The sad news of the death of Angela Lansbury, just a few days shy of her 97th birthday, brought to an end one of the longest and most storied careers in Hollywood history. While she will perhaps be best remembered for the 265 episodes (and four feature-length movies) she spent playing best-selling mystery writer Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, a stint that earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most prolific amateur sleuth”, Lansbury packed her eight decades on stage and screen with a host of memorable roles. To each of them, she brought a whimsical humour and gentle warmth which could sometimes mask her deceptively sharp wit.
Born on 16 October 1925 in Regent’s Park, London, Lansbury left Britain with her family after the onset of the blitz in 1940. Her mother, the Belfast-born actor Moyna Macgill, moved Lansbury and her brothers Bruce and Edgar to New York, and then to Los Angeles. Her father, also named Edgar, was a British communist who had been Mayor of Poplar before his death from stomach cancer in 1935. While Lansbury’s time at school was cut short by the war, she would later say that her real education began when she signed a seven-year contract with MGM in 1944 at just 17.
She made her screen debut that same year, appearing opposite Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in Gaslight. The film was a hit and went on to introduce the phrase “gaslighting” to the popular vernacular as a term for the sort of malicious manipulation depicted. Lansbury was perfectly cast as the conniving cockney maid Nancy Oliver, and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress at her first attempt.