Actress Angela Lansbury

Originally aired on December 16, 2013
Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

The London-born actress-singer shares her feelings on receiving an honorary Academy Award for her body of work.

In a career spanning seven decades, British actress Angela Lansbury has influenced many fellow thespians. She's been a Broadway mainstay, with five Tonys, and earned three Oscar nods—her first for her debut film, Gaslight, while still a teen. She's also been active in TV, achieving fame as Jessica Fletcher in the long-running series, Murder, She Wrote. Lansbury came to the U.S. at the outset of World War II, living first in New York City, where she studied acting, then in L.A., where she began her career with MGM studios. At age 88, she's still going strong, recently completing an Australian tour with Driving Miss Daisy and set to return to London's West End in Blithe Spirit.


Tavis: For seven decades, Angela Lansbury has impressed us with iconic performances as different as the terrifying mother in “The Manchurian Candidate” and the small-town literary sleuth in “Murder, She Wrote,” for which she received 12 Emmy nominations – that would be one for every year the series was on the air.

She of course has also garnered five Tony awards for her work on Broadway, and just last month she received a long-overdue special Oscar for her recognition for an outstanding career. Here, a clip now from that event.

[Clip of Oscar award speech]

Tavis: (Laughter) How special was that?

Angela Lansbury: It came absolutely out of the blue. I had no idea that such a thing could happen. It never occurred to me. So when they told me – they didn’t tell me; my son told me. He called me up on the telephone when I was driving in from the airport, and he said, “Mum, I have something very interesting to tell you, and it’s very, very important. Call me back,” because it was on my cell phone. (Laughter)

So I called him back, and he said, “Darling, I just wanted you to know that you have been chosen to receive an honorary Academy Award.” I was in the back of this car, and I said, “Oh,” and burst into tears, of course, because it was so unexpected and quite wonderful. I thought it’s been worth hanging around all these years. (Laughter)

Tavis: We’ll talk about – you’ve done more than just hang around. You’ve done some good work in the intervening years, and we’ll talk about that in a moment. But this is a long way, this honorary Academy is a long way from your first nomination for “Gaslight.” You were, what, 17 when you made the film –

Lansbury: Uh-huh.

Tavis: – 18 when you were nominated.

Lansbury: Uh-huh.

Tavis: For some people, that would be the highlight of a career, but for you it was just really the beginning.

Lansbury: Well, you can put yourself in my shoes in those days. I was a kid. I didn’t know – all I knew how to do was to act. That’s the only thing I had in my favor. That was the thing that propelled me forward.

But everything that was going on around me was new. I couldn’t really adjust to it. As a kid, I just was a contract player at MGM Studios. They put me into goodness knows how many different roles.

Some of them were wonderful and some of them were very just distasteful and awful because I was playing out of my age range and I was thoroughly uncomfortable, let’s put it that way. So it took me many years to find my acting feet, you know what I mean?

Tavis: How did you go about finding your feet, finding those chops?

Lansbury: Well oddly enough, I liken the years at MGM, and I was there for about eight years, to doing stock, what we used to call repertory or stock, playing a whole bunch of different roles.

You learn a great deal that you can feed into your craft which gives you the experience that you actually need later on, when you start to get the really great roles. You’ve played that part to a certain degree in that picture, and you played that one in that, and so on. You add it all up, and you have that experience.

So actually the years when I was playing totally un – well, they were just roles that just went by the board, you wouldn’t want to know. But anyway, I’m glad I had that chance to build my craft.

Tavis: What do you make of why you had that chance? I ask that because when you were in that distasteful period, to use your word, of doing these roles that really weren’t you, out of character, out of your age range, there was no guarantee – there never is in this business – that those great roles that you referenced were ever going to come.

Yet you didn’t get depressed after hitting it so high with “Gaslight.” You stayed with it.

Lansbury: I did, and I don’t know, I always – I really wanted to go back to the theater, the live theater. That was the thing I had never had a chance to do, even though I had trained to be a stage actress.

