Jace: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
The legendary Dame Angela Lansbury needs no introduction. A prodigious triple threat with a career lasting more than seven decades, Lansbury has graced our cinemas, television screens, and stages with her unmistakable presence since 1944.
Aunt March: The most foolish thing your mother ever did was to marry my nephew. He had filled his skull with theologizing and philosophizing, and didn’t leave space for a grain of business acumen.
Jace: So it is with great pride and immense pleasure that we welcome Lansbury to the MASTERPIECE screen for the very first time, in the upcoming adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, Little Women. Lansbury’s role is, of course, the prickly, proud Aunt March.
Aunt March: When you send me a written appeal for aid, the least you can do is to await me in the parlor and without an apron on.
Jace: From Gaslight to Mame to Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury joins us in a lively and no-holds barred conversation.
And this week we are joined by Dame Angela Lansbury, welcome.
Angela: Thank you.
Jace: You’ve hinted that Little Women will be your last television role. What attracted you to this project, specifically?
Angela: Little Women is is a classic story, and worldwide, you know, it’s one of those wonderful pieces of literature that young people old people, anybody who’s ever had the fun of reading the book or seeing the various movies that have been made of Little Women have always been kind of touched and enraptured by it. And for that reason, I think it’s a lovely thing to be to participate in, certainly for me at this time in my life.
Jace: Is it true given the career that you’ve had, that Little Women marks the first time you’ve worked with a female director?
Angela: Now that is correct. That was an interesting experience for me and a first, and I’m so glad I had it. It was a very intimate relationship with a director, which I had never really encountered before. She was quite wonderful in her ability to come to us actors — not in a loud way, from a distance. She would come and whisper in our ears. And in that way, she was able to impart very subtle things that otherwise perhaps as a woman, she might not have wanted for everybody to hear. But for the actor to hear, it was delightful and I loved working that way with her.
Jace: I love that sense of the intimate that she brought to that, that’s incredible. I would think, you know most male directors tend to be sort of more of the shouty variety.
Angela: That’s absolutely true. I’ve worked with some of the loudest, shoutiest directors, believe me, down the road.
Jace: Now what is your take on the peppery Aunt March? What makes her tick?
Angela: I think she’s one of those women of her time who because of her position in life have the money how her house that kind of attributes that women of a certain age had in those days. She went over the bridge a little bit, I think, and was a tough tough old broad, but nevertheless, I felt always that there was a spark of humor in everything that she did. And even though she was an old b, as we say, that nevertheless, there was something that you had to had to kind of admire her for. She lived life her own way.
Aunt March: Why don’t you just open a little wider and swallow the whole book?
Jo: Sorry, Aunt March.
Aunt March: When I engaged you as my companion, Josephine, it was my hope that you would come to find Mr. Belchin’s sermons as transporting and as restorative as I.
Jace: How familiar were you with Louisa May Alcott’s novel?
Angela: Really not particularly aware of of it, because having been born and brought up in England until I was 14 years old, I actually had not read Little Women. In fact, to this day, until I did this film, had I read it. I had seen little bits and pieces of the two films that were made in the 1930s, 40s but I was so busy doing other things, I didn’t really, I wasn’t a good audience, shall we say, for it at that time in my life.
Jace: Well I think it is a sort of a quintessentially American novel, beloved though it is around the world, that I would think growing up in England, it wasn’t a book that you would necessarily gravitate to?
Angela: No we were reading A.A. Milne, and those lovely writers for children of those 1920s 30s and so on. And that was what I was brought up reading, those books, and I wasn’t reading Little Women. And so I was a newcomer to the whole concept, really, and so it was an interesting project for me to play in this film for that reason.
Jace: Aunt March is pretty stern or rigid with her own family. Is it that she perhaps belongs to another time, one where conventionality was prized so dearly?
Angela: Oh certainly she comes another period in time where a woman who, shall we say, had money, had position, and for her own reasons, probably went through something in her younger life that made her the individual that she became. And you know, there were a lot of women like that who had power because they had money and position and they took advantage of it, particularly when they were dealing with members of their family who probably didn’t, which in the case of the Little Women was was certainly true. They didn’t have anything. They were very dependent on her being there for them but they had to give her time, and she demanded that they give her time, that they read to her, they did, you know, errands for her, and they expected that, I think in those days. Not today, but in those days, that was expected of the younger members of, you know, in-laws and groups and so on.
Aunt March: Well, what ails the fool? Dysentery? Typhus? Apoplexy?
Marmee: The telegram didn’t say.
Aunt March: In which case it was indubitably written by a man.
Jace: Your mother was herself an actor. What made you interested in drama as a child?
