From the Archives: Recalling the unexpected success of Angela Lansbury’s ‘Murder She Wrote’
“Murder She Wrote” premiered on Sept. 30, 1984, and ran for 12 seasons on CBS. It starred Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher, a retired English teacher and mystery writer who solved the numerous murders she would encounter. Known more for her film and stage work at the time, Lansbury discussed her career and the unexpected success of “Murder She Wrote” with The Times in this article that was originally published on Dec. 10, 1985.
Wearing a simple striped-blue shirt, wraparound skirt and sensible shoes--one of her no-nonsense costumes as the mystery writer/detective on “Murder, She Wrote”--Angela Lansbury sat undisturbed at a back table at the Universal Studios commissary, polished off a solid meat-loaf-and-baked-potato lunch and merrily engaged in some bites of self-deprecation. She was between takes.
“Look at that wall over there,” she said, with a sweep of her arm toward the color-laden montage of old-movie posters shellacked onto the long wall at her left. “They’ve got the poster of the worst movie I ever made--I forget the name. I played a sort of seamstress in a Tony Curtis movie. I was very hard up. I had to accept it, it was a rotten part, but I needed the money. MGM loaned me out. I was married, and we were struggling. . . . “
The movie was “The Purple Mask,” released by Universal in 1955. At the time, Lansbury was living in Brentwood with her husband, Peter Shaw, their son, Anthony, 3, and daughter, Deirdre, 2. A decade after its release, after she had just gained fame in “Mame” on Broadway, she recalled that “Mask” was “about this guillotine.” Today she barely remembers that.
Lansbury can afford to joke about failure. Now 60, she’s had four Tonys for best actress in a Broadway musical, three Oscar nominations as best-supporting actress--”always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” she said evenly--and this year two Emmy nominations: outstanding lead actress in a drama series, in her first season as Jessica Fletcher on the CBS Sunday-night series, and outstanding individual performance in a variety or music program for her role as Mrs. Lovett in the PBS special of the musical “Sweeney Todd,” the role that landed her the fourth Tony.
Having gone the distance in her career, Lansbury spoke with unflinching candor about her life, her work, herself. Much as Jessica Fletcher might.
Ask Lansbury, in her television trailer on the Universal lot, how she assesses her movie career (involving some 40 movies), and she replied with more than a trace of sharpness: “Not fully realized.”
Ask her shortly before the Emmy Awards ceremonies about her chances for winning television’s top honor in “Murder, She Wrote” and, without a moment’s hesitation, she noted that “in television you have to be around a couple of seasons.”
(At the time she thought the outstanding actress award would go to Sharon Gless, who plays Detective Chris Cagney on “Cagney & Lacey,” because Tyne Daly, who plays her detective partner Mary Beth Lacey, had already won two years in a row. Daly went on to win for the third time. And George Hearn, Lansbury’s co-star in the “Sweeney Todd” title role, won outstanding individual performance.)
“Let me say up front here, I have been so disappointed as far as the West Coast is concerned as far as awards go, that I once vowed I would never go to another awards ceremony,” said Lansbury, who then sat smack on the aisle at the Emmys, resplendent in a beige gown.
“I was nominated three times, three wonderful parts,” Lansbury said of her Oscar nominations for her performances in “Gaslight” (1944), “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) and “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962), “and I didn’t get it. I don’t feel badly about it, but just being human, one gets all excited about the prospect that people are telling you, you’re going to get it.
“You have to go through this really shocking experience of highs and lows, and I think anybody with their head screwed on right really doesn’t expose themselves to that kind of horror.”
Lansbury laughed heartily. “It’s a horrifying thing, especially with the cameras trained on you the way they do these days. It’s an entertainment .”
Now in its second season, “Murder, She Wrote” is an unqualified hit, promising to be a series fixture for television-years to come. It ranked eighth among the 97 series that aired last season, and among the new series it came in second, behind NBC’s “The Cosby Show.” This season it’s consistently been in the top 10 Nielsen shows, often in the top five, and has finished second or third several times.
Yet even before the latest numbers, Lansbury was saying that she “didn’t honestly expect the show to take off in the amazing way that it has. I thought, well, it’ll run a season. . . . If we survive well this season and we keep our audience, and I think the chances are very good, we’ll undoubtedly be asked to do a third season.
“Now ‘Murder, She Wrote’ happens to be the most time-consuming job I’ve had in years,” she said. “It takes up my whole life. It’s totally non-stop, the shooting, and I have no time for home life or socializing or relaxing. When I’m not working, I’m sleeping.
“On the one hand, I love the success and am enjoying that tremendously. On the other, I resist this takeover that it represents of my life. . . . You’re caught in a trap--that’s what I’m not sure about. It’s awfully hard to walk away from success, isn’t it?”
Lansbury exhibited considerable restraint, however, on a particular family matter. In the last year two national magazines have written about her son’s involvement with drugs toward the end of the ‘60s (while noting that her daughter was also beginning to experiment), but the actress has called a halt to that sort of candor. “Why go on talking about it?” she said. “Because it makes Angela Lansbury more interesting to do it at his expense?”
She spoke more willingly about her decision to drop all career plans and go off to Ireland with her family for several years. In 1970, during Southern California’s wild brush fires, the British-born actress watched her house in Malibu burn to the ground and began to think the family would be better off abroad. “Our house had burned down and we had no home. . . . The Vietnam War and the protests, the spirit of the country was very upsetting and depressed. . . . “
Today, all is well. Anthony, married, with a son, 3, and a baby daughter, can be seen on the “Murder, She Wrote” set working as dialogue coach, prompting his mother on her lines (which is not very often), while husband Peter Shaw, her business manager and “partner in everything I do,” watches nearby. Anthony may direct a “Murder, She Wrote” segment later on, Lansbury said with pride. Deirdre is married and living in Italy.
