DATE November 28, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Angela Lansbury discusses her career as an actress
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
This weekend, my guest Angela Lansbury will receive a Kennedy Center Honor,
along with Chuck Berry, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Clint Eastwood and Placido
Domingo. Lansbury grew up in England, and came to the US during World War II.
She made her movie debut at the age of 17 in "Gaslight," and was nominated for
an Academy Award for her performance. The following year, she was nominated
for another Oscar for her role in "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Her other
movies include "The Harvey Girls," "The Long Hot Summer," "The Dark at the Top
of the Stairs," "All Fall Down," and "The Manchurian Candidate." On Broadway
she starred in "Mame" and "Sweeney Todd." She starred in the London
production of "Gypsy." And on TV she starred in the murder mystery series
"Murder, She Wrote."
Angela Lansbury, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the Kennedy
Ms. ANGELA LANSBURY (Actress): Thank you. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Let--let's start with your childhood. You grew up in London. Your
mother was an actress. What kind of work did she do?
Ms. LANSBURY: My mother was an Irish actress. And she appeared in a number
of various plays during the time that she was working. She started off doing
Shaw--George Bernard Shaw and also Shakespeare and became also the leading
lady of the great English sort of matinee actor, who was Sir Gerald
du Maurier. So she played a variety of roles, actually. She was a serious
actress. She was not a comedy--musical-comedy actress. She was a serious
GROSS: During World War II, when you were young, your brothers were sent to a
family in the countryside, as--as many British children were, to get away from
the bombing. But you wanted to stay home and--but your school was moving, so
you--you weren't able to go to school. I think you worked out a deal with
your mother that you would be tutored at home and then also take singing and
Ms. LANSBURY: That's absolutely true, and I--I thank goodness I chose to do
that, or that she agreed to let me do that. But I think she also was quite
happy to have me stay with her, as I was the only--I was the sort of remaining
sibling who was around and therefore she was quite happy to have me stay at
home with her and have classes and start my dramatic training.
GROSS: So you started drama school during the war, staying home in London.
What convinced you then that you liked acting after being so ambivalent about
your mother's career?
Ms. LANSBURY: Well, I realized that what I was going to be doing in the
theater really was quite different. I di--although I didn't realize that at
the time, but what I experienced at drama school was the fun and the
excitement of being given a part. And when you're a student and you are given
a role, something is assigned to you and you're going to do a little scene at
the end of the term, that's absolutely the most thrilling thing in the world.
So you're doing it, in other words.
And I--my first role was to play Audrey in "As You Like It," which is a very
comic part. And Touchstone and Audrey have a very funny scene together, and
during that scene I suddenly got this--the feel and the smell of being able to
make an eff--effect by the way I played the role, the way I comported myself,
all of the physical aspects of acting suddenly came to me and I got a laugh,
you know, the first time I did it.
Well, this was a tremendous kind of boost to my self-esteem, and I did--went
very fast in drama school and ended up working in one of the senior plays,
even just in my first year. I was assigned a role of a lady in waiting in
"Mary of Scotland." So they obviously knew that this young person had
something, she had a talent, and I--I sort of felt that, although I didn't get
big-headed about it, but I felt it. It gave me tremendous confidence.
GROSS: You came to the United States with your mother, I believe it was
during World War II.
Ms. LANSBURY: Yes. We came in 1940, which was a terrible year because it
was on--during the year was the onset of the really big bombing of Britain.
Liverpool was bombed right after we left on our ship, which was a Canadian
Pacific liner, which was headed for Canada. My mother had been widowed five
years earlier by the death of my father, and we had no--she also was in
the--in the middle of a rather unproductive and unsuccessful love affair, and
she wanted to get away from it, but mainly, and number one, she recognized the
fact that Britain was likely to be bombed and that London really was no place
for us to remain if we could possibly get away.
GROSS: Did you and your mother both want to act in the United States?
Ms. LANSBURY: Yes. My mother wanted to pick up eventually her career and
when we first arrived, we--we used to do readings together. We'd do
Shakespeare. We'd go to the various schools all around, Prarlee(ph) in New
York and Miss--what's its name? I forget the name. I should remember. And
also some of the great prep schools outside of the city, and for $25, which in
those days was quite a lot of money, we would do scenes from "Romeo and
Juliet" and she would do scenes of Desdemona and she also did epic poems by
Alistair Miller and by various other writers who were writing epic poems about
the war at that time, and she was very, very good at it. She was a great
recitalist, as they used to call them in Victorian days--or Edwardian days, I
should say. And so I would go along with her in some instances, and many
times she went alone, but that was the beginning of her career in the States,
and mine, too.
GROSS: So sometimes you worked as a team. Did you ever feel competitive with
Ms. LANSBURY: I never felt competitive with her, no. I know that eventually
I think it crept in, you know. That green-eyed monster sort of crept in from
my mother's side, but...
