A Look Back At Angela Lansbury's Life

The word "icon" is one that gets tossed about a lot these days. But in a few instances, the adjective is wholly justified — Angela Lansbury was one of these cases.

After her death at the age of 96 in 2022, Lansbury was hailed as one of the last surviving legends of Hollywood's Gilded Age. Her career began in the 1940s when a teenaged Lansbury landed a supporting role in the Charles Boyner, Ingrid Bergman film "Gaslight" — she was later nominated for an Oscar for her work. Her career picked up the pace and never really slowed down. Over the decades, she took on roles in both Oscar-winning dramas and classic Disney musicals, along with a long stint on the famous, much-loved "Murder, She Wrote," and she also gave us numerous lauded performances on Broadway. From "Gaslight" to "Mame" to "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" to "Nanny McPhee," Lansbury really was an icon.


Take a closer look at this remarkable actress's life and career.

Angela Lansbury grew up with a politician father and actress mother

Angela Lansbury was born in 1925 to Edward Lansbury, a well-known Labour politician and Irish actress Moyna MacGill. Her father died when she was nine years old, and she soon found that acting provided a welcome escape from her grief (via Biography and The Guardian).


From a young age, Angela was involved in acting, taking lessons, and appearing in school plays. Even during the Second World War, she stayed in London with her mother to continue her studies while her brothers were sent to the country. "Thank goodness I chose to do that or that she agreed to let me do that," she told NPR in 2000. "[...] She was quite happy to have me stay at home with her and have classes and start my dramatic training."

As a teenager in drama school, she quickly showed extraordinary promise. "I went very fast in drama school and ended up working in one of the senior plays... So they obviously knew that this young person had something. She had a talent," she said. "And I sort of felt that, although I didn't get big-headed about it, but I felt it — gave me tremendous confidence."


Angela Lansbury moved with her family to America in 1940

In 1940, Angela Lansbury's mother moved the family across the ocean to America by way of Canada. "We came in 1940, which was a terrible year because it was the — during the year was the onset of the really big bombing of Britain," Lansbury told NPR. "Liverpool was bombed right after we left on our ship, which was a Canadian Pacific liner which was headed for Canada. ... [My mother] recognized the fact that Britain was likely to be bombed, and that London really was no place for us to remain if we could possibly get away."


Soon, both Lansbury and her mother pursued acting careers first in New York and then in Los Angeles. The pair would do readings at prep schools, earning $25 for each appearance — "which in those days was quite a lot of money," she said. "We would do scenes from 'Romeo And Juliet,' and she would do scenes as Desdemona. And she also did epic poems by Alice Duer Miller and various other writers who were writing epic poems about the war at that time. And she was very, very good at it."

Angela Lansbury got her first film role at 17 and her first Oscar nomination for the same film at 19

A few years after moving to America with her family, Angela Lansbury got her first film role. She had been working in the cosmetics area of a department store when she landed an audition for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film "Gaslight," starring Ingrid Bergman. At just 17, Lansbury signed a contract with the production company and was soon cast as a supporting character in other films, including "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "National Velvet," "The Harvey Girls" and "State of the Union" (via Los Angeles Times).


"I was introduced to the studio, which was MGM, by a young man who was being considered for the role of Dorian Gray," she recalled to NPR. She met the casting director to audition for Sybil and was quickly sent to audition for the "Gaslight" role too. "And so, well, the rest, as they say, is history," said Lansbury.

Later, Lansbury would receive Oscar nominations for her roles in "Gaslight" and "The Portrait of Dorian Gray." "I was absolutely knocked off my pins... Couldn't believe it," Lansbury recalled.

Angela Lansbury spent one year married to Richard Cromwell

In 1945, at just 19 years old, Angela Lansbury eloped with the actor Richard Cromwell. However, after just one year of marriage, Cromwell came out as gay and left Lansbury, leaving a note that read, "Sorry. I can't go on" (via Irish Mirror).


For Lansbury, the revelation was a bit of a shock. "I was in love with love," she mused to NPR. "And I just — it was a shock, but it wasn't a shock because I was so in love with Richard Cromwell when I married him that I was just — you know, I'd never had any kind of experience... I had had no experience sexually, and I didn't really didn't know."

As Lansbury explained to Radio Times, she was never too upset about the end of the marriage. "It didn't injure or damage me in any way, because he maintained a friendship with me and my future husband," she said, adding, "It was just a terrible error I made as a very young woman. But I don't regret it" (via New Now Next).

