Angela Lansbury: 13 Facts About The Legendary Actress

Acclaimed actor Angela Lansbury saw a lot during her 96 years of life, from her happy early childhood in London to the onset of World War II to a rich acting career that she launched with the help of her mother at age 19 (via The New York Times). Her promise was apparent early on. Her first film role, in the 1944 thriller "Gaslight," earned her not only a contract with MGM, but an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

From there, her star continued to rise. Her film performances in "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "The Manchurian Candidate" earned her two more Oscar nominations, according to The New York Times). Her roles in other popular films, such as "Blue Hawaii" starring Elvis Presley, cemented her image in the public eye.

Not content to rest on her laurels, she took her skills to Broadway, where she won critical acclaim for her acting and singing roles in shows including "Sweeny Todd" and "Mame." Her best-known role, however, was as the gentle but strong-willed amateur detective and novelist Jessica Fletcher in the long-running drama "Murder, She Wrote," a character she felt a special affinity for. In fact, she once told The New York Times, "Jessica Fletcher was probably about as close, not to me, but to the sort of woman I might have been had I not been an actress." When Lansbury died quietly in her sleep at age 96 in October 2022, she left behind a rich body of work that continues to win her fans and respect.

Angela Lansbury comes from an influential family

While Angela Lansbury was likely the most well-known member of her family, others in her brood also made their mark on the world. According to TCM, Lansbury's mother Moyna Macgill grabbed attention for her roles in films such as "Black Beauty," "My Fair Lady," "The Picture of Dorian Gray," and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," before passing away in 1975 at the age of 80. Lansbury's father, Edgar, came from a wealthy family that worked in the timber industry (via Factinate). He also served as a politician that represented the Labour and Communist parties before passing away from stomach cancer in 1935 (via PeoplePill). 

Edgar's first wife, Minnie, as well as his father George, were also prominent figures in the women's suffrage movement. They were both arrested for protesting taxes during what was called the Poplar Rates Rebellion. According to Socialists Review, Minnie died in 1921 during the Spanish Flu epidemic at the age of 32. Meanwhile, Lansbury's twin brothers Bruce and Edgar Jr. also grew up to work in the entertainment business as producers, per The Hollywood Reporter.

Angela Lansbury's first marriage was controversial

Angela Lansbury married twice. Her first marriage to actor Richard Cromwell was considered a bit controversial as she was only 19 years old when they tied the knot (via Biography). In addition, Cromwell was 15 years older than Lansbury. The couple's marriage didn't last long. Cromwell left his wife just months after walking down the aisle. It was later revealed that Cromwell was gay.

"I had no idea that I was marrying a gay man. I found him such an attractive individual, a very glamorous person — he knew everybody, he was a friend of Joan Crawford's, these people who I was fascinated by as a young actress. And he wanted to marry, he was fascinated with me, but only because of what he had seen on the screen, really," she told Radio Times in 2017.

Despite it all, Lansbury said she has no regrets about her first marriage. "It didn't injure or damage me in any way, because he maintained a friendship with me and my future husband. But it was a shock to me when it ended, I wasn't prepared for that. He simply couldn't continue — he just left. It was just a terrible error I made as a very young woman. But I don't regret it, and I'm sorry for the sadness that it caused him down the road ... [when] he realized he couldn't fulfil his function."

Angela Lansbury saved her kids from drug addiction

According to Biography, Angela Lansbury met the love of her life, Peter Shaw, not long after her split from Richard Cromwell. Shaw was an English actor and producer. The couple married in 1949 and were married for 54 years before Shaw's death from heart failure in 2003 (via Factinate). The couple shared two children together, son Anthony and daughter Deirdre. They were also granted custody of Shaw's son David from his first marriage. 

The family lived in Malibu while Lansbury was working as an actress. However, when her kids began to develop a drug problem she knew she had to take action. Lansbury and Shaw decided to leave California and relocate their family to Ireland, where she helped to get her kids clean while taking a year off from acting. "It started with cannabis but moved on to heroin. I said to Peter, 'We have to leave.' So we upped sticks and moved the family to a house I found in County Cork ... I refused all work for a year and simply kept house," Lansbury once said of the situation, per Closer Weekly.

Angela Lansbury was given an honorary Oscar

Angela Lansbury was nominated for three Academy Awards, according to Gold Derby. Her first Oscar nomination came when she was just 19 years old, when she was recognized for her work in the film "Gaslight." However, she didn't take home the award. She would go on to be nominated twice more in her career without ever winning the coveted Oscar. However, in 2013, she accepted an honorary Oscar for her over 70 years in the entertainment business (via Chicago Tribune). "It's very, very special for me," said of earning the lifetime achievement recognition. "It is very unique and wonderful to receive at my time of life though I am still in the running — doing things and acting," Lansbury added. 

