Her “Mame” on Broadway was a triumph, and the studio’s decision to settle for Lucille Ball in the movie role was a great disappointment to her, as well as to most movie-goers, who found Lucy to be not Mame, but eternally, inevitably Lucy. The voice of Mrs. Potts was the anchor and comfort of Beauty and the Beast, and Mrs. John Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate---ranked in the 100 most memorable movie characters of all time---was the polar opposite, as she gave a chilling performance as a murderous, power-hungry treasonous mother of a political assassin . (She was only ten years older than the actor who played her son).
She did decline to play Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, because she didn’t think she could do justice to such a sadistic, unfeeling character. Her five Tonys were for “Mame,” “Dear World,” “Gypsy,” “Blithe Spirit,” and as the unforgettable chef, Mrs. Lovett, in “Sweeney Todd.” And who could forget the tipsy, free-spirited, unabashed Salome Otterbourne, in “Death on the Nile.”
And then there was Jessica Fletcher. Everybody over thirty in the country watched Murder, She Wrote, and we all loved Jessica. She was smart---very, and witty and kind and wealthy enough to travel; she was always perfectly groomed and her house was a marvel of another era’s appeal, with the Early American décor spiked with a well-traveled, educated woman’s sense of style, and those meals she turned out from that elegant, slender white stove were legendary in Cabot Cove. And she always solved the case.
Her reputation for caring about old friends and co-stars was legendary, and the troupe of older, still recognizable faces of actors-from-our-youth paraded across the screen constantly, still working, still paying their dues, courtesy of their dear friend. She was a long-time institution on the Sunday night TV lineup, lasting eleven seasons, with 294 episodes. I’d heard that the series finale was coming soon, and though she’d triumphed in the ratings for a decade, drawing fans from all over the world, in contrast to the flurries of hoopla for the finales of M.A.S.H. and Seinfeld and Johnny Carson and Cheers, the very gentle whisper of the end of Murder, She Wrote was just not worthy of such a splendid run of such a wonderful, wholesome-despite-the-theme show. I remember the show ended, and instead of next week’s preview, Angela appeared on the screen, graciously thanking the audience for all their support and faithful attention. And that was all.
It DID seem, that in light of such a popular show and such a successful run, it deserved much more of a BANG than that WHISPER. And now---she’s still out there at 85, still gracious and energetic and the same sweet person we’ve known all these years. So, from me to you, in honor of TWO of the people I’d like to have dinner with---Angela Lansbury AND Jessica Fletcher---go watch her talent spread over fifty-something years, as she appears in The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1945, and as Jessica’s cousin Emma McGill in Murder, She Wrote. I love that she’s singing the same song, decades apart.
Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird---MSW, Season Two