GROSS: So she felt competitive toward you?
Ms. LANSBURY: Yes, I think so because she saw--after all, she was a woman,
she was only in her 40s and she was a most beautiful woman, my mother, and she
wanted to have a career. She was a very earnest and terribly hard-working
actor-- actress who found it--working and learning roles very, very difficult.
Acting for her required tremendous concentration and--and devotion to duty.
And she loved doing it, but it put a tremendous strain on her. Whereas I
seemed to do it with one hand tied behind my back, so it was--there was an
unevenness, shall we say, in our--in our approach to work. And...
GROSS: And you started getting roles in movies.
Ms. LANSBURY: Well, I--eventually, of course, when we moved out to Los
Angeles and I got my first big interview and I got the part, so my--my career
in movies was jump-started by my being accepted for the role of Nancy in
GROSS: Let's talk about what led to that audition. You--you thought you were
auditioning for--you--you thought your first role would be in "The Picture of
Dorian Gray." Can you explain how you got a lead for that movie but ended up
making "Gaslight" first?
Ms. LANSBURY: Yes. Well, I was introduced to the studio, which was MGM, by
a man who was being considered for the role of Dorian Gray. His name was
Michael Dyne. And he arranged that the casting director would see me, this
young English girl who, at that time, was--I think I was 17. And I went to
the studio with my mother and was interviewed for the part of Sibyl Vane in
"Dorian Gray." And the head of casting, a man called Billy Grady, came into
the room while I was sitting there. He said--sort of whispered in the ear of
Mr. Ballerina(ph), the man I was seeing, `You know, you should suggest that
this young lady meets George Cukor, who's trying to cast the role of the maid
in "Gaslight,"' and so right then and there I was whipped off to--to meet
George Cukor. And so--well, the rest, as they say, is history.
I got the part of Nancy and was signed by L.B. Mayer, who saw my test when
I was tested for the role, and when L.B. Mayer saw my test he said, `Sign
that girl,' and he signed me to a seven-year contract on the basis of the
test. Although at that moment I was not going to get the role. They thought
I was just a little bit too young to be able to, shall we say, dominate Ingrid
Bergman and Charles Boyer. But as it turned out, they changed their minds and
let me do it, and then I did "National Velvet" and then I finally did Sibyl
Vane in "The Picture of Dorian Gray."
GROSS: Why don't we hear a short scene from your screen debut in "Gaslight."
And in this movie, Charles Boyer plays a husband who's trying to drive his
wife mad. His wife is played by Ingrid Bergman. And this is basically a
scheme to institutionalize her so he could take her jewels and her money. You
play the maid that he hires, and in this scene you're getting flirtatious with
(Soundbite from "Gaslight")
Ms. LANSBURY: (As Nancy) Seems to be getting worse, doesn't she, sir?
Mr. CHARLES BOYER: You will please not refer to your mistress as `she.'
Thank you, Nancy.
Ms. LANSBURY: Gonna work on your tunes again tonight, sir? You're always
working, aren't you?
Mr. BOYER: Yes. What are you doing with your evening out?
Ms. LANSBURY: Oh, I'm going to a musical. (Singing) Up in a balloon, boy.
Up in a balloon.
Mr. BOYER: I've never been to an English musical.
Ms. LANSBURY: Oh, you don't know what you've missed, sir. (Singing)
Up in a balloon, boy. Up in a balloon. You'd like it a lot, sir.
Mr. BOYER: Oh? We must see about that.
(Soundbite of door opening)
Mr. BOYER: And whom are you going to the musical with?
Ms. LANSBURY: Gentleman friend, sir.
Mr. BOYER: Oh. Now you know, Nancy, don't you, that gentleman friends are
sometimes inclined to take liberties with young ladies?
Ms. LANSBURY: Oh, no, sir. Not with me. I can take care of myself, when I
Mr. BOYER: You know, Nancy, it strikes me that you're not at all the kind of
girl that your mistress should have for a housemaid.
Ms. LANSBURY: No, sir? She's not the only one in the house, is she.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Angela Lansbury, was...
Ms. LANSBURY: What cheek.
GROSS: ...that your bit of business, signing that vaudeville kind of a song,
"Up in a Balloon(ph)."
Ms. LANSBURY: No, nothing was my idea in that movie. That was all
prearranged and thought up by--by George Cukor, yeah.
GROSS: Were the...
Ms. LANSBURY: And John Van Druten, who was the screenwriter of that.
GROSS: Were there things that you were very naive and in the dark about in
that film that you tried to cover up for so that people wouldn't know how
green you were?