Angela: It was thanks to my mother, who recognized in me an ability to cut up, to make believe, to run around being somebody other than the little girl that I was. It made her realize that I was a natural, and she, bless her heart, made the decisions for me, in the very early years of my life when I was 12, 13, I was going to drama school. You know, she started me off very young. Why? Because we were faced with the drama of World War II in our lives. You know, the Germans were going to come and bomb London any minute and it was a time that everybody’s family had to adjust to the extraordinary circumstances of our lives. So she started me going to drama school.
Jace: You mentioned the outbreak of World War II in 1939. You’ve described it as sort of exciting, where anything could happen. What do you remember of that first wartime day?
Angela: I remember the the balloons. That’s what I remember oddly enough, were these balloons that they put up to keep the close German planes from flying down low over the city of London, where I lived, they couldn’t they couldn’t come down. So they had to stay up high, but we could hear them and hear those planes going over London at that time was very, very frightening. I must say I remember that very distinctly
Jace: What do you remember of that first foray into acting? Once you’ve got that scholarship, once you started at drama school what was it like?
Angela: It was interesting to me because most of the young men at that time were going off to war. And there were not a great many young men. There were a tremendous amount of young women who were attending drama school in those days, and most of them were young society girls they really weren’t actors at all. I don’t know why they decided they wanted to go to dramatic school but it was like a almost like a finishing school to a lot of young women at that time. But I, on the other hand, was somebody who was going to be trained to be an actor and so even though I was really very young, and it was a very formative time of my life. Nevertheless, I realised that my ability to characterize, even in those days, I would get laughs in other words from my other girls and boys who were attending the school. And so I it gave me a tremendous amount of confidence at that age of course because as I say I was only 13 and really quite young. But in those days we grew up very fast, because we had to, you know.
Jace: Your family escaped the blitz to come to North America. Is it true the day you sailed from Liverpool, the city was bombed?
Angela: Yes it was. It was. We heard that on the ship, the Duchess of Athol was the name of the ship that we traveled on which incidentally was sunk on its way back to Britain after it had let us off in Canada.
Jace: You landed your first theatrical job singing Noel Coward songs as part of a nightclub act at the Samovar Club in Montreal. Is it true you claimed to be 19 when you were actually 16 in order to get the gig?
Angela: Yes I did have to do that. I had to try to fool everybody and thank God I got away with it, because that was my entrée as we say in French Canada to the theatre in a sense, although here I was working in a nightclub. I always remember that I had wonderful people working with me on the same bill. I had a Yugoslavian singer, and I also had a Spanish couple who were Spanish dancers and we all worked together, and we did the show every night you know. And the Yugoslavian singer and I, we roomed together. I remember so well, because she was a very attractive woman, quite a bit older than me and she had a boyfriend, and she and I shared the bed in this rooming house, you know, and sometimes she would bring her boyfriend home, and I would have to wait until they were through, with their liaison before going in to go to bed. These are the experiences you never forget.
Jace: Now in Los Angeles, you settled with your family into a bungalow in Laurel Canyon. You and your mother both got jobs that Bullocks Wilshire department store. But before long your mother was fired and the family had to subsist on your wages of what was twenty eight dollars a week. Did you feel that tremendous sense of burden being placed on you at the time?
Angela: Never. I never felt that. No I must say, in all honesty, you know, the world was our oyster in those days. We were striving to get on our feet. I was striving to hopefully one day leave Bullocks Wilshire and go back to doing what I wanted to do, which was to act. And thank goodness I had a very happy experience there, let me tell you. And in fact I worked in the cosmetic department at one point and the buyer suggested that I should become an assistant buyer but I was so bad at math that I couldn’t do it. I was so badly educated. It’s ridiculous, but nevertheless education isn’t everything. I got away from Bullocks Wilshire — it was a sad affair. I rather enjoyed it — but I got to go to MGM Studios and from from there, through this friend, I got to meet the great George Cukor, the director, who was looking desperately for a young actress to play the maid in Gaslight, and therefore, due to that wonderful happenstance of meeting George Cukor and the writers and producers of Gaslight, I got my first chance to act, which is what I had really been preparing all my life to do. I finally got to do it.
Jace: What is so amazing to me is Nancy Oliver in Gaslight. You’re 17 years old. It’s your first film. It’s opposite Ingrid Bergman. What was this like as a 17 year old filming this movie as as your first role?
Angela: What was it like? I was I was completely awed by being in a major studio in Culver City which was MGM in those days, which was you know one of the number one big studio producing great movies with hundreds of great stars under contract. It was a very grand affair to be employed in a great studio like that in those days. And I was just nothing. You know. I didn’t have a proper dressing room, I had a funny kind of lean to black place that I could change my clothes in and put my Nancy outfit on. and It was all so new to me that I didn’t realize what I was really embarking on and what was going to become. Thank goodness, finally an interesting career in movies.