Therefore, when I opened up in “Gaslight,” for instance, playing that narky maid, that all came about from my experience and my training up to that point, and so nothing was wasted.

Everything I did actually helped to build the revenue, shall we say, of experience, which enabled me to play a variety of roles as I got older.

Tavis: Is that good advice for life, that nothing is ever wasted?

Lansbury: I would say so. It sounds like a trite thing to say, but in fact it’s absolutely true. I don’t care whether it’s a chance meeting or playing a role that you thought was totally wrong but you did it anyway. It will often turn out to be the thing that will lead you to the role which is sublime.

So you can’t tell. You just have to be open and ready, and let it all happen.

Tavis: See, it doesn’t sound trite at all. At 88, you should know, so that’s why I thought I would ask you that question.

Lansbury: Well, yeah.

Tavis: You got some experience here.

Lansbury: Yes, a certain amount of experience. The thing I always say is that I wasn’t going out reaching for roles, I wasn’t fighting for roles – people came to me. They always came to me.

Roles came to me. I was very, very lucky in that respect. Great directors, great writers, great producers – they saw something in me that they wanted for their picture or their play or whatever it was, whether it was Edward Albee or whether it was – or Peter Hall, directors. They would come to me, thank God. I was lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

Tavis: Before I get too far into this conversation, and I don’t want to color this question any more than this – tell me about your mother.

Lansbury: Ah. Well, my mother was one of the most beautiful women, I have to say, of her generation. She was absolutely lovely. She was a very, extremely sensitive, Irish actress. She came from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and she came to London, and she was sort of discovered by several people.

One of them was the great actor/producer Gerald Du Maurier, Sir Gerald Du Maurier. He was the sort of man of the moment, and also a great leading man. He chose her after she’d done a few little parts.

Incidentally, the interesting thing is I’m going to go to London – and I’m jumping the gun here –

Tavis: That’s why I asked this question.

Lansbury: I’m going to go to London next month, practically, yes, to recreate a role I did on Broadway which was Madame Arcati in “Blithe Spirit” by Noel Coward, and I’m going to be playing at the Gielgud Theater.

Now the Gielgud Theater is a very famous old theater, because it was originally called the Globe, and the Globe is where my mother made her very first professional appearance in London, was at the Globe Theater, and I wish I could remember the name of the – I should have written it down.

My memory about names and places now is dreadful. But lines, I can remember. (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s important.

Lansbury: That’s a different compartment of the brain, let me assure you. (Laughter)

Tavis: But it must be special, though. I think the point you were about to make was this is your first time on this stage?

Lansbury: In London?

Tavis: Yes.

Lansbury: No, no, no it is not.

Tavis: In this play on this stage.

Lansbury: Oh, in this play?

Tavis: Yes.

Lansbury: In London, yes. I’ve never done it there, no; no, no, no. But they’re great devotees of Noel Coward in England, of course, he’s a favorite son, and so to play Coward in London is such fun, and anyway, the role is such a crazy lady. I just love doing that.

Tavis: How do you process all these years later being on the stage where your mother first started?

Lansbury: Well, in fact, it hadn’t really kind of come in and centered in my mind until now, where I really – because I have played London before; I played the Piccadilly Theater with “Gypsy” and also the Old Vic, and I’ve done other shows in London, but not for 40 years.

So I haven’t been back to London for 40 years to do a play, so to play Madame Arcati there, she would be tickled to death knowing that that was what I was doing. I hope she would. She was a wonderfully unique and very special, very darling woman.

Tavis: I’ve had the honor of seeing you on stage a couple of times, most recently with James Earl Jones.

Lansbury: Oh good, yeah.

Tavis: Wonderful production. You intimated a moment ago that the memory for lines is in a different compartment. It is amazing to me – I recently saw Cicely Tyson on Broadway.

Lansbury: There we go, mm-hmm.

Tavis: A wonderful production, and she is 88. You are 88. I am stunned every time I sit and watch her or watch you pull this off. The craft, the artistry, the timing, but the memory – I quite don’t get it, how you remember all those lines.