Ms. LANSBURY: I can't honestly say, except by my on-set demeanor. I think
my on-set demeanor was a very, very careful, covered, rather shy attitude
about what I was doing. And when I say that, I don't mean that I was aware of
that, but I--I know from my own un--uncertainty about my personal--you see,
I've always been a very private person. When it comes to the work, I'm--I'm
on solid ground. When it comes to Angela Lansbury, the--the young woman, I
was on very uncertain ground. So I had to marry those two rather carefully,
and that's why as I say, I always felt that I had to con--shall we say, tread
rather warily from a personal point of view. Just listen and hear and do what
I was told and--and asked to do. I could discuss it, but in most instances I
was pretty quick to pick up directorial indications from somebody like George
Cukor, because he was extremely clear and funny and--and helpful, and what he
said I understood. So you could say I was fortunate in that I could
understand what he wanted and then deliver it. This is what I do and this is
what I always maintained throughout my career was that I had that ability to
take direction and also to understand what the re--was required of the
GROSS: Do you remember any of the more helpful or interesting directions that
Cukor gave you?
Ms. LANSBURY: Well, simply that he felt that she was a naughty, rather dirty
girl, and that was the way he saw her. He felt she was--and when I gave him
that, he thought it was terribly funny and he encouraged me to be this--this
snotty, cocky little person who was able to dominate Charles Boyer with
inference. What I inferred was a great deal more than what I was saying, and
this--my ability to do that worked, thank goodness, because I understood
exactly what Cukor was asking me to do and--you know, and I said, `Well, you
know, she's not the only one in the house, is she?'
Ms. LANSBURY: You know, that--that came--I mean, totally, I understood that,
and that made me roar with laughter.
GROSS: Well, you were still a minor when you were making "Gaslight." What
kind of special provisions were made for you on the set?
Ms. LANSBURY: Oh, it was required that there was a social worker with me
until my 18th birthday, which I--I celebrated on the set of "Gaslight,"
actually. And I always remember it because Ingrid and Charles and George
Cukor were so wonderfully kind and Ingrid gave me lovely bottles of
Strategy(ph), which was a lovely smelling cologne which I'd never had anything
as lovely as that. And powder, you know--sort of talcum powder and things--a
set. I always remember that. It's interesting, the things you do remember.
And we celebrated and I was able to take a cigarette out of a packet in my
purse and smoke it, which I hadn't been able to let on that I had been smoking
from the time I was really about 14 years old. I say that without any sense
of pride at all and I stopped smoking 30 years ago. But nevertheless, I--I
don't know whether you remember, but I do smoke a rather long cigaratillo
in--in--in the movie, and that was part of the business in the movie of
"Gaslight." But they only me puff it and I wasn't allowed to inhale, as Mr.
Clinton would say. So I--but in fact, I had been smoking for a couple of
GROSS: "Gaslight" is one of those movies with really nice black-and-white
lighting. Do you remember getting lit for the film and what that process was
Ms. LANSBURY: Very well. I do remember very well. Joseph Uttenberg was
the DP on that and he was an extraordinarily careful painstaking person
when it came to lighting women. And I think some of the shots of Ingrid
Bergman are some of the most beautiful, tremulous, lovely shots I've ever seen
in black-and-white photography, except for what he did for Garbo and those,
but certainly we all were the beneficiaries of his artistry.
GROSS: You were nominated for an Oscar, best supporting actress, for that
first role. You lost to Ethel Barrymore. Must've been pretty heady to be
nominated your first time out.
Ms. LANSBURY: Oh, I should say so. I was absolutely knocked off my pins.
Couldn't believe it.
GROSS: My guest is Angela Lansbury. We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Don't ignore me because I'm frail.
GROSS: Angela Lansbury is my guest and she's one of this year's Kennedy
In 1946 you made "The Harvey Girls" with Judy Garland. This was your first
musical, but you weren't allowed to sing in it. You were dubbed. I mean, I
love your singing voice. Why--why wouldn't they let you sing?
Ms. LANSBURY: Because I really hadn't developed it at that time. I did not
have the kind of rather tough voice that was required to sing that role,
so--I'm not saying I couldn't have done it, but they chose to have me dubbed.
GROSS: How did you react when they told you that you couldn't sing yourself
and that you'd be dubbed?
Ms. LANSBURY: Once again, I de--I decided they know best. They're driving
the--the wagon here and they know. And I didn't fight with them or say,
`You're wrong.' I tried it. I did sing the songs for them and when you think
about who the creative musical team were on that movie--Roger Edens, Kay
Thompson, Connie Sallinger--I mean, they were all there and they all heard me
sing and they decided my voice was too light. And I think they were right,
actually. I--I--I have to agree with them when I see the movie.
GROSS: Because you were playing a tough saloon girl, so--yeah.
Ms. LANSBURY: Sure. I had my work cut out for me just selling--selling
everybody on the idea that I could play a Western dance hall girl, this little
English kid. You know, I was only 18.
