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What I've learned: Dame Angela Lansbury

The Murder, She Wrote star on her most iconic role, believing in true love and her Irish roots

By Katie Byrne

Published 20/02/2016

Screen legend: Angela Lansbury still feels full of energy today
Screen legend: Angela Lansbury still feels full of energy today
Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote

Dame Angela Lansbury (90) is an actress and singer whose career has spanned seven decades. She grew up in London to a Belfast-born mother and a British father. In 1944, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Gaslight, and she would go on to be nominated for the award twice more.

Though her film work was prolific, she's best known for her role in Murder, She Wrote, the beloved detective drama which ran for 12 years. Angela won three Golden Globes for her role as Jessica Fletcher in the series. She married her first husband, actor Richard Cromwell, when she was 19. It ended seven months later. In 1949, she married actor-turned-studio executive Peter Shaw. They remained together for 53 years until his death in 2003. The couple had two children, Anthony and Deirdre, and three grandchildren.

I fell in love with Ireland when I was nine. My grandmother, Cissy McIldowie, came to Cork from Northern Ireland every year for her holidays. After my father died, my mother brought us to Ireland in the summer. I spend part of every single year in Ireland. I have a house in Cork.

My mother gave me the opportunity to realise my talents at a very young age. She gave me tremendous self-confidence. I don't think she realised when she allowed me to go to Dramatic School, as it was called in 1939, that what she was doing was building a young woman who was going to be able to be very independent - I was taking a bus to school, I was walking home in a blackout.

I was in London for the 'Sitzkrieg War', as it was called, because nothing really happened. It wasn't until one year later that all hell broke loose and London was bombed. We were in Liverpool getting on a boat to America. We missed the horrors of the war, thank God.

I was the breadwinner of the family during those early years in America. After I was put under contract to MGM, we went from being without any money to suddenly getting $500 a week. My twin brothers were able to go to school and later to UCLA. My mother [actress Moyna Macgill] was soon put under contract to MGM too.

In those days, you either had it or you didn't. You either had to have great beauty or great talent - one or the other. Most of the women were very voluptuous when I was in the studio system. It was generally expected that you took care of your body and that you didn't put on masses of weight.

I worked with some wonderfully challenging directors. George Cukor, with whom I started off my career in Gaslight, was a great mentor and somebody who took an interest in his actors. I also worked with John Frankenheimer - an extraordinary example of a man who had an idea of exactly what he wanted to achieve.

Heroin really got the children hooked in the 1960s, including my own [she rehabilitated them by moving the family to Cork]. There's a whole different platter of stuff out there for the plucking these days. These pain drugs, they're the worst. Children are getting their hands on them and I worry so much for their generation and the next generation.

I had a wonderfully happy marriage to Peter. We were both doers. We did everything for the family and that was our mutual thrust at all times. We had our moments when we could have hit each other out of the ball park, but it didn't allow us to think that we couldn't make it through. We always made it through.

I believe in true love. Although, I'm always amazed that people want it in this world when everything is hitting us broadside in the way of possibilities and invitations. I think you have to be awfully careful; you don't want to hurt people along the way. Yet, in the main, I have to say, it's possible.

I pray all the time. I believe in God, in a Christian way. I'm not a great church-goer, but I do put my faith in God. I'm very thankful to him.

Jessica Fletcher is never very far away from me. She's right there because people are reminding me of her daily. Do you know who really like her? Guys - still to this day. I think what they recognise in her is an absolutely straightforward woman. She's bright and completely on the level. She has none of the naughty feminine features that upset men because they don't know where they are with those types of women.

I've never thought in terms of age. Looking back, I'm surprised when I realise that my great success really didn't come until I was 40. And yet I never thought of myself as being 40. I was always just this very active woman and nothing phased me. Even now I'm still feeling so full of that energy so you don't think of yourself in terms of a figure. I'm 90 ... but I don't feel 90.

I don't put any number on the years I have left. Still, I wouldn't be human if I didn't recognise the fact that the years I have left could be one or ... well, these days, it could be anything because we're all living a lot longer than our forebears.

I don't drink these days save for a glass of wine. I don't smoke anymore either. I was a smoker par excellence from the time I was 15, but I really had to knock it off. I also take a lot vitamins.

I'm an absolute dud at working the internet. I have an iPhone and that's about it. I watch local television, but I'm not very good at linking up with all these extracurricular stations.

Angela Lansbury will give a public interview at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, tomorrow at 3pm as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival. For tickets go to

Belfast Telegraph

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