ALLAN JEFFERYS: A Real Winner: Actress Lansbury an All Around Nice Person
Having tossed a few brickbats recently at some celebrities, maybe it's time to spotlight a real winner. One of my all-time favorite performers and all-time favorite people is Angela Lansbury. By the time I met her she was an established star who had escaped from London's Blitz as a teenager and then planted her feet in big- time Hollywood with such presence and ability that the great film director Frank Capra called her simply "the amazing British gal who can play anything and everything well."
She was nominated for the Oscar for her very first film, "Gaslight" in 1944. She was just 19. She went on to steal scenes in movies like: "State of the Union," "Till the Clouds Roll By," "The Harvey Girls," "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "National Velvet" and "The Manchurian Candidate."
Not all was rosy, however. She married actor Richard Cromwell only to discover on her wedding night that he was gay. Her subsequent marriage to Peter Shaw was a winner and lasted from 1949 to his death in 2003. When their children experimented with drugs, she moved the family to Ireland and nipped that in the bud. The lady could cope with problems. You would think she could pick and choose her movie parts, yet despite worldwide recognition and universal raves for her triumph on Broadway as "Mame," Hollywood gave the movie version to Lucille Ball. The movie flopped.
I came to know her fairly well but never heard one word of rancor or complaint about any of these problems from her. Maybe she was too much of a lady to wallow in the mud.
Angela Lansbury earned the right to stride onto the Broadway scene and demand diva's desserts. Instead, she almost tiptoed onto the stage of a short-lived musical called "Anyone Can Whistle" that co-starred another favorite of mine: Lee Remick. That show opened the door to "Mame" and opened the eyes of those of us who never thought of her as a musical star.
Months before "Mame" opened, I did a live TV interview with her where I learned about integrity and dedication. Long before the show opened, she came to New York to take dance classes and vocal coaching. She believed in being ready.
One of my joyous opening nights took place as I stood in front of the Winter Garden Theatre on May 24,1966, and was the first critic to deliver a total rave review of this adaptation of Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee's "Auntie Mame." The review was filmed and rushed to the lab in time for the 11 o'clock news. I headed for Sardi's restaurant and the opening night party where I discovered Jerry Herman (who wrote the score) and a radiant Angela Lansbury humming "Isn't This a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain." "Why," I asked, "On this opening night are you singing an Irving Berlin tuneespecially since it is not raining?"
They just grinned.
"Mame" was a smash hit and its star the toast of New York. Her picture was on the cover of Life and all media sought her when my TV station asked if I could come up with a half-hour interview. I protested that it was Monday and Saturday was just a few days away. Try, they insisted, we need it.
Reluctantly, I called the show's press agent to see if Angela could possibly do it. "You have to be kidding," he practically screamed. "Everybody wants her."
"I know," I replied, "and I'll still be a fan if she says no, but please ask her."
He was back on the phone in ten minutes. "She must really like you," he said. "She'll do it."
The TV director and I scrounged some film clips, stills and songs and were almost ready for the taping when Angela's limousine pulled up to the studio. We rolled the tape and began to make up the show as we went along. We would pause for a commercial and the director would call down from the control room to see where we would go next. Angela took this in with a sly smile as she turned to me and said, "Kind of winging this one, aren't we?
Sheepishly, I just nodded.
Thanks to the poise and savvy of Angela Lansbury, the program came off quite well with none of the panicky behind-the-scene action reaching the screen.
We all looked forward to her next show. However, if the opening of "Mame" was a joy, one of my saddest nights occurred when "Dear World" opened and I had to do a negative review of a show put together by the same three good friends responsible for "Mame": Jerry Herman, Jerry Lee and Angela Lansbury. The show lasted less than three months.
However, Angela Lansbury was far from finished. The next time out, this all-time nice person came back with a triumph.
Allan Jefferys, a former New York theater critic, entertainment editor and newsman, lives in Pinehurst. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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