Jace: Now you followed up Gaslight with roles in National Velvet and The Picture of Dorian Gray. What was it like making these two films so soon after your debut role?
Angela: I took it in my stride. Thank goodness I was able to adapt. I went from being Nancy in Gaslight to being the young girl in National Velvet with Elizabeth, and that was kind of going backwards. I was a little embarrassed playing a teenager, you know, after playing Nancy who was really a tough broad. So that was a bit of an adjustment. The Picture of Dorian Gray was so extraordinary and unique and quite a genuinely demanding role for me and working with Albert Lewin who is a great director in those days. Each one of those films were the best film work I ever did. After that, except for The Manchurian Candidate, which came way after, MGM just wasted my abilities as an actress for about 10 years. And I did it for the money, because we we needed it.
Jace: What was that experience like in terms of being underappreciated or under-used?
Angela: Darn difficult. Listen, I needed the income, I needed the experience. Nothing you do as an actor is wasted, you know. But I knew that what I was being used for was as a utility, and as a character actress. So I was not a sort of glamorous type of young woman of those days, which was required if you were going to be built as a star. I was a character actress, and remained so all my life. You know, I got to play some very glamorous women = but again I was acting that part I wasn’t just a glamour girl. And the most successful young actresses at MGM in those days were in the first place, they were just great looking gals, they had great legs, they danced well, they sang, they did all the right stuff, you know. And I just wasn’t that. I always I was a sort of a meat and potatoes actress rather than just a glamour girl. The only time I think I showed my legs was in The Harvey Girls, and they made the most of it. Called me Leg Lansbury for a while.
Jace: In The Manchurian Candidate, you were only three years older than Laurence Harvey, who played your son in the film. In Blue Hawaii, you played Elvis Presley’s mother, despite only being 10 years older than him. Why was that a recurrent theme during your career?
Angela: I think it was due to my ability to characterize and to play older than myself and to take on the kind of overt attributes of an older women. And that’s part of acting, you know, if you’re a character actress, you know how to do that and to behave like somebody a good deal older than you are. So that wasn’t extraordinary for me to do. And it was fun. I didn’t mind doing that.
Jace: Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors…
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Jace: Now at age 40, you were cast in your first title role in a musical. How did Mame transform your career?
Angela: Mame, thanks to Jerry Herman, completely transformed my musical comedy career. In other words, coming to Broadway, going to Broadway and being presented as Mame in a great show — if you think about it, it was a hit from the moment the curtain went up. It was so well put together, so well directed, and Jerry Herman believed in me totally because he’d seen me earlier in another musical that I had done which was Anyone Can Whistle, which was the first first sort of semi successful show of Stephen Sondheim and it was probably his first big musical. It was not a success, but it started me as a singing actress on stage in New York, and it ran for nine performances. There are people in New York today who say, ‘I saw you, you know, in that show.’ We wonder how they managed all to get into the theater because as I say nine performances and that was it.
Jace: Now one of my favorite films of yours is Bedknobs and Broomsticks, which I loved growing up. Are you surprised that Hollywood hasn’t remade that film yet?
Angela: Not really although they probably will but they still hold it out. And it’s one of those shows that young kids today will sit down and watch and thoroughly enjoy. Why? Because it also involves other young people, children their age doing things, being involved in magic, and everything else under the sun and they love it for that reason.
Jace: Now is it true that when faced with two offers in 1983, one for a comedy, the other for a detective drama, your agents urged you to take the comedy?
Angela: Well they didn’t. I mean the drama was the one I chose, in fact.
Jace: That detective drama, Murder, She Wrote became an enormous global success and ran for 12 seasons, which is, especially today, almost unheard of. Did you think at the time when you signed on that this would prove to be such a huge commercial hit?
Angela: To be truthful I it never occurred to me that it would last such a long time. And it was only when I was able to become not only the main actress in the piece, but also to be a producer of it. That I became interested enough to make it the show that I wanted to do. When I first started, it really wasn’t. I was playing a kind of a slightly kooky character, rather unreal, as it later turned out. But the later version of herself was my own invention, and that was the one I think that really, really carried me through for the 12 years that we did it.
Jace: As the lead actor and a producer on it, how much of an influence did you have on the character of Jessica Fletcher in pushing that character out to where she became?