GROSS: Did you feel comfortable at MGM in Hollywood in the '40s with all the
kind of glamour and publicity surrounding the movies then?
Ms. LANSBURY: It was a hard adjustment for me. I wanted to play the game,
you know. I wanted to be like the rest of the girls. I was still enough of
an adolescent in my heart, although I always say that I sort of missed my
adolescence, but part of me wanted to be like the--the girls who were under
contract. But I really wasn't. I just didn't fit in that mold. And I do
now that it was a difficult period of trying to be what I really wasn't. The
only com--let's say the comfort I took was--and even then I kind of lent on
it--was the fact that I knew that I was an actress and that I could play
different roles because I was continuously being offered extraordinary
stretches, shall we say, as an actress to play parts which were way out of my
range. However, I would do it and I managed to just skin by by the skin of my
teeth, you know, playing roles that were--where I was much older than I
actually was, playing Walter Pidgeon's wife in "If Winter Comes," you know. I
don't know you even know that movie with...
GROSS: I haven't seen it.
Ms. LANSBURY: No, well, it was one of those films of the 1940s with Deborah
Kerr. And I--I was playing older women. I was playing Frank Morgan's wife as
the queen of France in--in "The Three Musketeers." I got to dress up and
look--look kind of staggering and terrific with all this paraphernalia that
was laid on me, but I was still way out of my age range. So I was never going
to get to play the girl next door and I was never going to be groomed to be a
glamorous movie star and I--I sort of realized that, so I had to make my--
peace with myself on that score.
GROSS: Well, how did you feel about playing the older women?
Ms. LANSBURY: I hated it. I mean, I didn't enjoy it, and I fought it and I
tried hard. I would go to the studio heads and say, `Look, don't make me play
this part.' But they would sort of say, `Well, if you will play that part this
week, we'll let you do such and so next week,' kind of attitude. So I would
end up doing it and it--it all added to my--my training, really. It was like
training on the job. And I think I--you never--nothing ever goes to waste as
an actress. You docket it all away and you remember and you use stuff later.
So it didn't do any harm. And I was being paid. Good heavens. You know, I
was under contract and I was making $500 a week or $750 a week, which in those
days was an enormous amount of money. Enabled me to help my family, and so I
was a working actress, and that was it.
GROSS: It's funny, 'cause your situation was the opposite of Judy Garland.
For years she tried to get out of playing juvenile and grow up in a movie.
Ms. LANSBURY: Yes. Well, there you go. You see, we--we all have different
problems as youngsters.
GROSS: Angela Lansbury. She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Do you hear that whistle down the line? I figure
that it's engine number 49. She's the only one that'll sound that way on the
Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe. See the old smoke rising 'round the bend.
I reckon that she knows she's gonna meet a friend. Folks around these parts
get the time of day...
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Coming up: singing. We continue our conversation with actress Angela
Lansbury. She starred in the musicals "Mame," "Gypsy" and "Sweeney Todd."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Let's get back to our interview with Angela Lansbury. This weekend Lansbury
will receive a Kennedy Center Honor, along with Chuck Berry, Mikhail
Baryshnikov, Placido Domingo and Clint Eastwood. Lansbury's movies include
"Gaslight," "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Blue
Hawaii." Her musicals include "Mame," "Gypsy" and "Sweeney Todd." And, on TV,
she's best known for the series "Murder, She Wrote."
Your first marriage was to Richard Cromwell who you later found out was
actually gay and that revelation I think is what ended the marriage. You must
have been shocked when you found out.
Ms. LANSBURY: I wouldn't say--yes, I was, but it's a very curious thing. I
had known so many gay people in Hollywood, I--it just had never really sunk
in. It was--I was in love with love. And I just--it was a shock but it
wasn't a shock because I was so in love with Richard Cromwell when I married
him that I was just--you know, I had never had any kind of experience. I
wasn't--I had nothing to draw on to know--as I say, I had no experience,
sexually, and I didn't really know. So when it turned out that he was, I
never blamed him for it in any way and I realized that I had just made an
excruciating error, you know, an emotional error and--but I don't regret it
because I learned so much during the short time that we were together, which
was probably less than a year. But I give him credit for introducing me to so
much that--in my life I wouldn't have known about had it not been for him. So
it was a good experience.
GROSS: I want to ask you about that in a moment but I'm wondering, did he
know he was gay, and do you think he married you to prove something to himself
or to have a cover for the rest of the world?
Ms. LANSBURY: Oh, no, no. None of those things. No. He knew he was gay, of
course. He'd had many gay relationships, I discovered as years went by. But,
you know, he'd never had an ongoing one and I think he was a romantic who
loved the idea of marrying a young woman who he absolutely adored from what
he'd seen on the screen.
