Universal Press Department
January 5, 1983
Everything about Angela Lansbury's career as an actress is unique. It follows no set pattern, nor does it copy the career of any other actress.
With her first feature, "Gaslight," in which she played Nancy, the corrupt maidservant, she gained an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress of 1944. She did not win an Oscar, but the very next year she was nominated again as best supporting actress for her performance as Sibyl Vane in "The Picture Of Dorian Gray".
Again, she was not awarded the Oscar. Then 17 years later, she was once more nominated as best supporting actress for her performance of the evil Mrs. Iselin, in "The Manchurian Candidate." Again, the Oscar did not come to her.
She was only 19 at the time of "Gaslight," and 37 when she made "The Manchurian Candidate." The Tony and Sarah Siddons Award have both come her way from starring roles in the theatre, but Hollywood still considers her a supporting actress beyond all comparison.
Angela Lansbury was born in London on October 16, 1925, the daughter of an Irish actress, Moyna Macgill and Edgar Isaac Lansbury, timber merchant and mayor of Poplar in the East End of London. She had younger twin brothers, Bruce and Edgar, and an older half-sister named Isolde, the daughter from her mother's first marriage to actor-producer Reginald Denham; Isolde later became Peter Ustinov's first wife. Her grandfather was the Right Honourable George Lansbury, a prominent pacifist and onetime leader of the British Labour Party; she had a great-uncle who was the actor, Robert B. Mantell.
Her father died when she was only 9 years old, and the family was moved to Hampstead in the London suburbs. Not long after, she attended the Webber-Douglas School of Dramatic Art in the Kensington district of London.
"I had a make-believe life that I would be like the characters in the movies I saw," she recalls. "I had a whole secret life and used to sit on buses, staring out the window and looking as though I had T.B., always playing someone other than myself. I thought a lot about America, but I never thought of myself as an actress playing those roles. I was going to go to America and walk down those golden sidewalks, step into a club and meet Boston Blackie on the corner. That was my Make Believe Mountain."
She was only 15 when World War II changed her whole way of life. Nazi aircraft were bombing London so mother and daughter joined 600 other children on a boat bound for America. It was the last boatload of children to leave the British Isles before German submarines made further Atlantic crossings impossible.
In New York Lansbury enrolled in Manhattan's Feagin School of Drama and Radio. With a little professional help she put together a night club act, in which she impersonated Beatrice Lillie, Gracie Fields and a Wagnerian opera star. She auditioned at Roseland for the manager of the 'Samovar' night club in Montreal, and was booked in for four weeks at $60 per week. She was 16 at the time and lied that she was 19.
Inevitably Moyna MacGill and her teenage daughter headed West, where an actor friend arranged an introduction to MGM Studios. Young Angela was steered into the office of George Cukor just as he was about to start shooting "Gaslight" with Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten. The meeting solved a difficult problem for Cukor, who was to cast Angela as the Cockney maidservant Nancy.
Said Lansbury later: "One day I was making $28 a week at Bullock's department store and the next day I was up to $500 a week at MGM."
Five years later, however, she had filmed eleven pictures, had played with top luminaries and always had featured billing. She was only 23 years old, but after so exciting and promising a start, she found herself relegated to umsympathetic wives, the other woman, a lusty belle of the saloons, even the longsuffering Queen Anne of France.
But she did not complain. "Not a moment was wasted," she says. "Because I still have the memories. I rode to work every day on the bus with Margaret O'Brien and her mother. There was a war on and nobody could afford gas for their cars. Louis B. Mayer and I got along like a house afire. He never chased me around his desk or tried anything with me. Of course, he never gave me any good parts, either."
Angela Lansbury has since dismissed most of her early film work as a "plateau of mediocrity." Not entirely true. Her first two films both earned her Academy Award nominations -- still a Hollywood record of sorts.
But to be fair, much of her casting during her contract days had been fairly cavalier.
"I was in a studio known for beautiful international stars. I wasn't exceptionally beautiful and I wasn't old enough to be Agnes Moorehead. I was a very young character actress at a studio that didn't specialize in that sort of thing and I didn't have the chutzpah to push it through. I wasn't the leading lady type. I didn't reach that until Mame.
Mame in 1966 opened up a new and brilliant career in musicals. Lansbury became the epitome of the highstepping, prat falling ageless kook who firmly believed that "life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death!"
Said Peter Shaw, her husband: "Damndest thing I ever saw. Suddenly, after years of beating her brains out, Angie's really a star!" Said Lansbury, with a happy smile: "Let's face it, I've finally arrived! It's taken 41 years, but I always knew I would hit on something that would unlock all the doors and hit all those people between the eyes."
Lansbury won a Tony award for her starring role in Mame and then received the same award three more times for Dear World, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd. She was presented the prestigious Sarah Siddons Award twice, for Gypsy and Sweeney Todd, and was named Woman of the Year in 1968 by Harvard University's Hasty Pudding Institute.
Among her recent movies are "The Mirror Crack'd," "Death On The Nile" (for which she won the National Board of Review best supporting actress award) and "Bedknobs And Broomsticks."
Now, with 41 motion pictures, 13 major stage productions, 16 leading television appearances and a multitude of awards and honors, Angela Lansbury makes her Gilbert and Sullivan debut with the role of Ruth in the screen version of "The Pirates Of Penzance," opposite members of the original Broadway cast.
Edward R. Pressman presents A Joseph Papp Production, "The Pirates Of Penzance," starring Kevin Kline, Angela Lansbury, Linda Ronstadt, George Rose and Rex Smith. It is directed and has a screenplay by Wilford Leach, and Joseph Papp is the producer. A Universal Release, the executive producer is Edward R. Pressman, and the co-producer is Timothy Burrill.