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Angela Lansbury, a beloved star of the screen and stage, has died at 96

On the CBS series <em>Murder, She Wrote,</em> Lansbury played Jessica Fletcher, a widowed teacher from a small Maine coastal town, who writes a best-seller which leads her into the business of sleuthing
On the CBS series Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury played Jessica Fletcher, a widowed teacher from a small Maine coastal town, who writes a best-seller which leads her into the business of sleuthing

Angela Lansbury was destined to become an actress; born in London, England in 1925, her mother was a leading lady of the British stage. Although Lansbury was best known for her role as Jessica Fletcher in the long-running CBS TV series, Murder, She Wrote, she had a distinguished career in the movies and on Broadway.

Lansbury died Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 96, according to a family statement. No cause of death was mentioned.

Lansbury got the acting bug as a teenager, playing Audrey in a student production of As You Like It. Appearing onstage was intoxicating, she told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2000: "I suddenly got the feel and the smell of being able to make an effect by the way I played the role, the way I comported myself, all of the physical aspects of acting suddenly came to me and I got a laugh, you know, the first time I did it."

With the Battle of Britain raging, Lansbury and her mother moved to the United States in 1940 and settled in Hollywood two years later. She got her first screen role, as the saucy housemaid Nancy in Gaslight, directed by George Cukor, at the age of 17.

Lansbury was nominated for an Oscar for her Gaslight performance and appeared in many more films, from The Picture of Dorian Gray to The Harvey Girls, often playing women much older than she actually was.

"I was never going to get to play the girl next door, and I was never going to be groomed to be a glamorous movie star, and I sort of realized that, so I had to make peace with myself on that score," she said.

Perhaps her most memorable Hollywood performance was as the evil mother of the brainwashed Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate in 1962.

Lansbury moved to New York to star on Broadway and scored an enormous triumph in Jerry Herman's Mame in 1966, says theater historian Laurence Maslon.

"Angela Lansbury really threw herself in front of the bus to get that part." Maslon says. "And, lo and behold, when she walked down that staircase in gold-lamé pajamas, in 1966, she was 40 years old and Broadway embraced her in a way that it has embraced few actresses in its storied history."

Lansbury said she was a bit surprised to find a real home in musical theater.

"I'm not really a singer," she admitted. "I have a serviceable voice, but how I use it — it's the emotion under the note that sells the song."

That way of acting a song served Lansbury very well when she starred as Mama Rose in the 1974 revival of Gypsy, and as the cold-blooded Mrs. Lovett, who bakes human beings into meat pies, in Stephen Sondheim's 1979 masterpiece, Sweeney Todd. She told NPR in 2005 that Sweeney Todd's success was anything but certain when it began preview performances in New York.

"People were appalled by the blood that was splattering at them from the stage," she recalled. "They felt that Stephen had gone a step too far. But, my goodness, there was another two-thirds of the audience who hadn't seen it yet who arrived at the theater and they just took it to their hearts and — to make a long story short — we won the Tony that year."

In the 1980s, Lansbury moved back to Hollywood to star in the mystery television series Murder, She Wrote. The CBS show lasted 12 seasons and made Lansbury a household name — as a senior citizen. She told Fresh Air's Terry Gross that she was "happily trapped" in the role of Jessica Fletcher, the mystery novelist who solved a murder every week.

"Being Jessica was second nature to me because she embodied all of the qualities that I like about women," Lansbury said. "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."

Lansbury's acting career extended over an extraordinary seven decades. She won five Tony Awards as well as a lifetime achievement award, six Golden Globes and was a Kennedy Center Honoree for lifetime achievement in 2000.
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