When Lansbury was offered the Jessica Fletcher role in the movie pilot of the show by the team of three producers who had worked together on “Columbo,” she jumped at the chance. The fact that she had been second choice--Jean Stapleton turned down the role for personal reasons--didn’t faze her a bit.
“I liked what I visualized her (Jessica) to be when I read the script,” Lansbury said of the adaptation of her Agatha Christie character. “There was something about her quality that I felt I could adapt myself to very easily, and very comfortably, and hopefully she could be an attractive person even though I was playing a middle-aged widow. I felt she was courageous and full of excitement and energy about life and people.
“This attracted me to her,” Lansbury went on, “because that’s my feeling about life and people. I don’t have any feeling of being any age, and my enthusiasm for living and the prospect for the future never diminishes.”
To play her younger than Miss Marple was “very much the idea of writer and co-executive producer Peter Fischer,” Lansbury said. “He played up the fact that physically, Jessica was a very active woman--she rode a bicycle, she jogged, she looked after herself. She did not drive a car; I don’t quite know why.
“As it turned out, it was a very good thing she didn’t,” said Lansbury, whose humor is of the quiet, subtle variety, “because it precludes, in a sense, the need for car chases. We have enough of them--there are enough shows that do very, very exciting car chases. Otherwise, we’d all end up in the underground garages of Los Angeles along with everybody else.
“We’re not ‘Hill Street Blues’ or ‘Miami Heat’ (“Miami Vice”), we’re not any of those things. We’re simply mystery stories concerning the mystery of murder. It’s unraveling, gathering all the clues and personalities involved in murder.”
Lansbury does not merely follow the lines; she has developed a sense of Jessica’s character--and standards. “I’m a hard person to please,” Lansbury said easily. “My standards are awfully high, and I never want to let the audience down. I know what they expect: I know what they expect from the show, and I know what they expect from me as an actress, and anything less than that, I am highly embarrassed.
“There have been a couple of times I have taken (some) to task,” she continued. “I’d be a hypocrite if I said there wasn’t, and I’ve shouted a few times, and said, ‘Listen here, now, I think we have to watch out for this. We’ve got to keep her credibility high.’ Any kind of reference to her being an old fogy or being out of date, or making a deprecatory remark about a type of person--I don’t think Jessica’s about that.
“I think she’s so broad-minded in her thinking. She’s a hep cat, a smart cookie; she really is. She knows a lot about a lot of things, so whenever they tend to get her a little eccentric in a wrong way, I just take it right out. Do you know what I mean when I say certain women of a certain age might have that ‘Now, my good man’ attitude? No matronizing or being a smart-ass.”
Angela Lansbury--it is the name she was born with--knew she would be an actress when she was 12. Her mother, Moyna MacGill, a prominent British stage actress, recognized her daughter’s potential talent. “She coached me early, and I was prepared for all my auditions, and I always got in. Acting was only a substitute for make-believe, and I was a master of that when I was very, very young.”
The family was prominent too. Her grandfather, George Lansbury, led the Labor Party from 1931 to 1935. Her father, Edgar Lansbury, a timber merchant, died when she was 9, and the loneliness after his death only served to stimulate her imagination.
In 1940, to escape the London Blitz, the family, including her younger twin brothers, Edgar and Bruce, emigrated to America. “In fact, it was that year, 1940, that he (grandfather) really died of a broken heart. All his desperate efforts to seek the peace--he really made them: He went to see Hitler personally; he came to America to see Eleanor Roosevelt. He was a great follower of Gandhi. . . . “
In America, Lansbury studied drama at the American Theatre Wing, sang at the Blue Angel and Roseland until her mother beckoned--from Hollywood. (Today, Edgar is a New York stage producer of such works as “The Subject Was Roses” and “Godspell,” and Bruce is a television producer whose credits include “Mission: Impossible.”)
Christmas of 1942 she worked alongside her mother at Bullock’s. In 1943, George Cukor spotted Lansbury in a screen test and she joined MGM. In 1944 she acted in “Gaslight,” playing a Cockney maid, and in “National Velvet,” playing Elizabeth Taylor’s older sister. Under MGM’s aegis, she made a dozen more pictures including “Dorian Gray,” “The Harvey Girls” and “State of the Union.”
“My movie career I’ve often referred to as a period of stock, like regional theater. I got to play a lot of roles--I was sort of a company’s second woman. There were several actresses like me at that time who never made it enormously at that time. Anne Baxter was like me. She was a very, very good actress.
“I wasn’t an ingenue; that was the problem,” Lansbury said. “I was a young character actress. From the time I was 17, I was a character actress, but they were not the big lead roles.”
Not that she didn’t want the big, glamorous lead roles. She hated playing older parts. She wanted the role of Lady DeWinter in “The Three Musketeers,” but Louis B. Mayer insisted that she play the Queen of France. At 22 she didn’t want to play Walter Pidgeon’s wife--”a very unpleasant woman, a villainess in her late 30s, but I was under contract. That was the bottom line: You play and play and play; you don’t play, you were finished.” On her own for 20th Century Fox, she relished the role of Orson Welles’ high-heeled mistress in “The Long Hot Summer.”
Now that Angela Lansbury has settled back into her old neighborhood in Brentwood, where she lived when her children were young, she’s knitting sweaters for her grandchildren and designing a vegetable garden to be encased in huge wooden boxes. She’s also casting her eye toward Hollywood. “I do believe,” she said, “that there are going to be several absolutely fabulous parts for me in movies. They have not arrived yet, but they will.”
As for Jessica Fletcher, is she interesting enough for Angela Lansbury? “Well,” she responded evenly, “everyone will have to keep those scripts interesting. They’ll have to keep those socks pulled way up high.”
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