Lansbury: Well, I know what you’re saying, and I wonder myself, because I just came back from a six-month tour of “Driving Miss Daisy” with James Earl, and we had a most wonderful – and that’s a huge role.

She never shuts up, she never stops talking, and it’s (laughter) – she’s shouting, she’s screaming, all with this fake Southern accent. Anyway, we had a fantastic time incidentally, I’ve got to tell you.

He’s a wonderful guy, and we got along like a house on fire, which was fantastic. In fact, we may do another show next year. We were talking about that.

Tavis: How long in advance of a production like “Blithe Spirit” in London are you practicing – and you’ve done this before, of course, but still, you’ve got to get those lines down again. What’s your process?

Lansbury: Well quite frankly, I usually arrive at the first rehearsal with a vague memory of most of it. But the real work happens in rehearsal, oddly enough, because what happens is that you match the words to the movement, and once you know where you’re moving, then the words that accompany that movement become not locked into your mind and your brain and your whole body.

So it’s a process which all actors go through, and it’s better not to try to learn all the lines by rote. It’s a very bad idea, in fact. You have to do it by using the process, and as I say, the process is to learn during rehearsals, and that’s how you’ll do it.

Tavis: This question, speaking of rehearsals, is as much, Ms. Lansbury, is as much –

Lansbury: Angela, for goodness’ sakes, you make me feel 89. (Laughter)

Tavis: I could never call you Angela; I have too much respect and regard for you.

Lansbury: I’m Angie to everybody, you’ve got to learn.

Tavis: I’ll work on that.

Lansbury: Okay.

Tavis: I’ll work on that, Ms. Lansbury. (Laughter)

Lansbury: Oh, you’re hopeless.

Tavis: I’ve been told that many times, that I’m hopeless. This question is as much, I suspect, philosophical as practical. But give me a word about what you have learned over the years about the value of rehearsal, for all of us, about rehearsing?

Lansbury: Well, it’s not only part of, it’s the integral part of learning the character that you’re playing in relation to the other characters. In other words, you learn to work with your co-actors.

You learn the values that are inherent in the scene that the writer has written. You learn about who you as a character are in relation to those others who are working with you within that scene.

Psychologically, you learn the values that are inherent in the dialogue, and you learn to apply it to the way you read the lines. That’s acting. You’re not yourself saying those lines, you’re somebody else.

Therefore, finding that other person that you’re going to be portraying is really at the – that’s what you’re going for, is just to create a complete character that isn’t Angela Lansbury, but is the lady you’re playing.

So it’s just a process, and it takes time. It takes five, four, five, six weeks during the course of rehearsal to nail that individual who is not you, but somebody else.

Tavis: Because you have nailed this career, because you have become such an artistic genius at your craft, I sometimes wonder whether or not persons like you feel they have missed out on other parts of life because they have been so laser-focused, to our benefit, but so laser-focused on their particular –

Lansbury: Yes. Yes, I do. I do feel that. Oftentimes, I think my goodness, what you have let pass by you because you were so busy doing what you do, you didn’t have the time.

It’s funny, but you’ve centered on something which I’ve thought about recently, and of course the older I get, the more I realize how much I have missed because I was so busy entertaining that audience and so busy pursuing a career.

Although I can’t say that I pursued a career. I really didn’t, it just sort of happened. I was there, and I was asked, so I did it. I very seldom said no, and I was aided and abetted by my husband, who realized that the one thing I could do was to be a very good actress, by his note.

I just went along for the ride. It was a God-given gift. It is. So you can’t say well, you wasted your life because you spent all of it acting, but I think gosh, I’ve never been to China, I’ve never been to Japan. I’ve never been to Yellowstone Park.

I keep saying I must go to Yellowstone Park in Yosemite, (laughter) and I’ve never been.

Tavis: My mother keeps telling me I should go to Yosemite, so maybe we should go to Yosemite together.

Lansbury: Well let’s go to Yosemite together.

Tavis: We’ll go together. We will do that.