Throughout the '50s, Angela Lansbury racked up an extensive list of TV credits but soon tired of her older typecasting

Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, Angela Lansbury continued to land role after role. She quickly became one of the most recognizable faces on television, having appeared in dozens of TV shows and TV movies. However, despite her success, she wasn't always happy with her career's direction. More often than not, the actress found herself playing characters who were much older than herself. 


"I kept wanting to play the Jean Arthur roles, and [film producer] Mr. [Louis B.] Mayer kept casting me as a series of venal b*****s," she said to People. "I played so many hags 20 years older than myself in those early films that now everyone thinks I'm 80 years old! I never had those chocolate-box looks they wanted for romantic leads in those days." Lansbury acknowledged that these roles allowed her to live a more normal life outside of work while also giving her career longevity — but she wasn't satisfied.

Her turn in the 1962 The Manchurian Candidate spurred her to to pursue theater roles

The final straw for Angela Lansbury came when she was cast as a vindictive mother in the 1962 film "The Manchurian Candidate." At the time, she was 37 — the man playing her son was only two years younger. Her performance was critically acclaimed, and she even earned an Oscar nomination for her work. According to the Los Angeles Times, many believe it to be her best role. 


In some ways, Lansbury relished the meaty role. "She was riveting and so interesting to play," she told NPR. "I relish the — having had that opportunity to play that role because I don't think there are many written like that." But the role also proved her breaking point with Hollywood and its typecasting. What she really wanted to do was musical theater. In one interview, she even recalled sneaking off to watch the rehearsals for the musical films on the MGM lot (via YouTube).

After finishing the film, she turned her focus away from the screen and returned to her roots on the stage. "You can't live down a part like that," she told an interviewer in 2014, explaining her decision. "I decided, 'Forget it. I'm going to sing now. I'm going to make you happy by singing.'" 


Angela Lansbury found success on Broadway in Mame, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd

In the 1960s, Angela Lansbury quickly established a new reputation — she became one of the icons of the stage. First, she took on a role in the musical "Anyone Can Whistle," but it flopped and closed after only nine performances. However, as she recalled in an interview (via YouTube), she was seen by Gerry Herman, the composer of "Mame." Thanks to Herman, she went on to win the leading role in "Mame," which earned her her first Tony Award. The role was a dream come true. "It was everything I had envisioned for myself accomplishing in musical theater," she said. 


This was followed by a series of iconic roles in "Dear World," "Gypsy," "The King And I," and "Sweeney Todd." Later in life, she would return to Broadway numerous times, appearing in "Blithe Spirit" in 2009 and "The Importance of Being Earnest" in 2019. Throughout her career, she was nominated for eight Tony Awards in total, six of which she won (via Playbill).

With the 1971 Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Angela Lansbury made an iconic return to Hollywood

After realizing her dream of starring in a Broadway musical, Angela Lansbury returned to Hollywood having shed her typecasting — now, producers were ready to cast her in musicals on screen, too. In 1971, she took on the leading role in Disney's World War II musical, "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," about a witch who finds herself with three evacuees and eventually single-handedly stops a Nazi invasion. 


The role was new territory for Lansbury, who had previously appeared mainly in dramatic films. "It was delightful," she said in an interview (via YouTube). "I mean, it was acting by the numbers, as they call it, because, you know, they have what they call a storyboard at Disney, and every shot was pre-decided on and drawn, and the director shoots that shot." For Lansbury, this meant she had to act out certain expressions that had previously been decided. 

While it wasn't exactly the most sophisticated type of acting, her performance is still loved today.

Angela Lansbury took on her iconic role in Murder, She Wrote in 1984

At almost 60 years old, Angela Lansbury landed yet another career-defining role in the TV show "Murder, She Wrote." The mystery series became a cult favorite. Of course, when the show began, Lansbury had no idea what a success it would be. "When I first started 'Murder, She Wrote,' I thought it would last maybe two, three years, you know, or maybe a year if we were lucky," she told NPR. "But when it extended, and I realized the deep inroads it had made into family life in America, I couldn't stop. So I was sort of trapped — happily trapped — for 12 years with it. And I'm still playing Jessica from time to time and loving it. I wouldn't want to let go of that lady."


It's clear that Lansbury loved her character. After all, the show gave the actress one of her first chances to play a multi-faceted female character on screen. Lansbury loved the fact that Jessica, her character, was never romantically involved with anyone. "I felt that was 100 percent of her mystique," she said to The Gentlewoman. "Jessica Fletcher didn't want to begin a whole new cycle of life with somebody new because she had a very complete life as an authoress. She had success and the comfort and cosiness of her home, her pursuits, her friends."