Ms. LANSBURY: And that way--he really fell in love with a girl he'd seen on
GROSS: So how did you find out that he was gay?
Ms. LANSBURY: Oh, not until after I had--not until after he had left and I
suddenly discovered that that was the reason, through his psychiatrist,
GROSS: Right. So you say you learned a lot from him. What are some of the
things you learned?
Ms. LANSBURY: Well, he had an extraordinary group of friends, wonderful
people in the business who I never would have met. He was a great friend of
Joan Crawford's and, oh, Bill Holden and Zachary Scott and all kinds of actors
and actresses of that era. And he also had an incredible library of music, of
old 78 records, in those days. This was before the LPs and even the 45s came
out. And he had people like Merman on record from "The Year Dot(ph)." You
So I got to listen to all kinds of performers who--Russ Columbo, people--all
sorts of vocalists and, as I say, musicians. And his whole life had been
listening to these records. And he had an enormous collection. And he had a
great, great recording machine that used to slam down--you could put 12
records on it...
Ms. LANSBURY: ...and I'm sure many of our listeners will remember this--but,
you know--and we would listen to music all the time. He also had a tremendous
classical repertoire of music in his collection. And I listened to that. I
learned to listen to Ravel. I listened to all kinds of composers that I had
never had any access to before and--Richard Strauss and people, you know. So
he educated me in many, many respects, as far as music and also about show
business, Broadway. That's where I listened to some of the great vocalists.
GROSS: You know, you talked about how in "The Harvey Girls" your voice was
considered to be too high and too small for that kind of role. Did you learn
a different style of signing from being exposed to all the singers in his
Ms. LANSBURY: Absolutely. Oh, sure. And I picked up a tremendous amount at
MGM working with Kay Thompson and Judy and Andy Williams, all those--Andy was
a back-up singer in those days. So, I mean, but you--most performers are like
sponges and we all pick up from one another and you learn how to do certain
things vocally and also interpretively, how to interpret something in a
certain way. You might get it from Nina Simone or you might get it from Judy
or you might get it from Merman. You never know. It--but you don't actively
and consciously use it, but it's in there. So you--it--suddenly it manifests
itself in what you're doing. So this is what I mean about my education at
that time was so varied and so exciting from the point of view of what I was
learning, that I've used and called on it ever since.
GROSS: Can you talk about any specific aspect of singing that you learned
during that period?
Ms. LANSBURY: Learned about lyrics. Learned about clarity. Learned that
for--in my instance, because I'm an actress, I am going to sing the scene.
I'm going to sing the scene. I'm not going to just spout the lyric, I'm going
to sing the scene. And that's what I bring to singing is--because I'm not
really a singer. I have a serviceable voice, but how I use it, it's the
emotion under the note that sells the song, from my point of view. In other
words, what I do is I use the emotional kick that I know is inherent in that
moment, in that scene that I'm singing, and that's what sells the song.
GROSS: Well, I feel a song cue coming on. I think maybe this is a good time
to talk about Broadway. Let me ask you about the British production of
"Gypsy" in which you played Gypsy Rose Lee's mother, the role originated on
Broadway by Ethel Merman.
Ms. LANSBURY: Yes.
GROSS: And you were asked to do this in England by Arthur Laurents, who wrote
the book and directed the British production. You knew Merman's work. I
assume you probably saw her on Broadway in "Gypsy." How did you feel about
taking on a role that she had done?
Ms. LANSBURY: I was completely nonplussed. I said, `No.' In 1972, when
Barry Brown and Arthur and Fritz Holl, Barry's partner, asked me to do
"Gypsy" in London, I said, `You've got to be kidding.' I said, `I could no
more approach that role, having treasured the recording of Ethel Merman
singing Rose, I know what's required here and I know what an absolutely
tremendous overpowering role it is and I don't think I'm up for it. I
mean'--and then, as the year went by, Arthur really got at me and he said,
`Angie'--he said, `Rose--I wrote Rose as a great character. It's an enormous
acting role. We want you to--we know you can sing it as far as your own
rendition of the songs. We want your dramatic input. We want the role to be
played by an actress. And we would really encourage you to do this.' So I
said, `Yes.' But it took me a year.
GROSS: Well, I should mention that in Craig Zayden's(ph) book about Stephen
Sondheim, Arthur Laurents really praises your interpretation of this role.
And he says, `With no disrespect to Merman, it's the first time that the
number "Rose's Turn" was done the way it should be. It's hair-raising and
it's because Angie is an actress. I know of no one else in the musical
theater who can sing as well as she does and be the actress that she is.' So
I'd like to play part of "Rose's Turn," and this is, you know, toward the end
of "Gypsy." You've been the stage mother, you know, throughout your life and
Gypsy Rose Lee has become a--your daughter has become a famous stripper. But
you're wondering when's it your turn, when's it your turn to be on stage and
to be before the lights? So you're on stage in front of an empty theater and
singing your number and--anything else you want to say about it before we hear
Ms. LANSBURY: No, except to say that it's one of the most rewarding pieces of
musical theater to perform there is and one of the hardest.