Lansbury: Because there was a wonderful program on radio as I was driving along in the car yesterday, and this man was talking about Yosemite –

Tavis: Yeah, my mother said it’s, yeah –

Lansbury: – and how absolutely, it’s a spiritual experience to go there. We’ve got to go.

Tavis: We will go together.

Lansbury: All right.

Tavis: We’ll make it a date.

Lansbury: All right.

Tavis: When you get back from London, we’ll make it a date. The flip side I was thinking as you were talking, the flip side of what you might have missed out on is the joy, the sublime joy that you have given to others through your performances.

This requires you to set your modesty aside for just a second, but how do you process what you have been blessed to give at your best to the audience, to the viewers, be they television viewers, movie watchers, Broadway enthusiasts.

Lansbury: I honestly consider that the greatest gift to me, is the reaction that I get from my work. That is a given which I never, ever take for granted. But to be given that by audiences, individuals, on the street, in the theater, is an extraordinary feeling.

To know that you have lifted people out of their own sadness in some instances, loss, all those things that people suffer in life, it’s pretty terrific to be able to elevate, elevate others’ human spirits. If you can do it, I think it’s important.

Tavis: See, you’re about to make me cry, and there’s no crying on PBS.

Lansbury: No. No, no, no, no. No, no.

Tavis: You’re about to make me tear – and I’m tearing up in part because I feel how authentic that expression was for you, but I’m also tearing up in part because I recall the very first time I saw you in person.

I was with two friends of mine. We were in a restaurant in New York, and what was fascinating for me, I recall having this conversation, at the time, you were not in a performance. You might have been rehearsing for something.

But you weren’t even in a performance, so it’s not like a show had just let out and you were walking into a restaurant. You were just walking into a restaurant with your son, by the way, you were having dinner with your son and a couple of other people.

But you walked into this restaurant that I was seated in with some friends of mine, and when you walked into the restaurant and you sat a couple tables over from me, people started applauding when you walked in.

I thought that was like – and I was one of the persons applauding – but it was the most interesting thing, that the response to you was so overwhelming. You walked in and people just started to applaud. It was near the theater district in New York. But you walked in and they just started applauding.

I was like, that must feel awfully good, to just be celebrated for your lifelong contribution in that way.

Lansbury: Well, it is, it is. It’s very moving, and I don’t know how to respond, because I can’t say that I deserve it; I don’t. I’ve just been around long enough. (Laughter) They say, “My God, she’s still here.”

Tavis: Does that mean if I live to be 88, they’ll applaud when I walk in somewhere?

Lansbury: Yes. (Laughter)

Tavis: They’ll be like, “Boo.” (Laughter)

Lansbury: No, no, no, people are applauding you right now, my darling. You don’t have to wait to be 88, believe you me. I’ll sit here and applaud you any day.

Tavis: You are kind. You’re kind.

Lansbury: God bless you, no.

Tavis: So I was just reading the other day that they are going to bring back “Murder, She Wrote,” and bring – (unintelligible) say “bring back,” because what you did I don’t think can be brought back.

But they’re going to launch another run of “Murder, She Wrote” with a wonderful actress, Octavia Spencer.

Lansbury: Oh, the best.

Tavis: Yeah, she’s a wonderful person. But I want to get your take on this – I am just so over Hollywood – I love Octavia, I want to be clear about that – but I’m so over Hollywood and all these remakes.

It’s as if we don’t have any creativity in this town to do anything different. But that’s my sense. What’s your take on your show being -?

Lansbury: Well, I honestly feel that “Murder, She Wrote” stands alone, as many of the other great shows of the past 35, 40 years do. It stands alone, and it’s still on. It’s still all over the world, “Murder, She Wrote,” Jessica Fletcher and “Murder, She Wrote.”

So I just think Octavia’s too good for that. Why should she, why should she, be given an opportunity – she’s doing wonderful movies, for goodness’ sakes. Why would she want to do a television series that is so well known because of Cabot Cove and all those lovely old places, and characters that the audience knows so well?

