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Angela Lansbury: solving Sunday night blues; veteran of stage and screen, victor over personal tragedy, she may have found the best role of her career on TV.

ANGELA LANSBURY: SOLVING SUNDAY NIGHT BLUES

Okay, sleuths! Interested insolving a mystery? Try this puzzle: A television series bucks all the trendy formats of primetime TV; omits all car chases, violence, and dashing macho heroes; and substitutes one talky drawing-room scene after another in place of action, action, and more action. It even supposes its viewers are cerebral, thoughtful creatures who try to guess--even outguess--plots that often have more twists and turns than the letters in Mississippi. Couldn't possibly be successful, right? Wrong. Week after week the show is among the highest rated on TV. Your task: to identify who's responsible, the motive, and the weapon.

If you guessed Angela Lansbury,ego and money, and a vast reservoir of acting talent, then you probably know more about TV than most of the would-be Sherlocks running the networks. Lansbury, the winner of four Tony Awards and one Emmy, and a two-time Oscar nominee for best supporting actress, is soaring where such audience favorites as Mary Tyler Moore, Lucille Ball, and Valerie Harper have lately sputtered. She's taken her own show, "Murder, She Wrote,' and made it a hit. "Murder' has even outnumbered "60 Minutes,' becoming the highest-rated program on beleaguered CBS. If Lansbury, 61, isn't the hottest actress on TV, she's certainly the most unlikely talent working in a medium often known for its lack of it.

It hasn't come easy, though. Nearlytwo decades ago Lansbury wondered if she would ever act again. When her children succumbed to the addiction of drugs, she called a halt to her flourishing career to save her family. But with that ordeal now far behind, Lansbury is again at the top of her craft. Ask her "Murder' co-workers about the star, and praise gushes forth. "Angela is innately warm and eminently lovable,' says Peter Fischer, the cocreator and executive producer of "Murder.' "What you see on screen as Jessica Fletcher is really Angela Lansbury-- kind, generous, humorous, extremely personable.'

Unmasking the real Angela Lansbury,who has always been accustomed to meaty character roles, was always a dilemma. "I've never played a person who was close to my age until Jessica,' she says. The reason had a lot to do with the risk of rejection. "At the beginning, Angela was filled with trepidation,' Fischer says. "She had always submerged herself into another character. She was nervous. If the audience didn't like her as herself, it would be devastating.'

For years Lansbury frowned on theproposition of her own television series. "I figured it would burn me out,' she says, "that I would become so familiar it would never enhance my career.' Indeed, the stage had captured the fancy of her heart early on. "The theater had first call on my talents,' she says. "I genuinely thrill to the excitement of a live audience.' Yet three years ago, at the age of 58, this "video virgin' changed her mind about TV. Why? "Primarily, I was motivated by ego,' she says. "I wanted to play to that huge audience just once.'

After reading the script for thetwo-hour pilot of "Murder,' originally intended for Jean Stapleton (who declined when her husband passed away), Lansbury was hooked. "I was immediately taken by Jessica,' she says. She was also taken by the prospect of playing a middle-aged woman, since such women are a big part of the viewing audience. "She's not very often represented as a vital and intelligent being,' Lansbury says. That was part one of Lansbury's motive; part two: "My husband particularly felt I should at least scratch the surface of TV. Financially, there's tremendous amount of money in it --and without too much work, we thought.' Given a steady diet of 12-hour days on the set, that was her only error.

But Lansbury has remarkably fewerrors to recall in a career that spans four decades. Singing and dancing all through her childhood in London, Lansbury was influenced by her mother, the actress Moyna Macgill, a florid figure of the British stage. The family, including Lansbury's half-sister, Isolde, and younger twin brothers, Edgar and Bruce, suffered when their father, a lumber merchant, died in 1934, when Lansbury was nine. Six years later, the family fled to the United States to escape the horrendous bombing of London during World War II.

Overcoming these upheavals, Lansburyrose quickly to fame. She settled in New York and won a scholarship to drama school; soon she was performing a lively musical-comedy act in such nightclubs as Roseland and the Blue Angel. A year later, in 1942, she joined her mother in Hollywood, where Angela sold cosmetics at a department store while struggling as an actress. When George Cukor saw her screen test a year later, Lansbury was given a seven-year contract to MGM by Louis B. Mayer, and she very nearly cornered the character-actress market. Her first part, a Charles Boyer's sexy maid in Gaslight, earned her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. Her second role was as Elizabeth Taylor's older sister in National Velvet, which she followed up in 1944 with The Picture of Dorian Gray, a part that earned her a second Oscar nomination.