GROSS: Well, if this isn't an example of `singing the scene,' as the way you
put it, I don't know what it is--what is. Here's Angela Lansbury.
(Soundbite of "Rose's Turn")
Ms. LANSBURY: Why did I do it? What did it get me? Scrapbooks full of me in
the background. Give them love and what does it get you? What does it get
you? One quick look as each of them leaves you. All your life and what does
it get you? Thanks a lot and out with the garbage. They take bows and you're
batting zero. I had a dream. I dreamed it for you, June. It wasn't for me
(unintelligible), and if it wasn't for me then where would you be, Miss Gypsy
Rose Lee? Will someone tell me, when is it my turn? Don't I get a dream for
myself? Starting now it's gonna be my turn. Get away, world, get off of my
runway. Starting now, I bat 1,000. This time, boys, I'm taking the bows, and
everything's coming up Rose. Everything's coming up Rose's. Everything's
coming up Rose's this time for me. For me! For me! For me! For me! For
me! For me!
GROSS: Angela Lansbury, doing that number must have been exhausting. I mean,
it seems like it would be so emotionally depleting. Forget everything that it
does with your throat. But just the emotion of it. What was it like right
after that number, you know, on stage?
Ms. LANSBURY: People ask me that often and I must say when people would come
backstage after the performance, they would be in tears. I would be drinking
a glass of water, breathing a big sigh of relief. It never--I never allow the
emotion of a scene, if possible, to get to me. This is not true always, but
in that case I was doing it eight performances a week, you have to understand.
And I could not allow it to intrude into my own emotional, you know, state.
So I could do it. It's a technique. It's a technique. And that's acting.
And people don't really always believe this and some people are absolutely
drained and washed out and they sit in their dressing rooms for hours after
having done "Rose's Turn," I'm sure, and say, `I don't know whether I can
leave this here to'--but I was not one of those people. To me, when it's
over, it's over. You know?
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Angela Lansbury and she's one
of this year's Kennedy Center honorees. Let's take a short break here and
then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Angela Lansbury. I want to ask you about a different kind
of musical. In the Elvis Presley musical "Blue Hawaii," you played Elvis'
Ms. LANSBURY: Yes.
GROSS: What did you think about the opportunity to...
Ms. LANSBURY: It's one of my great claims to fame, I tell you.
GROSS: What di--were you interested in Elvis at all?
Ms. LANSBURY: Of course I was interested in Elvis. Who wouldn't be? I mean,
he was such a riveting, dazzling person, but in those days, of course, he'd
just come out of the Army and he was a sweet, sexy young Southern guy, you
know. And I was just as interested as everybody in how he was. And he always
treated me very courteously and, as I say, with great pause, and I liked him.
He was terrific.
GROSS: What was it like being the adult mother in what was clearly like a
movie for teen-agers?
Ms. LANSBURY: Well, you see, I got to play a comedy part. She was really a
bit of a character. And I was exercising my Southern accent for the first
time and, therefore, it was a--I was playing a character. I was playing this
nutty, crazy lady who was his mom. And I loved doing it and it was most
enjoyable and he--we worked well together and it worked like gangbusters.
GROSS: Were there things that were done for Elvis' image in the movie that
you found interesting or amusing?
Ms. LANSBURY: I didn't notice that. I wasn't aware of it, particularly.
Looking back, he--I just remember him being surrounded with the cousins and he
was always breaking bricks or--he was doing karate at that time. And so they
were always worried that he was going to break his hand just before he was
going to shoot.
Ms. LANSBURY: So--but, you know, he was this wonderfully built, vital young
fellow and he really just loved life and was everything everybody expected him
GROSS: Let's hear a scene from the movie.
(Soundbite of "Blue Hawaii")
Ms. LANSBURY: Now we must decide on the orchestra for the party.
Unidentified Man #1: Oh, well, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll freshen up a
little before dinner.
Ms. LANSBURY: Oh.
Unidentified Man #1: Aloha. Yeah.
Mr. ELVIS PRESLEY: Orchestra? Say, Mom, how about my friends?
Ms. LANSBURY: You mean those native boys?
Mr. PRESLEY: They got the swingingest group on the islands.
Ms. LANSBURY: Oh, they are not musicians, Chadwick. They're just beach
Mr. PRESLEY: No, Mom, they've turned professional. They do a lot of work
Ms. LANSBURY: And how did you know that?
Unidentified Man #1: Why he corresponded with them while he was in Europe.
