The 75th Annual Tony Awards returned to New York City in June with a grand celebration of Broadway, including a tribute to Angela Lansbury. The work of the five-time Tony winner was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award, but even as the audience sang along to the theme song of her first Broadway hit, Mame, something was missing: Angela had declined to come to New York to accept the award.
Angela appreciated the recognition, of course, but at 96, traveling isn’t as easy anymore. “Angela suffers a variety of things, such as arthritis,” says a friend. “And being in a theater with 6,000 people when COVID cases are still popping up regularly made Angela believe that staying home was the best course of action.” The beloved star of TV’s Murder, She Wrote also doesn’t need another trophy to prove that she’s lived a wonderful life. “You go through motions for a show or any event where you are being lauded for what you do, not who you are,” reasons Angela.
Of course, her professional life has always been impressive. Angela initially succeeded in film, where one of her earliest movies, 1944’s Gaslight, earned her an Oscar nomination at age 19 by utilizing her talent, not trading on her appearance. “I was never going to get to play the girl next door,” says the London-born actress. “And I was never going to be groomed to be a glamorous movie star. And I sort of realized that.”
In fact, Angela was a late bloomer who hit her professional and personal stride later in life. At age 37, she earned her third Oscar nomination, for playing the manipulative mother in the 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate. “Any actress will tell you that evil roles to play are the best,” she says. “That woman had so many layers … It proved to be my last great movie role.”
Angela held her own among MGM’s high-profile beauties, including costars Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner. Still, she admits that she was a real innocent. Many were shocked when she eloped at age 19 with a man 15 years her senior. “I was so in love with Richard Cromwell when I married him,” she confesses, adding that she had no clue he was gay. “I had had no experience sexually,” she explains.
During their yearlong marriage, Richard introduced his young bride to his famous friends Joan Crawford, William Holden and Zachary Scott, “wonderful people in the business who I never would have met,” she says. He also taught Angela about music, digging into his impressive collection of classic recordings. When he left Angela with only a “Dear Jane” letter, she was heartbroken.
A few years later, Angela had better luck when she met Peter Shaw, a fellow actor who became an agent and later a coproducer of Murder, She Wrote. Angela has called their 53 years together the “perfect” union. “I don’t know how we had such a long marriage, but the simple fact was that we were devoted to one another,” she says.
When a movie role or the theater kept Angela away, Peter took over the day-to-day rearing of their children, Anthony, 70, Deidre, 69, as well as Peter’s son from an earlier marriage, David, 78. “My father didn’t have any hobbies at all — family was his hobby,” David tells Closer. “Both of them always put family first.”
In the 1960s, the couple even put their careers on hold and moved to rural Ireland to get Anthony and Deidre away from LA’s hard drug scene. “It was somewhere my children wouldn’t be exposed to any more bad influences,” says Angela, who spent a year tending to the house and learning how to cook. Both of their children benefited from the experience and straightened out their lives.
Angela eventually returned to the theater and enjoyed hits with 1974’s Gypsy and 1979’s Sweeney Todd. They might have remained her crowning glory had she not accepted the role of Murder, She Wrote’s Jessica Fletcher. It had been Peter’s idea. “I probably wouldn’t have done it had I been left to my own devices,” admits Angela, adding that Jessica remains one of her favorite characters. “She was valiant and liberal and athletic and exciting and sexy and all kinds of good stuff that women are of a certain age and are not given credit for,” she says.
Losing Peter to heart failure was one of the hardest tragedies of the actress’ life. “Suddenly it happens, and that special person is gone,” says Angela, who reveals that returning to work helped her learn to live with her grief. “I said, ‘All right, enough already. Get off your ass and start moving forward.’” Films like Nanny McFee and Mary Poppins Returns have even introduced Angela to a younger generation.
Since the pandemic hit in 2020, Angela has largely remained home in Los Angeles. “She loves spending time with her family, and they are all based there,” explains the friend. “She has her children, her grandchildren and a great-grandchild!”
Angela remains pretty healthy, too. Arthritis has curtailed her gardening, and she struggles to maintain her weight, but she still loves to cook, read and do crossword puzzles. “I take a lot of vitamins and get enough sleep,” Angela says. “I believe age should not stop you from keeping on. Here I am, I still go on, you know, like the tides.
— By Louise A. Barile
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