Angela Lansbury, back on the stage where she began

Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones toured in "Driving Miss Daisy" in Australia this year. In her late 80s, Lansbury says she had no trouble with the "enormous" part: "I always say that one's brain is trained at an early age. It has a compartment that retains the words as long as you use it. The minute you stop packing new words into it, it falls apart."
Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones toured in "Driving Miss Daisy" in Australia this year. In her late 80s, Lansbury says she had no trouble with the "enormous" part: "I always say that one's brain is trained at an early age. It has a compartment that retains the words as long as you use it. The minute you stop packing new words into it, it falls apart." (MARIANNA MASSEY / Getty Images)
Posted: October 28, 2013

Angela Lansbury first arrived at the Bucks County Playhouse with a 6-month-old baby in tow. It was 1952, she was on layoff from her MGM contract, and she appeared onstage in the United States for the first time in a comedy titled Affairs of State.

"This little baby literally slept in the drawers of various chests [at the playhouse]. A sweet nursemaid took care of him when I was onstage," she recalled. "That was my introduction to New Hope, and a lovely one."

She returns Monday as the first inductee into the Bucks County Playhouse Hall of Fame - she'll be onstage with Broadway's Tyne Daly, Christine Ebersole, and Harold Prince - at a time when honors that once eluded her are landing in her lap.

Last month, the news broke that she is to receive an honorary Oscar. And how long will it be before she's Dame Angela Lansbury? Of course she's happy about these things, but glad it's happening at age 88 rather than 19, when the young British actress made her film debut in Gaslight and was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar - the first of three she never won.

"It's very difficult to find a role after you win an Oscar . . . . A lot of people turn down, turn down, turn down because they're afraid it won't measure up, and then end up not doing anything," she said by phone from New York.

Instead, the actress who would become Jessica Fletcher in TV's long-running Murder She Wrote had mostly isolated successes in such acclaimed but unorthodox films as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), often playing ruthless women, even though she is their temperamental opposite. "I know how to hit somebody's weak spot," she explained. "As an individual, I would never do that, but I know how to do it as an actress."

She played the dictatorial mayor in her Broadway musical debut, the experimental Anyone Can Whistle (1964). And although she had big mainstream success in Mame, her roles in failures are more interesting, such as the Madwoman of Chaillot in Dear World (1969). "When somebody gives me something impossible, I have to learn how to do it," she said.

That also explains Prettybelle (1971), in which she played a Southern belle writing memoirs titled Rape and Resurrection and singing "Alcoholics Don't Do Rewrites." It closed in Boston. But there was a personal motivation behind diving into that impossibility: "I needed to work. My house had burned down in Malibu."

And not that dissimilar to what prompted her current return to the stage. Her one-night stand at Bucks County Playhouse comes between projects that include Blithe Spirit in London next year, then a revival of The Chalk Garden in New York - in a career that, for her, is an unexpected postscript.

After 12 years of Murder She Wrote, ending in 1996, she was workshopping a musical version of The Visit written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, but dropped out when Peter Shaw, her husband of 50-plus years, fell ill. After his 2003 death, she did nothing for two years but waft between homes in Los Angeles and Ireland.

Until the phone rang. And who could say no to Emma Thompson, offering her a part in her film Nanny McPhee (2005)? Then Terrence McNally called with a new play, Deuce (2007). Now, she's mostly in New York or her Irish country house, with visits with friends and family in Palm Springs, though "it's too hot for me. I like Irish weather."

The two bĂȘtes noires of an older actor's life - loss of memory and voice - have not plagued her. " Driving Miss Daisy [which she just toured in Australia for six months] is an enormous part, and there was no problem at all with that," she said. "I always say that one's brain is trained at an early age. It has a compartment that retains the words as long as you use it. The minute you stop packing new words into it, it falls apart."

The current strength of her speaking voice probably has much to do with her sturdy but curiously untrained singing voice. "I never studied. I just sang," she said - and with perfect pitch, needed in complex songs like "The Worst Pies in London" from Sweeney Todd, which, with Mame, gave her a signature role, and one of five best-actress Tony Awards.

Unlike some actresses, she did not let signatures take over her life, aside from periodic returns to Mame. "You have to allow yourself to get out of that as quickly as possible," she said, "and into something else.

"Thank God I'm not an old movie star," she said. "It encloses you in a certain kind of slot you just can't get out of."

She saw that firsthand as part of Old Hollywood. She was kept waiting by the often-tardy Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls (1946). But she and Bette Davis got on well while shooting Death on the Nile (1978) because they spoke the same language: "Get on with the job, learn our lines, know what we're doing in our scenes, and play them."

Sort of like what Lansbury does now.


TRIBUTE TO ANGELA LANSBURY

Bucks County Playhouse Hall of Fame

7 p.m. Monday at the Bucks County Playhouse, 70 S. Main St., New Hope.

Tickets: $100 for performance and induction ceremony (reception sold out).

Information: 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org


dstearns@phillynews.com.

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