Angela Lansbury, the irrepressible three-time Oscar nominee and five-time Tony Award winner who solved 12 seasons’ worth of crimes as the novelist/amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher on CBS’ Murder, She Wrote, has died. She was 96.
Lansbury, who received an Emmy nomination for best actress in a drama series for each and every season of Murder, She Wrote — yet never won — died in her sleep at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday at her home in Los Angeles, her family announced. She was five days shy of her birthday.
Lansbury went 0-for-18 in career Emmy noms but did get some love from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who gave her an honorary Oscar in 2013 for her career as “an entertainment icon who has created some of cinema’s most memorable characters, inspiring generations of actors.”
The London-born Lansbury, then 19, received a best supporting actress Oscar nom for her very first film role, as the young maid Nancy in the home of Charles Boyer and his new bride Ingrid Bergman in George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944).
For her third movie, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), she received another nom for playing the lovely singer whose heart is broken by the hedonistic title character. (Her mother, West End actress Moyna MacGill, played a duchess in the film.)
Lansbury then took a turn toward evil and was rewarded with her final Oscar nom for portraying Laurence Harvey’s manipulative mother in the Cold War classic The Manchurian Candidate (1962). The actress often played characters much older than herself, and in this case, Harvey was just a few years younger than Lansbury.
Her charismatic performance as the eccentric title character in a 1966 production of Mame vaulted her to Broadway superstardom and resulted in the first of her four Tonys for best actress in a musical.
She followed with wins for playing “the madwoman of Chaillot” in 1969’s Dear World, with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman; for starring as the ultimate stage mother Rose in a 1974 revival of Gypsy; for dazzling as the off-the-wall Mrs. Lovett in the original 1979 production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd; and, in 2009, for portraying the clairvoyant Madame Arcati in a revival of the Noël Coward farce Blithe Spirit.
She was still on the road in Blithe Spirit as she approached her 90th birthday, and in December 2018 she was back on the big screen, as the Balloon Lady, in Mary Poppins Returns.
In June, she received yet another Tony, this one for lifetime achievement.
In the early 1980s, Lansbury was not interested in headlining a TV series when she was approached by Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link to star in Murder, She Wrote.
The pair earlier had created Ellery Queen, another show about a crime-solving writer, and former All in the Family star Jean Stapleton had already turned them down.
“I couldn’t imagine I would ever want to do television,” Lansbury said in a 1985 interview with The New York Times. “But the year 1983 rolled around and Broadway was not forthcoming, so I took a part in a miniseries, Gertrude Whitney in Little Gloria, Happy at Last [a dramatization of Gloria Vanderbilt‘s childhood].
“And then [there was] a slew of roles in miniseries, and I began to sense that the television audience was very receptive to me, and I decided I should stop flirting and shut the door or say to my agents, ‘I’m ready to think series.’”
Then 59, Lansbury signed on as the widowed Jessica, a retired English teacher, mystery writer and amateur detective who enjoyed riding her bicycle (she didn’t drive) in the cozy coastal town of Cabot Cove, Maine. Late in the series, Jessica spent time teaching criminology at a Manhattan university.