Angela Lansbury Looks Back on Seven Decades in Hollywood

Angela Lansbury has worked with everyone from Ingrid Bergman and Elizabeth Taylor to Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra.

WORDS As told to Jeanne Wolf
May / June 2018
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It’s been an interesting life. That’s what being a character actor is. It gave me a much bigger career than I would have had if I had just been, as they said in the old days, a “glamour girl” at MGM, which is where I started. I got my first part at 17 in Gaslight and received an Academy Award nomination.

I worked with Elizabeth Taylor when she was 12. She ended up living a life in the headlines and she loved it. I never wanted that for myself. I didn’t have illusions of stardom.

In Little Women, I play a very rigid and lonely woman who is isolated from her family by her wealth. I understood that fame and money and great beauty can cut you off from other people, and that’s not how I wanted to live. Aunt March is an older woman and when I first saw myself in the costume and makeup, I was appalled. But you can’t worry about how you look. She is very strong-willed but she reveals her kindness in the end.

One reason I wanted to do Little Women is that I love Ireland, where it was filmed. I’m very fond of the old part of Ireland that I knew as a child. When my sister and I were kids we used to go in the summer and just meld into the countryside. It was such a departure from London, where I was brought up and went to school. I still have a house outside Dublin.

I don’t think I knew I wanted to perform, but my mother knew darn well because I was acting my way through all sorts of situations. That’s the reason she sent me to drama school.

Angela Lansbury is the dullest thing on two legs. That’s my opinion of myself, but nevertheless I always had confidence when I played a role because I was someone else.

During Gaslight everyone was always giving me cigarettes because I had to smoke in the movie. It was a bit of a joke. I had my 18th birthday on the set and the stars, Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, gave me lovely presents. Boyer had an ability with people that made him easy for me to like. Ingrid was wonderful to me, but I was most impressed with her height. She was as tall as me and I’m 5'8". I thought, "My goodness, if she can do it then maybe there’s a chance for me."

I went on to National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor. She was a hardworking young actress. I was friends with Elizabeth up until the end of her life. She loved jewelry and loved to dress up and be glamorous at all times. She carried it off better than anybody. I had to admire her even though I couldn’t imagine living the life that she did. Elizabeth was always a part of the gossip of the day and that was never my style.

I played Spencer Tracy’s mistress in State of the Union. The legend is true that Katharine Hepburn did approve me taking the role, and we became fast friends. She was absolutely unique—incorrigible and outlandish and all those good things that made her such a fascinating person and actress. Spencer always had a sort of mystique around him; as we now know, he and Katharine were very close. I knew he had another life, which was his original wife and son.

Later, I went from mistress to mother with Elvis Presley as my son in Blue Hawaii. Elvis and I got along like a house on fire. In those days, he was health-minded, building himself up, and he was a real Southern gentleman.

I did a lot of musicals. I had a voice that wasn’t the greatest in the world but it allowed me to be a musical star on Broadway and I loved every minute of it.

When I did Mame, Judy Garland came backstage after a performance. These were her dark days. This was the end of her career, almost the end of her life. She said she wanted to play Mame on tour. She was very frail and I knew it would never happen. I was sad because when we were very young we used to go to the set together in the same limo.

Of course, I was also Laurence Harvey’s mother in one of the biggest movies I ever did, The Manchurian Candidate. The real buzz surrounded Frank Sinatra, whom, ironically, I never really had a scene with except to pass him in a hallway. Frank was an icon. His whole modus operandi, his style, was his own. He was not an easy actor but he learned to have confidence in himself on the set.

Quite a few years later Frank and his wife and my husband and I had dinner and all Frank wanted to talk about was Murder, She Wrote. He adored Murder, She Wrote. He knew all the episodes. Isn’t that something?

Murder, She Wrote kind of released me from all those character roles. It was the first time I played someone you would have as a next-door neighbor. I loved doing that because I wanted to play her as everywoman but with a nose for murder and mystery. The producers wanted her to be more eccentric, but I never wanted her to be a kook. The thing I love is that men liked it, too. The series was more of a success than I could have dreamed.

The only time I kind of fell into, shall I say, “the life” was when I was in the theater—Mame, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd. It was a 24-hour-a-day deal. A Broadway career was a big adjustment. Movies, I could handle. I could have a home life. I could have my children.

I was there for them.

The constant attention was an artificial kind of existence for me and was rough on my kids. They wanted to have their lives and go forward and unfortunately going forward in those days meant falling into the trap of drugs and so on. It interfered with their education and everything else. So I made a decision to just stop for a while and we all moved to Ireland. It worked. They’re all terrific now.

There’s been talk but I wouldn’t do Murder, She Wrote again. I don’t see her as an older woman. I’d rather let her remain as she is. I don’t want to tarnish or alter that image.

I wouldn’t do a series again, but I’m always ready for a new project. I did Little Women, sang the song from Beauty and the Beast at Lincoln Center and, though I love being at home, I’m an actress in my soul.

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