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Angela Lansbury Clues Us In

First in an occasional series of interviews with stage and film actors who have made the transition to prime-time television.

December 10, 1985|JUDITH MICHAELSON | Times Staff Writer

Wearing a simple striped-blue shirt, wraparound skirt and sensible shoes--one of her no-nonsense costumes as the mystery writer/detective on "Murder, She Wrote"--Angela Lansbury sat undisturbed at a back table at the Universal Studios commissary, polished off a solid meat-loaf-and-baked-potato lunch and merrily engaged in some bites of self-deprecation. She was between takes.

"Look at that wall over there," she said, with a sweep of her arm toward the color-laden montage of old-movie posters shellacked onto the long wall at her left. "They've got the poster of the worst movie I ever made--I forget the name. I played a sort of seamstress in a Tony Curtis movie. I was very hard up. I had to accept it, it was a rotten part, but I needed the money. MGM loaned me out. I was married, and we were struggling. . . . "

The movie was "The Purple Mask," released by Universal in 1955. At the time, Lansbury was living in Brentwood with her husband, Peter Shaw, their son, Anthony, 3, and daughter, Deirdre, 2. A decade after its release, after she had just gained fame in "Mame" on Broadway, she recalled that "Mask" was "about this guillotine." Today she barely remembers that.

Lansbury can afford to joke about failure. Now 60, she's had four Tonys for best actress in a Broadway musical, three Oscar nominations as best-supporting actress--"always the bridesmaid, never the bride," she said evenly--and this year two Emmy nominations: outstanding lead actress in a drama series, in her first season as Jessica Fletcher on the CBS Sunday-night series, and outstanding individual performance in a variety or music program for her role as Mrs. Lovett in the PBS special of the musical "Sweeney Todd," the role that landed her the fourth Tony.

Having gone the distance in her career, Lansbury spoke with unflinching candor about her life, her work, herself. Much as Jessica Fletcher might.

Ask Lansbury, in her television trailer on the Universal lot, how she assesses her movie career (involving some 40 movies), and she replied with more than a trace of sharpness: "Not fully realized."

Ask her shortly before the Emmy Awards ceremonies about her chances for winning television's top honor in "Murder, She Wrote" and, without a moment's hesitation, she noted that "in television you have to be around a couple of seasons."

(At the time she thought the outstanding actress award would go to Sharon Gless, who plays Detective Chris Cagney on "Cagney & Lacey," because Tyne Daly, who plays her detective partner Mary Beth Lacey, had already won two years in a row. Daly went on to win for the third time. And George Hearn, Lansbury's co-star in the "Sweeney Todd" title role, won outstanding individual performance.)

"Let me say up front here, I have been so disappointed as far as the West Coast is concerned as far as awards go, that I once vowed I would never go to another awards ceremony," said Lansbury, who then sat smack on the aisle at the Emmys, resplendent in a beige gown.

"I was nominated three times, three wonderful parts," Lansbury said of her Oscar nominations for her performances in "Gaslight" (1944), "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1945) and "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), "and I didn't get it. I don't feel badly about it, but just being human, one gets all excited about the prospect that people are telling you, you're going to get it.

"You have to go through this really shocking experience of highs and lows, and I think anybody with their head screwed on right really doesn't expose themselves to that kind of horror."

Lansbury laughed heartily. "It's a horrifying thing, especially with the cameras trained on you the way they do these days. It's an entertainment ."

Now in its second season, "Murder, She Wrote" is an unqualified hit, promising to be a series fixture for television-years to come. It ranked eighth among the 97 series that aired last season, and among the new series it came in second, behind NBC's "The Cosby Show." This season it's consistently been in the top 10 Nielsen shows, often in the top five, and has finished second or third several times.

Yet even before the latest numbers, Lansbury was saying that she "didn't honestly expect the show to take off in the amazing way that it has. I thought, well, it'll run a season. . . . If we survive well this season and we keep our audience, and I think the chances are very good, we'll undoubtedly be asked to do a third season.

"Now 'Murder, She Wrote' happens to be the most time-consuming job I've had in years," she said. "It takes up my whole life. It's totally non-stop, the shooting, and I have no time for home life or socializing or relaxing. When I'm not working, I'm sleeping.

"On the one hand, I love the success and am enjoying that tremendously. On the other, I resist this takeover that it represents of my life. . . . You're caught in a trap--that's what I'm not sure about. It's awfully hard to walk away from success, isn't it?"

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