Angela Lansbury today. Photo: Getty Images
ANGELA Lansbury's New York apartment is a charming mix of practicality and warmth, much like its occupant. ''It was always just [intended as] a pied-a-terre, but I no sooner bought it than I suddenly went to work and I've done a show a year,'' she says, pouring tea.
Chosen for its location - within walking distance of the theatre district - the airy apartment is decorated with landscape paintings by her brother, Edgar, and his wife, Louise Peabody.
The sideboard is covered with photographs of Lansbury's children and grandchildren, her late husband, Peter Shaw (''one of the most handsome, beautiful men you could possibly imagine''), and a tiny black-and-white portrait of her mother, Irish actor Moyna Macgill, draped in a fur coat. A cheerful painting by Macgill of tugboats on the East River, dating from the 1940s, hangs on the wall. ''She used to like to walk over and sit by the water at 79th Street,'' Lansbury says.
Lansbury in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).
Lansbury keeps two more homes: the ''family home'' in Los Angeles and a farmhouse in Ireland, to which she returns every summer ''like the swallows''. But New York is the city she migrated to from London in 1940 as a wartime evacuee, and the place she established herself as a theatre star. ''I think you could say I'm most attached to the theatre,'' she says. ''The live theatre is irreplaceable as a medium for actors to realise their full potential.''
The 87-year-old has just finished a run on Broadway in Gore Vidal's The Best Man, alongside James Earl Jones. In a few days, she and Jones will read through their next project together, a production of Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Driving Miss Daisy, which opens in Melbourne in April.
Lansbury says Uhry's play has haunted her since she first saw it in 1987. ''The values are universal and I think the relationship between these two people is so human and delightful,'' she says.
The story of a 25-year relationship between an elderly Jewish woman and her African-American chauffeur was adapted for film in 1989, earning four Academy Awards, including for best picture.
Lansbury insists she is not at all concerned about the rigours of the play. ''I'd rather be on the stage than off, to be honest with you, and most actors would agree with me,'' she says. ''You want to keep the engine running and not relax too much.''
Lansbury was born in Poplar, east London, in 1925, the daughter of Macgill and socialist politician Edgar Lansbury. Her grandfather, George Lansbury, was a founder of the British Labour Party and it's a heritage of which she is proud. I ask if she knows her relative, Malcolm Turnbull, whose mother, Coral Lansbury, is a distant cousin. ''I had lunch with him yesterday,'' she says.
''What a nice man he is. I've been reading about him, on and off, and I gather he's a very big noise in Australia, which is terrific.''
Lansbury had met Turnbull only once before, when he was a four-year-old and she was working on the film version of Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959) in Sydney. ''He was quick to point out to me that he is a very liberal Republican, which was sweet,'' she says. ''He knows I'm certainly a Democrat and a bit of a Labourite, you know.''
Lansbury's father died when she was nine, casting a pall over the family and establishing in Lansbury a precocious sense of responsibility. ''The sadness and loss that the family felt … certainly contributed greatly to a sense of depression in the family,'' she says. ''And, as you know, England can be a depressing place; those very dull winter fogs and not much sunshine.''
She was close to her mother, who depended on her heavily. ''I provided a support system for her, even though I was very young.''
Going to the US after the outbreak of World War II felt like ''a release'' for the whole family, she says. Lansbury won a scholarship to drama school and, while a teenager, was signed to MGM. Her first film role, as a maid in Gaslight (1944), earned her an Oscar nomination. Two films later, for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), she was again nominated for best supporting actress, establishing her reputation as a character actress.
Her twin brothers also thrived in the entertainment industry, Bruce as a screenwriter and producer and Edgar as a designer and producer.
In the 1950s, she expanded her repertoire to plays and musicals, on Broadway and later in the West End, starring in Gypsy, Mame, Dear World and Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
For many, the role she is most strongly associated with is Jessica Fletcher, the mystery novelist and amateur detective in the television series Murder, She Wrote, which ran for 12 years. Although Lansbury believes strongly in ''leaving the character in the dressing room'', she concedes there are attributes she shares with Fletcher: ''her down-to-earthness, her liberality about things and people and situations, her sense of fair play''.
In 2007, she returned to Broadway after an absence of 23 years and has appeared in a big production every year since.
To what does she credit her success and versatility? ''I have tremendous 'stick-at-itness','' she says. ''I don't give up. I stick with a thing until I can do it or learn it or become it.''
Lansbury is all about moving forward and says there is a kind of energy that comes from the work. ''You could call it a power play in a sense,'' she says. ''Maybe that's what we, as actors, kind of like about it … we're in control - nobody can stop us.
''Once that curtain goes up, the audience is ours to entertain and to bring the story to and I think that it's a terrific high, it really is.''
■ Driving Miss Daisy opens at the Comedy Theatre on April 21. ticketmaster.com.au