Angela: Oh absolutely, I was responsible totally for that. Yes. And as we worked together various directors worked with me and we made her so much more interesting, smart, intelligent, not kooky at all. Really smack on, and a terrific woman, and this is what made her so attractive to men, which I’ve discovered as the years have gone by, men liked Jessica. They didn’t only think of her as a detective. They also liked her as a woman, because she was absolutely smack on fun. She had a sense of humor, but she was also smart as all get out and attractive. I made her attractive. You know it’s one thing to be a lady sleuth, and look as if you are you know constantly looking for clues. It’s another thing to be very attractive, to wear great clothes and to behave like a whole woman.
Jace: And you fought to keep her out of a relationship. Is that correct?
Angela: Yes, I did. Because it was important that she was out there, and that she was available at all times.
Jace: Now you previously said that the whole point of Murder, She Wrote was to celebrate the kind of active older women who didn’t appear on TV but were everywhere in real life. Did Murder, She Wrote help to move the dial on that as it were or is the entertainment industry. Do you feel still just as youth obsessed?
Angela: Unfortunately. I think the tendency is to stick with that. But I think the page is turning for women in the arts, and particularly in television and women today in television are far more intelligent, attractive, yes, but not just sex objects that they were for so many years. You know they were either that or they were the little woman, or they were the wife. In other words, now women have taken their place and they are a very important part of society. Thank goodness. I think Jessica was ahead of her time, in that respect. She was admired by men and everybody, the police chief or whoever it was, because she was a real woman in every respect. Plus being hopefully attractive, as well as having a good head for mystery and certainly able to hold her place in society with the men the men that she had to deal with.
Jace: What was it like on that final day of shooting saying goodbye, to Jessica Fletcher?
Angela: That was a very tough day. It really was. My goodness. We did leave it on that last day. That was it. And that’s when we all shed a tear.
Jace: Now Several generations of fans have fallen in love with Beauty and the Beast, and with your performance as Mrs. Potts. Why do you think this film has cast such a spell with so many viewers of so many ages?
Angela: I think it’s because Mrs. Potts was a warm, lovable mommy. She had her little guy, her little son and she was just there you know, and loving being around the lovers, you know, and when she sings “Tale as Old As Time,” there’s something that you just can’t resist her, because she’s such a lovable little lady. And I think that’s what everybody feels when they hear her sing, and watch her. You know looking up to the little girl and the Beast. She takes the place of everybody who loves the story. You know she’s watching it all the time and part of it.
Jace: It’s probably the only time anyone wants to hug a teapot. But you do, want to hug a teapot there. What was it like recording the songs for that with the backing of the Philharmonic?
Angela: That that was that was a glorious occasion. I have to say that recording “Tale as Old As Time” was one of those extraordinary times in your life where everything fell into place. Everything worked. We got it on the first take, would you believe it? And that was it. I never, never sang it again.
Jace: That’s incredible. Just one time and this song has is now I think trapped in amber.
Angela: Probably, probably. Yeah I think you’re right. It is. And you know I sing it all the time. I’m going to New York in a few weeks. I’m going to sing it again. And with the composer and we will bring it back to life again.
Jace: A 2007 New York Times profile of you said, quote, ‘Miss Lansbury calls herself a cabbage. Dull but absorbent.’ What on earth did you mean by that, exactly?
Angela: Well in the first place, I don’t think I ever said that. But you say that it was attributed to me, so I must have said something to that effect. What I really meant to say I think was that I was a sponge, and if you are a sponge you soak up everything that’s going on around you, which as an actress has been enormously helpful to me, because I’m able to draw on things and I don’t quite know where I got certain information, but it’s there, and I’m able to use it, if I’m characterizing a certain person that I’m playing. And in many ways, it’s a very good thing if you’ve got ears on the back of your head eyes in the front of your face and you absorb a tremendous amount about life, which you, as an actress will use effectively in some instances, not so effectively in others, but nevertheless. You do gather a tremendous amount of knowledge about people, characters, characteristics and knowledge of just about anything you set your mind to.
Jace: Looking back at a career such as yours, is there a favorite performance or role of which you are incredibly proud?
Angela: In the theater, I suppose Mame, that was the one that I played it for a long time. Two years on Broadway. It seems I have the ability to reproduce a look, a sound on an ongoing basis, I don’t know what I can put it down to, it’s very strange that you know I was never off the stage. I was never sick, I was never any of those things that often will prevent an artist from remaining in a role, but I managed to do it for two years and then take it on the road you know and come out to L.A. San Francisco and so. So it was a long, long investment in time. But I loved doing it because the audience responded so tremendously well and loved the character of Mame as I did play. She was such fun to play and also with with a great cast, you know. So I thoroughly enjoyed doing that. I also loved doing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street which you know was a totally different demand as far as my abilities as an actress and as a singer, to bring about. But anything that Stephen Sondheim is responsible for doing is always a challenge. And it was it was a great experience, too.
