“Beloved,” “legendary,” “icon” – all words that easily fit actress Angela Lansbury (she even once rated a perfect 100 on People Magazine’s lovability index). Although the moniker Lansbury would most readily accept might be “ordinary person,” there’s no denying her fascinating life and career. In celebration of Lansbury’s role as Aunt March in Little Women, here are 7 surprising and endearing things you may not know about the actress.
Don’t miss the premiere on Little Women, Sunday, May 13, 2018, at a special time — 8/7c.
A Dramatic Passage to America
London-born Lansbury’s real-life arrival in the United States was as harrowing as any story Hollywood could concoct, as World War II altered the course of her life. After her London school was evacuated, Lansbury’s actress mother and politician father relocated the family to the suburbs before sailing to New York.
The day the family left Liverpool, it was bombed, but they escaped on a steamship named the Duchess of Atholl. (Soon after that, the ship was sunk by a German U-boat.) “We didn’t really understand how crucial that journey was, or how imminent our demise might have been,” Lansbury told the Radio Times (UK).
Lighting Up the Big Screen at an Early Age
By now, it’s well known that Lansbury has had one of the most enduring careers in Hollywood, spanning more than 70 years. Her first big break came at age 17 in the MGM film Gaslight, alongside Ingrid Bergman. Lansbury’s young age caused a complication during filming: they had to wait until she turned 18 to film scenes in which she smoked.
Lansbury, who recalls playing gin rummy with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Gaslight. (On the fast track to success, she also received an Academy Award nomination the next year for The Picture of Dorian Gray.)
A Love Story for the Ages
After her first marriage (at age 19) ended within seven months, Lansbury found her love of a lifetime: British actor and producer Peter Shaw. Shaw had moved to the US after being in the British Army during the war, and they met while both working for MGM. They remained together until his death from heart failure at the age of 84. Their devoted union lasted 53 years, surviving hardship when their children Anthony and Deirdre became addicted to drugs, and Deidre became tangentially involved in the Charles Manson cult.
“It was a juggling act,” Lansbury told The Express (UK) . “Juggling marriage and children and problems with drugs. But all those things contribute to building the person you become and the person they become. It’s a simply question of facing up to certain aspects of family life that have to be dealt with.”
After their Malibu house was burned in a fire, and for the sake of her children, Lansbury moved the family to Ireland in the 1970s to get away from Hollywood life. (Lansbury currently has citizenship in Ireland, the US and the UK.)
Stardom, She Wrote
If Oxford, England, is MASTERPIECE’s murder capital, then fictional Cabot Cove, Maine, featured in Murder She Wrote, is a worthy competitor, homicide-wise. The hit television series, which ran for 12 seasons and 264 episodes, showcased 286 murders, according to the New York Times. CBS, inspired by the success of Miss Marple in the UK, introduced the show, but Lansbury was not the first choice to play Jessica Fletcher—that was Jean Stapleton.
Lansbury not only took the role, but shaped it to her exacting, high standards over the years. “Any kind of reference to her being an old fogy or being out of date, or making a deprecatory remark about a type of person—I don’t think Jessica’s about that,” Lansbury remarked to the Los Angeles Times.
Winning Performances, Not Recognized by Hollywood
Lansbury’s storied career has earned her Oscar, Emmy and Tony nominations. But when it comes to Emmy wins for her work on television, those 18 nominations have yielded zero awards.
“There was a song I used to sing called, ‘It’s great not to be nominated great not to be….’ And I was nominated all right,” Lansbury tells MASTERPIECE Studio podcast host Jace Lacob in an interview coming soon. “I never received an Emmy…I did receive a lot of awards on the theater in New York City and that made up for everything.”
Golden Girls, Bosom Buddies
Lansbury maintained a very close friendship with Golden Girls star Bea Arthur. “Bea Arthur and I first met when we did Mame together in 1965,” Lansbury explained to Entertainment Tonight (as published on Broadway World). “She became and has remained ‘My Bosom Buddy’ ever since…. She was a rare and unique performer and a dear, dear friend.” The character Jessica Fletcher’s middle name was Beatrice, an homage to actress Arthur. Lansbury hosted the memorial service for Arthur at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre.
Life and Longevity
Asked about her greatest achievement by The Telegraph (UK), Lansbury said, “Staying alive!” She attributes her longevity in part to genetics, her mother’s energy, and to her grandfather, George, a founder of the Labour Party, who was once jailed for supporting women’s right to vote.
“I’m grateful to all those people who have supported me and I am grateful to God for giving me the life I’ve had and hopefully a lot more to come,” Lansbury told The Sunday Post (Scotland). “I can’t give up yet — there are too many scripts to read.”
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