In addition to her Oscar nominations, she also earned over a dozen Emmy nominations. Lansbury really cleaned up at the Tonys, winning five times for her work in productions such as "Dear World" and "Sweeney Todd." While she was nominated for an Emmy multiple times for her role in "Murder, She Wrote," it wasn't until 2017 that she earned her first win for her work in "Little Women."

Angela Lansbury revealed why she really took the part in Beauty and the Beast

Angela Lansbury opted to voice the role of Mrs. Potts in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" in the hopes of delighting her young grandchildren at the time, according to Factinate. Lansbury hasn't shied away from revealing how important her family has always been to her. In 2017, she gushed over becoming a great-grandmother, telling Woman & Home that she wanted more time with her family during that current stage of her life.

"One of the biggest joys for me right now is my family. I've just become a great-grandma for the first time (it's my grandson Peter's first child) — now that feels pretty wonderful. And of course, I'm doing all the spoiling. If there's one thing I want more time for at this stage of my life, it's them," she revealed. Lansbury was truly an inspiration on and off screen and was clearly one of Hollywood's most beloved actresses.

A bomb scare nearly kept Angela Lansbury from recording Beauty and the Beast

Angela Lansbury's career has been so long and varied that her fan base spans generations — from seniors who were enthralled by her 1944 performance in "Gaslight" to middle-aged fans of "Murder, She Wrote" to millennials who grew to love her from her role as the voice of Mrs. Potts, the animated singing teapot in the 1991 Disney classic "Beauty and the Beast." But according to Insider, Lansbury came close to missing the opportunity to sing the film's title song.

As Lansbury recalled during a panel discussion for the film's 25th anniversary screening, her flight to New York for the recording session was abruptly delayed. "The plane had turned course for a new landing — there was a bomb call," Lansbury told Insider. "And here we are, I'm on my way to New York, and we couldn't take off again." Fortunately, the bomb scare was found to be a hoax and even with the delay, she arrived at the studio in time — and even more impressively, recorded the song "Beauty and the Beast" in a single take, a feat she attributes to the unexpected adrenaline rush from her trip. "I think it was the excitement of it all, the sense of 'do it now!'" she said.

She recorded an interview to be released posthumously

People in the public eye know they have to be careful what they say. It's no secret that the slightest gaffe or emotionally charged statement can easily explode into a magnet for trolls and online critics alike. So when Angela Lansbury agreed to a video interview with The New York Times in 2010, she did so with the understanding that the video would only be released after her death. And this reassurance gave her the freedom to speak frankly.

She was blunt in describing her position in the Hollywood ecosystem. "I can say this in all honesty, I was too good as an actress," she told The New York Times. "I was primarily an actress and not a pretty face." She also told the publication, "I am a character actress, first and foremost." She was equally blunt in her assessment of her second husband, former actor Peter Shaw, to whom she was married for 53 years. "He was really not a good enough actor, and I'm quite well known for having said this to him, and he'll be the first — he would have been the first person to agree," she said. But his subpar acting skills never dimmed her affection for him and, for his part, he was happy to refocus his showbiz ambitions on supporting his wife's career. "He became my mentor, my manager, my everything," she said.

Angela Lansbury wasn't the first choice for Jessica Fletcher

For many fans of "Murder, She Wrote," Angela Lansbury so perfectly embodied the role of amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher that it would be impossible to imagine anyone else in the role — it seems as if it were created just for her. But in reality, according to The New York Times, showrunners Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators of the hit 1970s detective show "Colombo," created the role with another star in mind: Jean Stapleton, the critically acclaimed character actor best known for her role as Edith Bunker in "All in the Family."

There was only one problem: Stapleton wasn't interested. ”Jean didn't like the script,” Levinson told the publication. ”She didn't understand the character. I think after playing Edith Bunker she wanted something more sophisticated than this bicycle-riding widow from Maine.” But the producers refused to give up on the show, and soon zeroed in on Lansbury as a possible replacement. However, others involved in the production doubted a serious Broadway actor like Lansbury could be convinced to take the role. Fortunately, she did — and it helped define her career.

She was advised against starring in Murder, She Wrote

It's no secret industry experts can't always predict what the public will like — we've all seen heavily hyped shows and movies launch with a thud, while low-budget, low-profile productions become unexpected cult favorites or mainstream hits. Conventional wisdom sometimes gets it wrong.