Jace: Now worked with and became friends with Bette Davis on Death On The Nile. What did you make of the experience together and of your friendship with Bette?
Angela: She understood what I was about as an actress and she recognized the fact that I was — I hate to use this expression but that I was the real thing. In other words I wasn’t just like a kid you know who became a successful movie star, but that I was an actress just as she was and she she and I got along fine. You know she she was a very interesting woman. She was very selfish in her latter years which was understandable, my goodness, to maintain her position as a as a great actress, which she earned. By gosh she did, did she not? I mean she was the best of her time and I recognized that and I felt for her because she was coming up to the end of her career and it wasn’t easy for her to be in a film with a whole bunch of new young artists who were very hot those days. And certainly Death on the Nile had many young actresses who were very stylish and and very talented as it turned out. So I was more of her era. So we got along.
Jace: Now at this point, you’ve been nominated for virtually every award under the sun. You’ve been nominated a staggering 18 times for Emmy Awards alone. What is your feeling about awards and recognition in general now?
Angela: There was a song I used to sing called, ‘It’s great not to be nominated, great not to be nominated,’ Isn’t that funny? And I was nominated. I never got an Emmy, I never received an Emmy but it made what made up for the fact was that I did receive a lot of awards on the theater in New York City, and that made up for everything. And I was nominated for Academy Awards and for Emmys as I say but never received one. But that’s OK. That’s the way it was in those days.
Jace: You’re playing the Balloon Lady in Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns which out later this year. What can you share about that production?
Angela: Well, it’s the most lavish, beautiful, colorful, gorgeous production you’ll probably see on the screen because we don’t make movies like that anymore, but they really went to town with this show. It’s going to be quite something to see. And I have a tiny part. I mean at the end I’m the balloon lady, but I get to sing the song and so Emily Blunt and I share a last moment at the end of the film, which is lovely, and she’s going to be delightful in, it. I haven’t seen it yet, but I do believe she’ll be, will be perfect in that role.
Jace: You’ve been acting for nearly 75 years to what do you describe your career longevity? Does it come down to one thing?
Angela: Talent pure and simple. God-given talent and that’s where it is. And I’m infinitely grateful to have had the opportunity and the to do the things that I have in the theatre and films and in television. It’s been a wonderful life.
Jace: Looking back at your career is there anything you would have done differently a decision you would have made do
Angela: Would I have done anything differently? No. I can’t break it down and say I wish I hadn’t done such and so on. Or, I made a mistake, I should have turned that down and never done it. No, no I can’t honestly say that that would have been my regret. It’s been a wonderful career in many, many ways and I treasure…most of it has been extraordinary, and you know, life runs along concurrently with the career. There have been good days and not so good days in private life, and so on. Family troubles, but family now is just marvelous. My son and daughter and my grandchildren have all made…but my life is tiny compared to what they have or they have meant to me.
Jace: And when you say the words Angela Lansbury they’re usually preceded by things like “international treasure” or “living legend.” Do you wear those mantles easily?
Angela: No, I don’t really, because I’m really a very plain ordinary person at heart you know my grandfather was a great Labour leader. I have a very large piece of him in me. I’m every woman, all women, in many respects, and that’s the reason I’ve been able to become so many different women in my career. And that’s been the wonder to me that I’ve managed to pull that off. I don’t take any pride in it. It was a God-given talent.
Jace: And finally, what’s next for you?
Angela: Good question. I’m not quite sure. I’m doing several things at the present time that are not big movies, doing some small things along the way. You may recognize my voice sometimes, I do a lot of voiceovers and that’s fun. I enjoy doing that, but nothing big no more theater, now for me. Television? We’ll see.
Jace: Dame Angela Lansbury, thank you so very much.
Angela: It’s been my great pleasure talking to you. Thank you for asking me all the right things.
Jace: One the biggest challenges for screenwriter Heidi Thomas and her Little Women director, Vanessa Caswill, came in the form of casting. More specifically, it came in casting the book’s “Scarlett O’Hara,” heroine Jo March. In casting Maya Hawke, they found a young actor who captured the essence of Jo.
Maya Hawke: I was inspired by Jo’s determination, by her hunger and her fervor for language, how how viscerally she felt stories and felt language.
Jace: Hawke, and her Little Women co-star, Jonah Hauer-King, join us in conversation next week, May 13, here on the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast, following a special 8 PM Eastern / 7 PM Central broadcast premiere of Little Women on PBS. Make sure you tune in!
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.