She’s been the toast of Broadway, worked with Elvis Presley and Elizabeth Taylor and remembers the New York City of 1940 as “almost intimate”.
Angela Lansbury has also won five Tony Awards, six Golden Globes and starred in one of the longest-running crime drama series on US television.
There’s not much she hasn’t seen or done in her 70 years in film, stage and television.
Now at 87, she could afford to stay home in the US and put her feet up.
Instead, she’s performing in Australia in the stage production of the much-loved story of a prickly Southern matriarch and her kind-hearted African-American chauffeur Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy.
Born in London in 1925, Lansbury realised at a young age she liked to “fool around” in presenting little tableaux for her family with her half-sister Isolde.
“My sister was tremendously artistic and kind and I went along for the ride and, in doing so, I discovered my own instincts were towards pretending I was somebody else,” Lansbury says.
Isolde met the young Russian actor/writer and comedian Peter Ustinov at drama school. At the couple’s wedding reception, her mother met a woman who arranged for British families to emigrate to America. So the family left war-torn Britain and arrived in New York in 1940.
“New York was a wonderfully fun, almost intimate city. Even though it was a metropolis, it was miniscule compared to what it is today and America, at that point, was not in the war.”
Shortly afterwards, the 16-year-old Angela found work as a nightclub singer in Montreal after convincing her employer she was 19.
“I started doing this act which included doing a lot of different voices, including a nightclub singer and an opera singer, in a song written by Noel Coward called I went to a marvellous party.
By 1944, the family was living in Hollywood and Angela found work in a Los Angeles department store. But her career in retail was short-lived when at 18 she made her debut as Ingrid Bergman’s conniving maid in the 1944 movie Gaslight. The same year she worked with Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet.
Fast forward to 1959 and Lansbury came Down Under for the film adaptation of the iconic Australian play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
While in Australia, she took the opportunity to catch up with family, including her cousin, the academic and novelist Coral Lansbury. She also met Coral’s then four-year-old son Malcolm Turnbull. The two were destined to catch up again on Angela’s current tour.
In 1961, she met a young Elvis Presley on the set of the 1961 movie Blue Hawaii.
“He’d just come out of the army and he had beautiful manners. He was a young Southern gentleman. The fact that he ended as he did was a sad, sad commentary on the ‘star’ business.”
But perhaps the role that turned her into a household name was as Jessica Fletcher, the mystery novelist in Murder, She Wrote. It became one of the longest-running detective drama series on television.
“I always knew there was a great responsibility involved with playing Jessica Fletcher who was all things to everyone. She was a marvellously liberal, warm-hearted and fun individual and you couldn’t drop the ball with her.”
Angela was married to British-born actor and businessman Peter Shaw for 54 years. The couple had two children – Anthony and Deidre. The longevity of their marriage was more than unusual in Hollywood.
“It was a wonderful marriage and a great partnership and I know I could never have had the career I had without him. Most men would never have put up with what my career demanded.”
But when their house in Malibu burned down in 1970, Angela took the family to live for 10 years in the peace and quiet of Ireland, where she had spent happy childhood holidays.
“Our children, unfortunately were enslaved by the drug business and in those days there was really no way one could help them so I said to Peter ‘let’s just up stakes and start over again.
“We bought a house in County Cork, and lived there for 10 years. Our children managed to scramble to their feet and go back to school and do the things they wanted to do and go on to have good lives.
“I worked in London and in the British theatre and Peter managed to work in Britain and Europe so we managed to create a whole new life.”
Shaw died in 2003 but Lansbury is still performing, although the rigours of touring means this will be her last.
Pacing herself is the key to keeping up a schedule that would exhaust someone half her age.
“It’s a huge role…. so demanding, but you pace yourself. You don’t do anything else. You don’t fill your day with activities if you are going to be doing that show in the evening.”
Lansbury says she’s also ‘pootling around’ with diaries with a view to writing her memoirs.
“One of these days, I will do it. A lot of people say that but never do so I hope I am not one of those people.”
Touring may be off her “to do” list, but she has no plans to stop treading the boards.
“I have a flat in New York and I’m going back there in the autumn to do a play, The Chalk Farm by Enid Bagnold, who wrote (the book) National Velvet.
“But I have a little house in Ireland and that is my real get away so I’m definitely going there in August.”
And when she does write her autobiography, it will be about a long life very well-lived.
See Angela Lansbury in Driving Miss Daisy in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Watch local papers for details or visit www.daisyonstage.com.au
This article was written by Rosemary Desmond and originally published in the April/May 2013 edition of 50 something magazine.