Ms. LANSBURY: Now, Chadwick, we might as well have an understanding right
off. You've come home to stay and your life's going to be different. You're
going to associate yourself with the finer elements on this island and you're
going to have a responsible position with the Great Southern Hawaiian Fruit
Company. And you're going to marry a girl of your own class and be a
gentleman like your daddy.
Mr. PRESLEY: Mom, do we have to discuss this now?
Ms. LANSBURY: Yes, I don't want you wasting your precious time on those beach
boys or that native girl.
Unidentified Man #1: Sarah Lee, the boy just came home.
Ms. LANSBURY: Well, I think he should know exactly what we expect of him.
Mr. PRESLEY: I know what you expect of me. I thought maybe after a hitch in
the Army I could come back here and do what you want me to do, but now I know
Ms. LANSBURY: But how do you know? You just got back.
Mr. PRESLEY: I've been back for five days, Mom.
Ms. LANSBURY: Five days?
Mr. PRESLEY: Yes, and for five days I've been at the beach living in my shack
and dreading the time I would have to come back here and tell you. I'm not
going to go to work for the Great Southern Hawaiian Fruit Company.
Unidentified Man #1: Sarah Lee.
Ms. LANSBURY: Yes, Daddy?
Unidentified Man #1: Let's talk about it tomorrow, son.
Ms. LANSBURY: Home five days, and he didn't even come to his mother.
Mr. PRESLEY: Mom, it's time I started...
GROSS: Well, Angela Lansbury, the year after you made "Blue Hawaii," you made
"The Manchurian Candidate." You made "The Manchurian Candidate" in 1962. And
in this movie, a terrific movie, you're a manipulative, domineering mother and
wife who's trying to promote the political career of your husband. And it
turns out you're actually part of a conspiracy to assassinate the political
opponent and take over the country. And in this scene you're telling your
son, who has been brainwashed, that he has to be the assassin.
(Soundbite of "The Manchurian Candidate")
Ms. LANSBURY: You are to shoot the presidential nominee through the head.
And Johnny will rise gallantly to his feet and lift Ben Arthur's(ph) body in
his arms and stand in front of the microphones and begin to speak. The speech
is short. But it's the most rousing speech I've ever read. It's been worked
on here and in Russia on and off for over eight years. I shall force someone
to take the body away from him. Then Johnny will ...(unintelligible) those
microphones and those cameras with blood all over him, fighting off anyone who
tries to help him, defending America even if it means his own death, rallying
a nation of television viewers into hysteria, to sweep us up into the White
House with powers that will make marshal law seem like anarchy. Now this is
very important. I want the nominee to be dead about two minutes after he
begins his acceptance speech, depending on his reading time under pressure.
You are to hit him right at the point that he finishes the phrase `nor would I
ask of any fellow American in defense of his freedom that which I would not
gladly give myself, my life with all my liberty.' Is that absolutely clear?
GROSS: Wow. And at the end of that scene...
Ms. LANSBURY: Well-written speech.
GROSS: Yes. And at the end of that scene--before you send your son off to
kill the candidate, you kiss him on each cheek, then kiss him fully on the
Ms. LANSBURY: Oh, yes.
GROSS: How'd you feel about that scene?
Ms. LANSBURY: Oh, I thought it was very telling. Very telling.
GROSS: And how'd you feel about playing such a really evil role?
Ms. LANSBURY: They are the best. Any actress will tell you that evil roles
to play are the best. You can go to town, you know. And in that instance, I
think, that woman had so many layers and so many personas, in a sense, she was
riveting and so interesting to play. I relished the--having had that
opportunity to play that role because I don't think there are many written
like that. I consider that she was the Lear among, you know, movie women.
GROSS: My guest is Angela Lansbury. We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Angela Lansbury. This weekend she'll receive a Kennedy
Center honor. We've talked about your long and really wonderful career on
stage and screen. I think some of our listeners will know you best from
television, for your work on "Murder, She Wrote" as Jessica Fletcher...
Ms. LANSBURY: Jessica Fletcher.
GROSS: ...who has solved God knows how many murders over the years that you
did that show. Did you ever count how many murders you solved?
Ms. LANSBURY: Two hundred and sixty-four.
GROSS: Oh, really?
Ms. LANSBURY: Yes.
GROSS: What was it like for you after playing so many different roles over
the years to settle into one role for several years?
Ms. LANSBURY: When I first started "Murder, She Wrote," I thought it would
last maybe two, three years, you know, or--I mean, a year, if we were lucky.
But when it extended and I realized the deep inroads it had made into family
life in America, I couldn't stop, so I was sort of trapped, happily trapped,
for 12 years with it. And I'm still playing Jessica from time to time and
loving it. I wouldn't want to let go of that lady.
GROSS: What did you like about her?
