‘Murder, She Wrote’ actress Angela Lansbury dead at age 96

By Will Dunham

(Reuters) -Angela Lansbury, the British-born actress whose career spanned eight decades and produced indelible portraits of a wide range of characters from villainesses to sleuths and light comic roles in movies, on stage and on television, died at age 96, her family said on Tuesday.

Lansbury, who played a crime-solving mystery writer in the long-running U.S. television series “Murder, She Wrote,” “died peacefully in her sleep” at home in Los Angeles, according to a statement from her children.

The actress was just five days shy of her 97th birthday, the statement said.

In movies, Lansbury turned in riveting supporting performances, including her film debut as a teenager playing the conniving Cockney maid in “Gaslight” in 1944, as the doomed Sibyl in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in 1945 and as Laurence Harvey’s evil, manipulative mother in “The Manchurian Candidate” in 1962. All three roles earned her Academy Award nominations.

Nearly seven decades after her first film, she was awarded an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement at age 88 in November 2013. Academy Award winners Geoffrey Rush and Emma Thompson offered a tribute to Lansbury at the ceremony.

Rush lauded her as the “living definition of range,” while Thompson recalled tossing a pie at Lansbury during the filming of the 2005 comedy “Nanny McPhee.”

“I feel really undeserving of this gorgeous chap,” Lansbury said, referring to the golden Oscar statuette she was given.

Her other movie credits included “National Velvet” (1944), “The Dark At the Top of the Stairs” (1960), “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971) and “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980).

Lansbury won five Tony awards for Broadway performances as the original “Mame,” Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” the baker of human meat pies in “Sweeney Todd,” Countess Aurelia in “Dear World” and the clairvoyant Madame Arcati in “Blithe Spirit.”

Lansbury maintained a grueling acting schedule well into her 80s, appearing on Broadway in 2012 in “The Best Man” with fellow octogenarian James Earl Jones.

Lansbury reached her broadest audience in “Murder, She Wrote” as retired English teacher-turned mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, who week after week found herself at the scene of a homicide. The series, which ran from 1984 to 1996, brought her 11 of her 18 Emmy nominations. She never won an Emmy, however.

‘NOTHING LIKE A GOOD VILLAINESS’

Lansbury said she most enjoyed playing the rotter, such as the malevolent Eleanor Iselin, who pulls the levers on her brainwashed assassin-in-waiting son in “The Manchurian Candidate.”

“There’s nothing like a good villainess,” she said. “You can go to town and chew on great chunks of scenery.”

The role brought Lansbury the best reviews of her career. “Not since the heyday of Bette Davis had there been an actress of this range and accomplishment,” wrote critic David Shipman.

Lansbury was born in London in 1925 and went to the United States in 1940 to avoid the war with her mother, actress Moyna McGill, who appeared in several Hollywood films.

Lansbury studied drama and her movie career got off to a quick start. She had an MGM contract her first three movies were “Gaslight,” “National Velvet,” in which she played Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister, and “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

But competition from other MGM starlets left Lansbury in smaller roles in such movies as “The Harvey Girls” (1946), “The Three Musketeers” (1948) and “Samson and Delilah” (1949).

In 1957, after a series of low-budget pictures and time off to have children, she starred on Broadway in “Hotel Paradiso” with Burt Lahr, which rejuvenated her career.

Returning to film, she won applause as Orson Welles’ mistress in “The Long Hot Summer” (1958), Robert Preston’s friend in “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs” (1960), Elvis Presley’s mother in “Blue Hawaii” (1961) and Warren Beatty’s mother in “All Fall Down” (1962).”

In 1966, she became Broadway’s reigning queen in “Mame.” High praise continued for “Dear World,” “Gypsy” and “Sweeney Todd.”

Lansbury also performed on stage in England before returning to such films as “Death on the Nile” (1978), “The Lady Vanishes” (1979) and “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980), in which she played Agatha Christie’s spinster sleuth Miss Marple, and the film musical “The Pirates of Penzance” (1983).

Lansbury, who lived in Los Angeles, married actor Richard Cromwell in 1945 but the union lasted less than a year. In 1949, she married Peter Shaw, who became her manager and the father of her son, Anthony, and daughter, Deirdre. Shaw died in 2003.

(Reporting by Tyler Clifford, Lisa Richwine and Will Dunham; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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