A critical favorite, radiatingequal parts sweetness and sizzle, Lansbury was quickly ensconced in the role of youthful character actress. "I kept wanting to play the Jean Arthur roles, and Mr. Mayer kept casting me as a series of venal bitches,' she says. But in retrospect that may have proved a blessing. "I never had those chocolate-box looks they wanted for romantic leads in those days. But as a character actor I achieved two things--first, a healthy sense of my offscreen self and my private life, which I learned to keep separate from my screen characters. And second, a longevity of career that has outlasted many of the leading ladies who relied on their looks,' she says.

In 1949 Lansbury wed an Englishman,Peter Shaw, later an MGM executive and agent, who now oversees her career exclusively. They had two children, Anthony in 1952 and Deirdre in 1953. Barely slowed by motherhood, Lansbury flourished, playing older women in State of the Union, The Manchurian Candidate, and All Fall Down. She was even cast as Elvis Presley's mother in Blue Hawaii, although she was only ten years his senior. Then came real stardom. In 1966 Lansbury ran through 20 costume changes and a panoply of dances as she dazzled Broadway in Mame, which brought her a Tony award for best actress and a reputation as a consummate pro.

But all was not rosy. "Frankly,I wish I had spent more time with my family and less time making mediocre movies in those days,' she says now, knowing the troubles that plagued her family. Home was then in Malibu, a playground of hedonism and abuse. "Both my children, but particularly my son, became involved with drugs,' she says. By the time he was 15, Anthony was using cocaine and heroin; Deirdre was also experimenting with drugs. A rehabilitation hospital failed to cure Anthony of his addiction. Then, more pain: Lansbury's mother died of throat cancer, and in 1970 a brush fire completely destroyed the family's home.

Lansbury was in shock; the painwas overwhelming. But reading a message from the tragedy, she and her husband decided to flee. They landed with their family in Cork, Ireland, and purchased a romantic 19th-century country home set on 20 wooded acres and surrounded by colorful Victorian gardens. The setting was idyllic; the environment, drug free. "The children needed me,' she says. "Their father, who had also left his job, and I were determined to do everything we could to make a home where the family could be together and have a new beginning.' Lansbury describes herself at the time as a cook and gardener. "I seriously believed I would never go back to work again.'

As the wounds within her familyhealed, the actress yearned for the stage. Urged by her husband, Lansbury made a tentative return to the British stage with the Royal Shake-speare Company in Edward Albee's All Over and in 1973 was asked by Arthur Laurents to star in the West End revival of Gypsy. A year later, the show moved to Broadway. She says it was obvious to her that leisurely life in Ireland was over when Hal Prince called in 1978 and asked her to be in Sweeney Todd. The show won eight Tonies, including best musical of 1979, and reestablished Lansbury as a master of her craft.

The big mistake Lansbury madewas underestimating the work involved in starring on a weekly series. Free moments are rare to Lansbury, who often describes herself as a nun to television. Her days are never less than 12 hours, but never more, since she called a halt to longer workdays. "It was rough going for her the first season,' Fischer says. "But I think she's enjoying the show and enjoying her popularity. I know she's enjoying the money.' But Lansbury, who reportedly makes upward of $1 million per season, is worth every dime. Who else could pull off Jessica Fletcher, a sweet woman whose tiny town seems to have the highest murder rate anywhere? "Angela's wonderful to write for,' Fischer says. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.'

Meanwhile, success hasn't madeLansbury believe that the art of television requires much artistry. "Series acting is a technique that is quite particular unto itself. There's nothing really required beyond being able to sustain a scene and learn your lines and have attitudes,' she says. Quite different from the stage and the movies, TV hardly even requires intelligence, Lansbury says: "It's paper thin, that's what it is. If you try to look behind the eyes of a lot of television actors, there's absolutely nothing going on.'

Not the case with Lansbury, whoplans to call a halt to "Murder' when her five-year commitment to the show is over. The actress devotes some of her occasional spare time to groups that fight child abuse, domestic violence, and the battering of women. She also reads and dreams of creating a garden and watching the flowers grow. But who has the time? Not Lansbury. "I think Angela will never again stop devoting herself to mother-henning her family so that the old problems never arise,' her husband says. It's also unlikely that she will ever stop acting. "I can't help it--I love it,' she says. "When I die, they're going to have to carry me off a stage.' But they won't have to ask who done it, because Lansbury leaves her mark wherever she goes.

Photo: Angela's character, Jessica Fletcher of Cabot Cove,Maine, is a successful murder-mystery writer who frequently stumbles upon the real thing.

Photo: Why is a Broadway and Hollywood star consorting nowadays with TV vets Claude Akins and Tom Bosley? Lansbury's $1 million-plus salary may have something to do with it.

Photo: Writers of murder mysteries need to know their subject matter from top to six feet under. Thus, Jessica's familiar bike takes her here to the town cemetery.

Photo: Angela (here, with guest star Arthur Hill) strikes a classic shamus pose. One unsolved mystery: why it took so long for TV to discover her winning Sunday-night formula.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Klein, T.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1987
Words:1857
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