Ms. LANSBURY: She was the sort of woman I like and, therefore, I enjoyed
playing her. And being Jessica was second nature to me because she embodied
all of the qualities that I like about women. She was valiant and liberal and
athletic and exciting and sexy and all kinds of good stuff that women are of a
certain age and are not given credit for, so to be able to play that gave me
tremendous sort of pleasure and I am so glad I've done it.
GROSS: You know, the press release for the Kennedy Center Honor describes you
as `a beloved actress,' which I think is pretty accurate, but do you feel
Ms. LANSBURY: From playing Jessica Fletcher, yes, I do. I do feel a sense of
tremendous warmth from the American public who have known and loved that
program. I really do. I know they--I don't know whether they're mixing me up
with the character, and it really doesn't matter. The main thing is I have
to--I feel their gratitude so often for all the nights.
GROSS: Well, I guess a role like in "The Manchurian Candidate" doesn't earn
you the word `beloved,' actually.
Ms. LANSBURY: No, no. It certainly does not.
GROSS: `Fantastic,' maybe, but not `beloved.'
Ms. LANSBURY: No, it takes a show like "Murder, She Wrote," I think, to bring
that enormous audience to one and to make them aware of who you are and what
you've done. You know?
GROSS: So what do you have coming up now?
Ms. LANSBURY: Well, actually, I've got a lovely new "Murder, She Wrote"
two-hour movie called "The Last Free Man," which I'm really very thrilled
about. And I'll be making another one of those. I had hoped to return to
Broadway in a musical called "The Visit(ph)," however, I was unable to make
that decision. My husband was not well enough for me to feel I could put
my energy and attention to it so I'm not going to do it. However, I hope to
be doing movies again in the future and maybe sometimes return to the theater.
I hope so. I know Peter would like that. So we're just sort of living a day
at a time and hoping things will improve.
GROSS: Well, I thank you so very much for talking with us. And
congratulations again on the Kennedy Center Honor.
Ms. LANSBURY: Thank you. I've really enjoyed talking to you. And, as I say,
I listen to your program all the time.
GROSS: Angela Lansbury will receive a Kennedy Center Honor this weekend.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. Let's bring back Angela Lansbury to sing a song from
"Sweeney Todd" in which you played the baker who makes the worst pies in
London. This is the song in which she and Sweeney decide to chop up his
murder victims and bake them into pies.
(Soundbite of "Sweeney Todd")
Ms. LANSBURY: Well, you know me, bright ideas just pop into my head, and I
keep thinking seems a downright shame...
Unidentified Man #2: Shame?
Ms. LANSBURY: ...seems an awful waste, such a nice plump frame
what's-his-name has, has, has. Lord, it can't be traced. Business needs a
lift, debts to be erased. Think of it as thrift, as a gift, if you get my
drift. Huh. Seems an awful waste. I mean, with the price of meat what it
is, when you get it, if you get it.
Unidentified Man #2: Huh.
Ms. LANSBURY: Good, you got it. Take for instance ...(unintelligible) pie
shop. Business never better using ugly pussy cats and toast. And a pussy's
good for maybe six or seven at the most. And I'm sure they can't compare as
far as taste.
Unidentified Man #2: Mrs. Lovett, what a charming notion, eminently
practical and yet appropriate as always.
Ms. LANSBURY: While ...(unintelligible) my waist.
Unidentified Man #2: Mrs. Lovett, how I've lived without you all these years,
I'll never know.
Ms. LANSBURY: ...(Unintelligible) think about it. You can talk about a
gentleman, you simply can, if for a day.
Unidentified Man #2: How delectable. Also undetectable. Your choice
Ms. LANSBURY: Won't they think of all that ...(unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #2: Oh, it's the sound of the world out there.
Ms. LANSBURY: What, Mr. Todd? What, Mr. Todd? What is that sound?
Unidentified Man #2: Those crunching noises permeating the air.
Ms. LANSBURY: Yes, Mr. Todd. Yes, Mr. Todd. Yes, all around.
Unidentified Man #2: It's man devouring man, my dear.
Unidentified Man #2 & Ms. LANSBURY: And who are we to deny it in here?
Unidentified Man #2: Oh, these are desperate times, Mrs. Lovett. And
desperate measures must be taken.
Ms. LANSBURY: Here we are now, hot out of the oven...
Unidentified Man #2: What is that?
Ms. LANSBURY: It's priest. Have a little priest.
Unidentified Man #2: Is it really good?
Ms. LANSBURY: Sir, it's too good, at least. Then again they don't come with
sins of the flesh, so it's pretty fresh.
Unidentified Man #2: Awful lot of fat.
Ms. LANSBURY: Only where it's at.
Unidentified Man #2: Haven't you got poet or something like that?
Ms. LANSBURY: Now you see the trouble with poets is how do you know it's
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