In the television industry, it's assumed without question that shows need young viewers, who are assumed to be more persuadable by advertising, to attract all-important advertising dollars (via The New York Times). Thus, "Murder, She Wrote" — built around the sleuthing adventures of a sensible, unglamorous retiree — was assumed to be a losing concept from the start. "We were getting condolences even before we went on the air," Richard Levinson, one the show's creators, told The New York Times.

For this reason, the showrunners were doubtful an actor of Angela Lansbury's stature could be convinced to take the role. On top of that, her agents advised her against it. She had an offer for a sitcom on the table, and they recommended she choose that instead. But Lansbury's instincts took her in the other direction. "I fell in love with the character of Jessica," she told the publication.

Angela Lansbury raised over $1 million for AIDS research

Angela Lansbury's success on stage and screen not only made her a household name, but a considerable fortune. According to Celebrity Net Worth, her estate was estimated to be worth $70 million at the time of her death. And she leveraged her fame and wealth into philanthropic activities, especially the battle against HIV/AIDS. Upon her death, many in the gay community (who saw Lansbury as a gay icon) shared their appreciation not just of her acting, but her commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS. "During the worst years of the AIDS crisis, Angela Lansbury was a staple at AIDS benefits, helping raise millions of dollars to fund AIDS research & patient care," tweeted LGBTQ historian Eric Gonzaba.

In 1996, her career and philanthropic efforts were celebrated at a gala at Broadway's Majestic Theater, where A-listers and AIDS advocates alike gathered to share their appreciation for her work. "In more than 10 years, Angela has never said 'no' when asked to help," American Foundation for AIDS Research founding co-chair Mathilde Krim told the audience (via Playbill).

She continued acting into her 90s

With her stellar resume — which includes 18 Emmy nominations and 3 Oscar nominations – and vast wealth, Angela Lansbury could have easily spent her later years in comfortable retirement, and no one would have thought less of her. But even later in life, Lansbury loved her craft too much to quit. "I really don't know how to relax to the degree that I could just stop," she told CBS News in 2009. She continued, saying, "This is the only thing that I really know how to do, and I think that is the reason that I've stayed with that all my life."

She didn't take the easy way out, doing just a cameo here or there either. Per The Hollywood Reporter, at the age of 88 in 2014, she reprised her Tony-winning role as a clairvoyant in a touring production of Noel Coward's comedy "Blithe Spirit." Lansbury's final role, in 2018, was in the Disney film "Mary Poppins Returns," in which she played the Balloon Lady.

She was close friends with The Golden Girls' Bea Arthur

Over her seven-decade-long acting career, Angela Lansbury crossed paths with some of the biggest names in Hollywood. And among these was Bea Arthur, who became a close friend after the two met while performing together in the Broadway musical "Mame" in 1965. "She became and has remained 'My Bosom Buddy' ever since," Lansbury told Entertainment Tonight (via PBS). "She was a rare and unique performer and a dear, dear friend."

And their admiration was mutual. "She was a class act and a real joy to work with," Arthur told The Independent. "When I first met her I thought I was meeting this patrician, classically trained actor, but she has a mouth like a longshoreman. No kidding. She loved telling dirty limericks."

Over the years, the pair celebrated their friendship in ways both big and small. According to PBS, Lansbury gave her character Jessica Fletcher on "Murder, She Wrote" the middle name "Beatrice" in honor of her friend. Upon Arthur's death in 2009, Lansbury hosted a memorial gala in her honor (via Playbill).

Queen Elizabeth II made her a dame

While Angela Lansbury moved to the United States from Great Britain as a child and built her career and family in the U.S., she never lost touch with her British roots, according to the BBC. After her teenage children began struggling with drug addiction and a fire destroyed their family home in California, she, her husband, and their children sought out a new start in a seaside home in County Cork, Ireland, as noted by The New York Times. It was the reboot the family needed — her children recovered, and Lansbury continued to build her acting reputation on the London stage.

While her work was earning the admiration of critics and fans, Lansbury caught the attention of another well-placed admirer. In 2014, she was made a dame by Queen Elizabeth II, who honored her for both her acting and her charity work. This honor, Lansbury told the BBC, meant something different and deeper than any of her Tonys or her honorary Oscar. "To meet the Queen under these circumstances is a rare and lovely occasion," she said. "[The Oscar] is for my work in motion pictures and this is for the overall accomplishments of my life as an actress."