ANGELA LANSBURY LEANS FORWARD ON TIE LIVING ROOM SOFA of her comfortable home in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, pours coffee into a pair of delicate china cups, then nods al the stunning portrait on a nearby wall. “That’s my mother, Moyna Macgill,” she says softly. “A true Irish beauty, wasn’t she?”
Indeed she was, and memories of the flame-haired actress who lit up the stages of London’s West End in the 1920s and ’30s bring tears to Lansbury’s eyes. “Her beauty absolutely dazzled me as a child,” Lansbury recalls. “I would help her get dressed; then she’d go out in a flurry of powder and perfume and get herself up to go to the theater. She’d say, “I’m going to cut a bit of a dash.’ ”
Moyna, who died nearly 20 years ago, would surely admire her daughter’s own considerable dash—on stage (four Tony Awards), screen (three Oscar nominations) and TV, where, thanks to her nine seasons as sprightly Jessica Fletcher on CBS’s Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury, 67, has established herself as the queen of prime time.
She will reign this Sunday, Sept. 19, as host of the Emmy Awards—a prize that, curiously, neither the 13-times-nominated Lansbury (up for Best Actress again this year) nor Murder (three times, but not in the running in ’93) has ever won. Meanwhile, on Sunday night, Sept. 12, she began her 10th season and 200th episode as Mrs. Fletcher, America’s favorite literary sleuth, who demurely steps on the toes of dim-witted flatfoots while hounding her villains into hanging themselves by hour’s end.
The never-ending appeal of that formula—Murder has ranked among the Top 10 shows nearly every season—is no mystery to Lansbury. “[The show] fulfills the natural human desire to solve a puzzle,” she observes. It also has the unsinkable Jessica: “She’s a man’s woman,” says Lansbury. “I think I am too. I think I has to do with being a professional woman, being very sure of oneself, having made one’s mark, having succeeded.”
That growing confidence has been reflected in Lansbury’s clout as both star and (since last year) executive producer. “I felt that if I was going to continue with the show, I must then take the responsibilities—and also lake the blame if it wasn’t coming off,” Lansbury says. In previous seasons, Murder had dropped slightly in the ratings. But, she adds, “I’m happy to say that in the ninth year, our numbers zoomed again.”
Over the years, Lansbury, with delicate firmness, has pushed for a somewhat more humane work schedule (her max is 12 hours per day, down from 16 or 17). She spiffed up Jessica’s wardrobe and expanded the show’s venues once the bodies began to pile suspiciously high in Cabot Cove’s limited mortuary. And the star with the velvet hammer used her clout to ensure guest shots for comrades from her MGM days, including Kathryn Grayson, Gloria DeHaven, Julie Adams and Ruth Roman. Recently she read in Variety that actress Madlyn Rhue was suffering from multiple sclerosis and needed a part so that she could qualify for medical help. Lansbury quickly signed her to play Cabot Cove’s librarian in an upcoming episode.
Almost as impressive is the number of family members Lansbury employs. Her husband of 44 years, Peter Shaw, 75, serves as her manager. Her stepson, David, 49, heads Angela’s own company, Corymore, while Angela and Peter’s son, Anthony, 41, directs every third episode. Her younger brother Bruce, 63, left his own successful career as a TV writer-producer to join the company as supervising producer. (The holdouts are Bruce’s twin, Edgar, a Broadway producer, and the Shaws’ daughter, Deirdre, 40, who runs a fashionable Italian restaurant with her husband, Vincenzo Dattarra, in Santa Monica, Calif., where her parents dine weekly.)
The contentment Lansbury shares with her husband and children nowadays is an ocean away from the insecurities she felt as a Hollywood starlet and, earlier, growing up in England. Angela’s father, her mother’s second husband, lumber merchant Edgar Lansbury, died when Angela was 9 and her brothers were 4. So Moyna, who had slopped dashing to the theater to devote herself full-lime to her children, found herself all but broke. When war swept Europe, she brought the family to New York City in 1940. Moyna went on tour while Angela minded the boys. Soon Moyna moved to Los Angeles, where she and Angela went to work in Bullocks department store. Moyna managed to get Angela a screen test for the role of the cockney maid in Gaslight (1944). Angela got the part and an Oscar nomination, then another for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) after playing Elizabeth Taylor’s sister in National Velvet.
Still, neither the acclaim nor the contract she’d won with MGM in 1943 could entirely bolster Lansbury’s self-confidence. As her friend Esther Williams recalls, “We were like an assembly line. You know how you are intimidated in a beauty salon? Imagine sitting next to Ava Gardner, or the powerful personality of Lucille Ball, or Marlene Dietrich when she was being made up in gold paint for Kismet.”
In their company, Lansbury was overshadowed—and overwhelmed. “I was a young woman looking for glamor and attention, and I didn’t really get it,” she remembers. “So what did I do? I got married at 19.” To a handsome leading man, Richard Cromwell, who turned out to be gay. That is another memory that brings tears to Lansbury’s eyes. “I didn’t know until after we were separated [nine months later] that he was gay,” she says softly, “My first great, great romance. It was a terrible tragedy. The desperate part was that I was so in love with him. But,” she adds, “we remained friends until he died [of cancer] in 1960.”
Shortly after they divorced, she met Shaw, a British actor who later became a prominent Hollywood agent. They were married in London in 1949, with Moyna as matron of honor. Then it was back to America for roles in film (The Court Jester), live TV and on Broadway (including 1960’s A Taste of Honey). But it was her performance onscreen as Laurence Harvey’s monster of a mother in the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate—a gutsy play on her part, since she was 36 and Harvey was 33—that established Lansbury as a consummate character actress. That won Lansbury her third Oscar nomination. Four years later she returned to Broadway and was a rousing success singing and hoofing in Mame, for which she earned her first Tony.
But even as her career soared, her personal life threatened to collapse. First, her Malibu home burned to the ground in 1970. Then she anguished over a rift with her mother, who evidently became ill and irrationally jealous of her daughter’s success. (Moyna died of throat cancer in 1975.) Cruelest of all, perhaps, was her and Peter’s frightful realization that Anthony and Deirdre, by then teenagers, were on hard drugs. Lansbury won’t discuss the ordeal now that Anthony and his wife, Lee, have three children of their own. But she did tell Barbara Walters in a 1985 TV special: “We were the generation of parents who had to face it first, without any help except from doctors, friends—and the advice that we got was really not very helpful.”
So, in 1971, she and Peter bought a small house in County Cork, Ireland, which, she later recalled, “was one of the last places on earth that was fairly drug free.” They commuted between Ireland, London and New York for the next decade until the kids were clean. In 1978, Angela won the choice role of meat-pie maker Mrs. Lovett in Broadway’s Sweeney Todd. Still, she almost didn’t get the part of Jessica Fletcher. The original writer-producer, Peter Fischer, had Jean Stapleton in mind when he created the role. But Lansbury became Jessica after Stapleton’s husband died. Now, after all these years, Jessica has become so much like Lansbury, says husband Peter, that “it’s awfully hard to tell the difference between the two. Angela has that marvelous gumption, and that’s one of the nice things that Jessica has.”
Sooner or later, though, there must be life after Jessica. Even with Lansbury’s success, television has never been her favorite medium, and she concedes that she would someday like to go back to the theater. “Right now,” she says, “I love doing what I’m doing.” Still, she reflects, “that doesn’t mean I can’t switch, change directions. After all, I’ve done it many times.”
DORIS BACON in Los Angeles