Born: October 16, 1925;

Died: October 11, 2022.

DAME Angela Lansbury, who has died aged 96, was an acclaimed British-Irish-American stage and screen actress whose career spanned eight decades. Unusually among her peers, she had equal success in the theatre, on television and in films, and won plaudits as both a singer and dancer, and a serious actress.

It was her fate as a young actress to be cast repeatedly as a scheming older woman, sometimes with on-screen offspring played by actors only a few years her junior, but these were some of her most memorable roles and cemented her reputation as an artist who was much more than a pretty face.

She shared the screen with such Hollywood greats as Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman, but was best-known to modern audiences for her 12-year stint as writer and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in the much-repeated 1980s TV mystery drama, Murder, She Wrote, for which she received 12 Emmy nominations.

She had a happy and long-lasting marriage, and although her family faced its share of turmoil, she declared that “we have never wavered in our closeness as a family”. A woman who fiercely guarded her privacy, she was described by her 1996 biographer Martin Gottfried as mature, level-headed, warm and decent. She was also aware of what she called her “gift” for acting and was extremely determined in achieving her artistic goals, becoming one of Broadway’s musical theatre greats in spite of having been written off by MGM as having a second rate voice.

Angela Brigid Lansbury was born in Regent’s Park, London, to an Irish actress mother, Moyna, and a businessman father, Edgar Lansbury, the second marriage for both. Moyna Macgill was a respected leading lady, who shared the stage with John Gielgud, while Edgar was the son of George Lansbury, the social reformer and Labour MP for Bow and Bromley who led Labour from 1932 until 1935.

Angela Lansbury, known as Brigid until she was 17, had a comfortable early life with her parents, half-sister and younger twin brothers, until Edgar died of stomach cancer in 1934, when Angela was nine. Ms Lansbury described it as “the defining moment of my life”, a time of deep unhappiness as she tried to be strong for her heartbroken and penniless mother, when she really needed her mother’s support.

Angela won a scholarship to drama school at 13 but when war broke out, she and her mother and brothers left for America to escape the bombs.

After a stint in New York, where Ms Lansbury attended the Feagin drama school, Moyna moved the family to Los Angeles, where Ms Lansbury got a screen test for an MGM picture. She landed the role of the sassy housemaid in Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer, as well as a one-year, renewable $500-a-week contract. Louis B Mayer himself saw the screen test and declared, “Sign that girl”. The contract solved the family’s money worries and meant that Ms Lansbury was beginning her career with the greatest Hollywood studio.

Remarkably, she got an Oscar nomination for Gaslight, her first film. She then made National Velvet, playing the older sister of 11-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, before securing a second Oscar nomination, portraying Sybil Vane in A Picture of Dorian Gray.

She was briefly married at 19 to actor Richard Cromwell (she said later that Cromwell had been gay), and a few months later, met a British would-be actor called Peter Shaw, whom she married in 1949 in London. Thus began an unshakeable 54-year partnership. Ms Lansbury never lost her sense of British identity, saying in her 70s how much she appreciated her and her husband’s shared Britishness, describing it as “the most comfortable, comforting part of our relationship”. Shaw went on to become a leading Hollywood agent.

MGM was in decline, but before leaving the studio, Ms Lansbury was cast in Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948) with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. She played yet another scheming older woman (a newspaper proprietress), but she was thrilled to be in a film that was “top-drawer, real class”.

After having two children, Anthony and Deirdre, in the early 1950s, Ms Lansbury made her Broadway debut in the farce, Hotel Paradiso (1957). Other roles followed until in 1964, to her delight, she finally appeared in a musical, Anyone Can Whistle, by Stephen Sondheim. It closed after nine days, but it proved she could sing, and it helped her secure her dream job, the eponymous role in the glitzy musical Mame (1966). At 41, it was her first leading role. It was a huge hit. She played Mame for two years, to critical acclaim. For this and for her next Broadway venture, Dear World, she won Tony awards (the first of five).

On screen, she appeared as Elvis Presley’s mother in Blue Hawaii, before making the Cold War thriller, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Probably the best film she ever made, she portrayed a malevolent, dominating mother, winning a Golden Globe and a third Oscar nomination.

In contrast with this public success, there was trauma at home. Lansbury’s children back in Malibu, aged 12 and 13, had become involved in hard drugs, including heroin, and Deirdre was also associating with the nefarious cult leader Charles Manson. Ms Lansbury later reflected that she regretted not having been at home more. There was further heartbreak when the family’s Malibu home burned down.

In 1970, she bought a house in Ireland to which they could escape. Ms Lansbury loved being a full-time mother for several months and the new environment helped the children recover (she returned to Ireland every year thereafter).

It also allowed her more easily to play the London stage, where she won plaudits starring in the musical Gypsy. Then it was back to Broadway for Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, which garnered her more glowing reviews.

After the popular hits Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) and Death on the Nile (1978), along came an idea for a TV show that would bring Ms Lansbury, at 59, a whole new level of fame. Murder, She Wrote (1984-96) brought her closer to playing herself than she ever had done before, imbuing writer-turned-sleuth Jessica Fletcher with poise and calm dependability, though she dialled up the American accent (in private, Ms Lansbury sounded unmistakeably British).

Some 28 million Americans tuned in weekly. She won four TV best actress Golden Globes and became the show’s executive producer. Murder, She Wrote, was a family business, with Anthony Lansbury as one of the show’s regular directors and the actress’s brother Bruce as one of its chief writers.

She cemented her star status by singing the Oscar-winning title song to the animated film Beauty and the Beast (1991), as part of her role voicing Mrs Potts.

Peter Shaw died of heart failure in 2003; Ms Lansbury subsequently became depressed, but in 2005, appeared as Aunt Adelaide in Nanny McPhee, a role which she credited with helping her back onto her feet. She also returned to Broadway in her 80s, in Deuce and then Blithe Spirit, for which she won her fifth Tony, reprising the role in the West End in 2014. She was visibly moved to win an Olivier award for it, and a standing ovation, aged 89. Aged 92, she appeared as Aunt March in the BBC version of Little Women and also filmed Mary Poppins Returns. As she once observed: “I’ve had a hell of a life.”

Angela Lansbury was a supporter of the US Democrats and Britain's Labour Party. She was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2013 and was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2014.

She is survived by her son, daughter and three grandchildren.