The iconic actress leaves a great legacy of all her film and television performances for future generations, inspiring young people to believe that anything is possible.
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