Angela Lansbury, the London-born actress who for seven decades brought a commanding, ladylike presence to stage, screen and television — especially over the 12 years she played dauntless mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher on CBS’ Murder, She Wrote — has died. She was 96.
“The children of Dame Angela Lansbury are sad to announce that their mother died peacefully in her sleep at home in Los Angeles at 1:30 a.m. today, Tuesday, October 11, 2022, just five days shy of her 97th birthday,” her family says in a statement obtained by PEOPLE.
“In addition to her three children, Anthony, Deirdre and David, she is survived by three grandchildren, Peter, Katherine and Ian, plus five great grandchildren and her brother, producer Edgar Lansbury,” the statement adds. “She was proceeded in death by her husband of 53 years, Peter Shaw. A private family ceremony will be held at a date to be determined.”
Born Angela Brigid Lansbury, the future character actress (the voice of Mrs. Potts in Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast) and leading lady (Broadway’s eccentric aunt in the musical Mame) was the daughter of Belfast-born actress Moyna MacGill and her second husband, lumber merchant Edgar Lansbury. “A true Irish beauty” is how Lansbury described her mother in a 1993 PEOPLE profile.
Eager to direct her daughter’s future, Moyna took the young Angela to plays at London’s Old Vic and enrolled her in a school for the arts and dance, until the family — Angela and her younger (by five years) twin brothers, Edgar and Bruce, who both later became successful producers, and a half-sister — found itself all but broke when the senior Edgar died in 1934. Angela was 9.
The war only compounded the family’s situation, so in 1940 the Lansburys moved to New York, where Moyna rebooted her acting career and went on tour while Angela babysat her siblings. Relocating her brood to Los Angeles and now working in a department store, Moyna helped land her daughter a screen test at MGM — which catapulted the 17-year-old into her Oscar-nominated movie debut as the cockney maid in the Ingrid Bergman-Charles Boyer classic 1944 thriller Gaslight.
“It was thanks to my mother who recognized in me an ability to cut up, to make believe, to run around being somebody other than the little girl that I was,” Lansbury told Masterpiece Studio podcast in 2018 of getting into show business. “It made her realize that I was a natural, and she, bless her heart, made the decisions for me very, very, very young.”
The next year brought another Oscar nomination, this time for the role of singer Sibyl Vane in MGM’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which had been hot on the heels of Lansbury’s having played the sister of a very young Elizabeth Taylor in the beloved National Velvet.
Still, being under contract to the biggest Dream Factory on the planet did little to boost the teen’s self-confidence, especially with the gorgeous Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr working on adjoining soundstages.
“I was a young woman looking for glamor and attention, and I didn’t really get it,” Lansbury told PEOPLE. “So what did I do? I got married at 19.”
The groom was handsome leading man Richard Cromwell, who turned out to be gay, something Lansbury didn’t learn until they separated nine months later. “My first great, great romance. It was a terrible tragedy,” she said, adding that the two remained friends until his death from cancer in 1960.
A New Start
Shortly after the divorce, she met Peter Shaw, a British actor who later became a prominent Hollywood agent. They were married in London in 1949, with Moyna serving as matron of honor.
Movie, live TV and Broadway roles followed, including the role of Elvis Presley‘s mother in the 1961 hit, Blue Hawaii — even though Lansbury was barely 10 years older than Elvis.
A more substantial maternal role, as Laurence Harvey’s monster of a mother in 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate (this time, she was only three years older than her screen son), established Lansbury’s reputation as a character actress, as well as earned her a third Oscar nomination.
Four years later, she landed on the cover of Life magazine as the toast of Broadway in Mame, and earned the first of five Tony awards, a record matched only by Julie Harris and then finally broken in 2014, by Audra McDonald.
Family Took Precedence
Problems of a highly personal nature — the Shaw children, Anthony (born in 1952) and Deirdre (in 1953), were both on hard drugs, the parents discovered — forced a 1971 family move to County Cork, Ireland, which, Lansbury said, “was one of the last places on earth that was fairly drug-free.” Donaldson Collection/Getty
Commuting between Ireland, London and New York for the next decade until the kids were clean, Lansbury bounced back professionally in 1978, when she created the iconic role of murder accomplice Mrs. Lovett in the operatic Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical Sweeney Todd.
Besides winning another Tony, Lansbury’s path was paved to the role for which she will probably be best remembered and certainly most loved, Jessica Fletcher. Debuting in 1984, Murder, She Wrote put Lansbury front and center for 256 episodes, earning her an impressive 12 Emmy nominations — though, strangely, never a win.
“It’s awfully hard to tell the difference between the two,” Peter Shaw told PEOPLE when asked to compare his wife to Fletcher. (Shaw, 84, died in 2003.) “Angela has that marvelous gumption, and that’s one of the nice things that Jessica has.”
Gumption, indeed. After she solved her last TV murder, Lansbury embarked on numerous other projects, on television and on Broadway. And although that Emmy continued to elude her (in all, she was nominated 18 times), she did receive a 1996 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, a 1997 American National Medal of the Arts, a 2000 Kennedy Center Honor, and, in a 2014 ceremony at Windsor Castle, was officially made Dame Angela by Queen Elizabeth — at the time she was playing the spiritualist Madame Arcati in a London production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Jack Mitchell/Getty
Lansbury was awarded the Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre in June, marking her sixth Tony Award overall.
The Broadway legend won four Tonys between the time she appeared as Mame Dennis in 1966’s Mame and Mrs. Lovett in 1979’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. She went on to win a fifth Tony for 2009’s Blithe Spirit, her first Tony for her performance in a play versus a musical.
“It has been an outstanding life, especially for me,” Lansbury told her peers when she received the SAG honor. “And the great news is, girls, the opportunities are out there for us at all ages. I mean, look at some of the exquisite work of the women in film today. I feel absolutely galvanized to keep going and strike out for new career goals … After all, a career, as far as I’m concerned, is still a work in progress.” Steve Parsons – WPA Pool/Getty
At 92, the actress still had no plans to slow down. After starring in PBS’s Little Women miniseries where she worked with director Vanessa Caswill, the first female director she’d collaborated with in her 80-year career, Lansbury was asked if the show would be her final act.
“Well I wouldn’t say it’s my swan song. It’s not the last thing I’ll do. I’m already doing other things but it’s been said this would be my swan song. But it isn’t,” said Lansbury, who played the Balloon Lady in 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns.
She added, “I know at 92 I should be thinking in terms of swanning out, but I don’t know if you have the energy and the enthusiasm and the interest, I don’t think you ever really stop.”