Why should she just pick up on something like that? I don’t get it. Also, I just say they’re just buying the title, because it’s got nothing to do with our “Murder, She Wrote.” We know that.

I think she was going to play an important nurse in a hospital who became involved in solving crimes and so on. So I don’t know, but I think they’re making a stupid error.

Tavis: Speaking of “your” “Murder, She Wrote,” how –

Lansbury: But she deserves better, damn it. (Laughter) She’s playing some great roles at the moment in movies, for gosh sakes.

Tavis: She’s in a movie now, was in a movie that I hope will get some Academy love –

Lansbury: Yeah –

Tavis: “Fruitvale Station,” about the Oscar Grant story.

Lansbury: Right, “Fruitvale Station,” exactly.

Tavis: Wonderful picture, and I hope that picture gets some love, Academy voters.

Lansbury: Right.

Tavis: Can I do that on TV? I think I just did.

Lansbury: Yeah. Well, I’ll second that.

Tavis: But anyway, it’s a great film. Yeah, yeah. Before my time runs out, speaking of “Murder, She Wrote,” your “Murder, She Wrote,” how did you situate that in your corpus? As you look back on your career, how do you situate that 12-year run?

Lansbury: Yes, extraordinary – money. (Laughter)

Tavis: It paid the bills, huh?

Lansbury: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: “Murder, She Wrote,” cash she made.

Lansbury: Yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah.

Lansbury: Yeah, I’d been out of the movies for years, I had had a wonderful stage career, yes, in musicals and so on, but you don’t really make any money in the theater.

So every theater actor or actress who has the opportunity, and I remember saying to Peter, I said, “I think it’s time for me to go to television.” We needed that annuity, you know what I mean? We had a family.

You don’t make any money, as I say, in the theater in the long run. You used to in the old days when you toured, and you were –

Tavis: So you do it why, for the love of it?

Lansbury: You do it for the love of it, you do it because – I didn’t intend to do it for 12 years. That was extraordinary. But I chose it very, very carefully. I knew this was a woman that I really could – I could be that woman, very carefully, very steadily, if I just allowed myself to go with the flow. So I did. I didn’t act it, I just did it.

Tavis: I’ve got 45 seconds left, and I cannot close this show without asking you, at 88, how, physically, you do it. You look marvelous, and you’re sharp as ever.

Lansbury: With a lot of help from my friends. The doctors, (laughter) I’m the bionic woman. I have a very strong constitution, and I take excruciatingly good care of myself.

Tavis: Well, I’m thankful for that, as we all are. (Laughter)

Lansbury: It sounds very selfish. I don’t mean to sound selfish.

Tavis: No, not at all. You’re not selfish at all.

Lansbury: I’m not selfish.

Tavis: You’re not at all, and that did not come across that way. Can I just tell you how grateful I am for this opportunity? As you know, we’ve talked on radio before.

Lansbury: Yes.

Tavis: But I’ve been waiting for the balance of my career to finally get you in this chair and on this set, and it finally happened.

Lansbury: Oh, Tavis, that’s so –

Tavis: And I’m so glad –

Lansbury: – so dear of you to say so. Because I am such a fan of yours, and when I’m in New York I just watch you every night.

Tavis: Well, I appreciate it. I appreciate it.

Lansbury: You’re the best, absolutely the best at what you do.

Tavis: You are the best, and I’ll be celebrating you when you start in March, “Blithe Spirit” in London.

Lansbury: Right. I’ll be there –

Tavis: At the old Globe.

Lansbury: – in March. We open around the 18th, something like that, and we’ll be there till June.

Tavis: Yeah, and when you get –

Lansbury: Then I’m coming back for my grandson’s wedding, yes.

Tavis: Your grandson’s wedding, and after that, we’re going to Yosemite.

Lansbury: Right.

Tavis: Okay.

Lansbury: We’re off to Yosemite, it’s a deal. (Laughter)

Tavis: All right, there you go. Angela Lansbury, love her. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: July 30, 2014 at 1:19 pm