Angela Lansbury made cinematic history in Beauty and the Beast

Throughout the '70s and '80s, Angela Lansbury continued appearing on stage and screen. Her next truly iconic role came from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast," in which she voiced Mrs. Potts, the friendly housekeeper-turned-teapot. As Mrs. Potts, Lansbury sang the titular song, which has gone on in cinematic history. 


"'Beauty and the Beast' was not only the first animated movie to be nominated for an Oscar, but one that succeeded in winning the Oscar not only for the best score but also for the best song, 'Beauty and the Beast,'" Lansbury once said at an event (via YouTube). "Well, that song is very, very dear to my heart, as you can possibly imagine," Lansbury explained that she first heard the song as a composer's demo. Along with the tape was a note offering her the part of Mrs. Potts. Even though Lansbury didn't feel that the song suited her voice, the composers convinced her to give it a go. "You can imagine what a thrill it was for me to be hailed as a loveable little singing teapot after years of playing some pretty despicable characters," she said. "I mean, children no longer hid behind their mother's skirts when I came around ... I was suddenly a heroine."


After her second husband's death, appearing in Nanny McPhee helped her get through her grief

In 2003, Peter Shaw, Angela Lansbury's second husband of 53 years, died. In 2014, the actress told the Daily Mail that they had shared a "perfect relationship." And as she told The Gentlewoman, "I give Peter credit for so much that I probably wouldn't have done had I been left to my own devices. He would say, 'Go do it; I will take care of things here. Go.' And I was always thankful that he did."


When Shaw died, she was heartbroken. "It's not the life plan that one has," she said. "And it never occurs to you until suddenly it happens, and that special person is gone." Lansbury was cast in Emma Thompson's children's film, "Nanny McPhee," which proved to be the perfect thing to get her through her grief. As she once told the Observer, "'Nanny McPhee' pulled me out of the abyss. I love Emma [Thompson]. She has an enormous heart" (via Independent).

In terms of feeling comfortable in her own skin, Angela Lansbury went through a journey over the course of her life

Angela Lansbury had a long and vibrant career — but even with success after success on TV, she didn't always feel fully confident in her own skin. Her complicated relationship with her looks began in the early days when she was repeatedly assigned the role of character actor rather than leading lady. As she once told her biographer Martin Gottfried, she "suffered from a certain lack of self-regard in the looks department." 


When she was young, she worried about her appearance "What do I have? Big eyes," she said, and added, "All I could do as an actress was give the illusion of being a much more beautiful woman than I am."

However, as time went on, she learned self-acceptance. As she said to The Gentlewoman, "it really does" get easier with age.

Angela Lansbury continued working into her 90s — and never got swept up by the notion of celebrity

Angela Lansbury worked on her first film set at the age of 17 — and for the rest of her life, she never really slowed down. In fact, she continued appearing on stage and screen well into her 90s. "The bottom line is I really don't know how to relax to the degree that I could just stop," she told CBS in 2009. "So, when something comes along and is presented to me and I think, 'I could have some fun doing that,' or I think, 'I could bring something to that,' I'll do it."


A few years later, at the age of 86, Lansbury was still going strong after having both hips and knees replaced. "[My stamina] keeps coming back, and I can't account for it," she told The Gentlewoman. "I don't have a routine or a regimen." Her only explanation was that her grandfather, a well-known British politician, used to walk all over London to visit constituents. She said, "I think stamina is built into my constitution."

In 2018, at 93 years old, she appeared in her final film, "Buttons," a musical that also starred Dick Van Dyke.

Angela Lansbury died in her sleep in 2022

On October 11, 2022, Angela Lansbury died. "The children of Dame Angela Lansbury are sad to announce that their mother died peacefully in her sleep at home in Los Angeles," the family said at the time (via BBC).


At the end of her life, Lansbury was happy to remember a life well-lived. "We live on the memory of lives, and I think that's one of the things that I cherish is the memory of my family, the memory of my children growing up, the memory of my life with my husband, the memory of knowing the people that I do, I just don't want ever to forget," she told Studio 10 a few years before her death (via YouTube).

And she will certainly be remembered for decades to come. As actor Jason Alexander put it in a tribute on Twitter, "The great Angela Lansbury — one of the most versatile, talented, graceful, kind, witty, wise, classy ladies I've ever met has left us. Her huge contribution to the arts and the world remains always."