October 16, 1925– Angela Lansbury:
“Actors are not made, they are born.”
In Seattle, 1984, the producer/writer & the director of a brand new TV show had contacted me through the theatre where I was working in the biggest, hottest show in town. The show had been selling out nightly for more than 6 months. The Hollywood professionals had left a message stating how much they enjoyed & admired my work in the play. They wrote how they felt that I had a real future doing comedy in TV & film. It was such a lovely & unexpected thing to hear. They wanted to offer me a role on their new series. This was really unheard of, show biz producer types just plucking someone like me from a regional theatre & giving them a job with no audition. I was told that the show was titled Murder She Wrote. Plus, the gig would get me my SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card. If all this good fortune was not dreamy enough, they told me I would be working with the star of the series, Angela Lansbury!
I spent my very first day working on a film set on the roof of a Seattle tower sitting under a big umbrella between takes with my new best friend. I reminded Lansbury that we had met once before, in the parking garage at the Schubert Theatre in LA, after a matinee of Gypsy that she was starring in, on an autumn afternoon in 1974. At that chance meeting, I had been shocked that Lansbury was driving her own car & not taking a limo, & that she was going home between shows. I stopped to tell her how much I had loved the show & that she was the best Mama Rose ever. Lansbury graciously thanked me & the actually asked about my life & we had a lovely 2 minute conversation.
Under that big umbrella on the Seattle rooftop, Lansbury said that she did not recall that incident. I chided her for not remembering. She loved that & laughed. We talked about gardening, her childhood in England & the theatre scene in Seattle. It was a rather perfect day, one of my favorites ever.
Lansbury moved from London to Hollywood as a teenager. She worked in a department store before getting her first film role, but she never had to take work as anything but an actor again. What a beginning of a career, her first role was as the maid in Gaslight (1944), from gay director George Cukor & playing opposite Ingrid Bergman & Charles Boyer. Her screen debut brought Lansbury an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
“I was put under contract. A major studio. I got nominated for an Academy Award. Isn’t that ridiculous? I mean, at the age of 18!”
She was Oscar nominated again the next year, winning a Golden Globe Award for The Picture Of Dorian Gray based on the story by the ultimate gay man, Oscar Wilde, who also has a birthday today. She played Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister in National Velvet (1944) & as a bad girl opposite Judy Garland & Cyd Charisse in the musical The Harvey Girls (1946).
In films, Lansbury was mostly cast in supporting roles often playing characters considerably older than her real age. She was Elvis Presley’s mother in Blue Hawaii (1961), although there was just 10 years difference in their ages. In her most famous film role, in the classic political thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962) she played gay actor Laurence Harvey’s mother, but she was actually only 3 years older than the actor. This film brought Lansbury her third Oscar nomination.
One of her few starring roles is in my favorite of her film performances, as a demented & forceful European countess in the sinister comedy Something For Everyone, opposite yummy Michael York, & directed by Hal Prince, who also gave Lansbury her best stage roles.
Even with her iconic role in that TV series, Lansbury’s true legacy is her work on stage beginning with the gay themed A Taste Of Honey (1961) & Stephen Sondheim’s delicious, but troubled musical Anyone Can Whistle (1964).
A terrific singer with a powerful voice, Lansbury was especially well suited for the lead role in Jerry Herman’s musical Mame (1966), for me the greatest Auntie Mame of all. She followed that iconic role with another Herman show Dear World (1969) & then as the most formidable & ferocious Mama Rose in Gypsy (1974). Lansbury was spectacular making those special pies as Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (1979). Lansbury won Tony Awards for Actress In A Musical for all 4 of these productions.
Lansbury continues to work after 8 decades in show biz. In 2009, she appeared in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music on Broadway & was again Tony nominated. She won her fifth Tony Award as Madame Arcati in the 2010 Broadway revival of Noel Coward’s comedy Blithe Spirit. Critic Ben Brantley of the NY Times:
“For pure originality & expressiveness, it’s hard to imagine any Broadway chorus line topping the solo dances performed here by an 85 year old woman with a superfluity of bad jewelry, the gait of a gazelle & a repertory of poses that bring to mind Egyptian hieroglyphs.”
In 2012, Lansbury received rave reviews & Drama Desk Award for the Broadway revival of Gore Vidal‘s political drama about Presidential primaries The Best Man, opposite James Earl Jones. Just last year, Lansbury repeated her role in Blithe Spirit on the West End in her native London. I am sure she stays busy polishing her 5 Tony Awards, 6 Golden Globes, her Honorary Oscar, Kennedy Center Honor, & 11 Emmys.
When she was 19 years old, Lansbury married fellow actor Richard Cromwell. The marriage only lasted a few months when they both discovered that he was gay. She was married to British actor Peter Shaw for 55 years. Shaw served as Lansbury’s manager & head of her production company until his passing in 2003.
Lansbury’s career was often associated with the works of many noted artists: Sondheim, Arthur Laurents, Coward, Herman, Vidal, Cukor, & because of her giant talent, glamour & awesomeness, she is easily named a top Gay Icon.
“I’m very proud of the fact that I am a gay icon. It’s because of the role I played in Mame. She was just every gay person’s idea of glamour. Everything about Mame coincided with every young man’s idea of beauty & glory & it is lovely.”