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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

The family was prominent too. Her grandfather, George Lansbury, led the Labor Party from 1931 to 1935. Her father, Edgar Lansbury, a timber merchant, died when she was 9, and the loneliness after his death only served to stimulate her imagination.

In 1940, to escape the London Blitz, the family, including her younger twin brothers, Edgar and Bruce, emigrated to America. "In fact, it was that year, 1940, that he (grandfather) really died of a broken heart. All his desperate efforts to seek the peace--he really made them: He went to see Hitler personally; he came to America to see Eleanor Roosevelt. He was a great follower of Gandhi. . . . "

In America, Lansbury studied drama at the American Theatre Wing, sang at the Blue Angel and Roseland until her mother beckoned--from Hollywood. (Today, Edgar is a New York stage producer of such works as "The Subject Was Roses" and "Godspell," and Bruce is a television producer whose credits include "Mission: Impossible.")

Christmas of 1942 she worked alongside her mother at Bullock's. In 1943, George Cukor spotted Lansbury in a screen test and she joined MGM. In 1944 she acted in "Gaslight," playing a Cockney maid, and in "National Velvet," playing Elizabeth Taylor's older sister. Under MGM's aegis, she made a dozen more pictures including "Dorian Gray," "The Harvey Girls" and "State of the Union."

"My movie career I've often referred to as a period of stock, like regional theater. I got to play a lot of roles--I was sort of a company's second woman. There were several actresses like me at that time who never made it enormously at that time. Anne Baxter was like me. She was a very, very good actress.

"I wasn't an ingenue; that was the problem," Lansbury said. "I was a young character actress. From the time I was 17, I was a character actress, but they were not the big lead roles."

Not that she didn't want the big, glamorous lead roles. She hated playing older parts. She wanted the role of Lady DeWinter in "The Three Musketeers," but Louis B. Mayer insisted that she play the Queen of France. At 22 she didn't want to play Walter Pidgeon's wife--"a very unpleasant woman, a villainess in her late 30s, but I was under contract. That was the bottom line: You play and play and play; you don't play, you were finished." On her own for 20th Century Fox, she relished the role of Orson Welles' high-heeled mistress in "The Long Hot Summer."

Now that Angela Lansbury has settled back into her old neighborhood in Brentwood, where she lived when her children were young, she's knitting sweaters for her grandchildren and designing a vegetable garden to be encased in huge wooden boxes. She's also casting her eye toward Hollywood. "I do believe," she said, "that there are going to be several absolutely fabulous parts for me in movies. They have not arrived yet, but they will."

As for Jessica Fletcher, is she interesting enough for Angela Lansbury? "Well," she responded evenly, "everyone will have to keep those scripts interesting. They'll have to keep those socks pulled way up high."

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