Remembering Angela Lansbury, a legend of the stage and screen
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, sitting in for Terry Gross. Broadway dimmed its lights last Saturday evening in tribute to Angela Lansbury. The acclaimed film and musical actress and star of the TV series "Murder, She Wrote" died last week. She was 96.
Lansbury delivered unforgettable performances for her starring roles in the Broadway musicals "Mame," "Gypsy" and "Sweeney Todd." Her work on stage earned her five Tony Awards, plus a lifetime achievement Tony Award earlier this year. In "Sweeney Todd," Lansbury played Mrs. Lovett, who runs an unsuccessful bakery in London in the Victorian era, and is inspired to team up with a local barber named Sweeney Todd. Todd is a serial killer driven by rage, intent on murdering many of his customers.
In the song "A Little Priest," Mrs. Lovett suggests a particularly gruesome partnership. Her meat pie business needs a lift, and she and Sweeney imagine how profitably they can recycle the bodies that are piling up and the variety of meat pies they can offer their customers.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET")
ANGELA LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Lawyer's rather nice.
LEN CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) If it's for a price.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Order something else, though, to follow, since no one should swallow it twice.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Have you any dean?
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) No, but if you're British, I'm loyal. You might enjoy royal marine. Anyway, it's clean. Though, of course, it tastes of wherever it's been.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Is that squire on the fire?
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Mercy, no, sir. Look close. You'll notice it's grocer.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Looks thicker. More like vicar.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) No, it has to be grocer. It's green.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) The history of the world, my love.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett) Save a lot of graves. Do a lot of relatives favors.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Is those below serving those up above.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Everybody shaves, so there should be plenty of flavors.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) How gratifying for once to know...
LEN CARIOU AND ANGELA LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney Todd, singing) That those above will serve those down below.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Now, let me see. Ah, we've got...
BIANCULLI: Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou from Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Angela Lansbury's career spanned seven decades. She started young. When she was only 17, George Cukor cast her as the maid in his 1944 film "Gaslight." She was nominated for an Academy Award for that performance, and received another nomination the following year for her role in "The Picture Of Dorian Gray." In the '60s, she was nominated again for her terrific performance as a manipulative mother in "The Manchurian Candidate." In the 1991 Disney film, "Beauty And The Beast," She was the voice of the talking teapot, Mrs. Potts.
But she's perhaps best known for her role as Jessica Fletcher in the long-running CBS mystery series "Murder, She Wrote," which ran for 12 seasons from 1984 until 1996. It was created by writers and producers from "Columbo," with Lansbury playing a mystery writer and amateur sleuth who lives in the small town of Cabot Cove, helping solve the murders that seem to pop up there on a weekly basis. In the show's very first episode, Jessica Fletcher was a newly published author poking around a crime scene when she encounters the local police chief, played by Ned Beatty.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MURDER, SHE WROTE")
NED BEATTY: (As Chief Roy Gunderson) What do you think?
LANSBURY: (As Jessica Fletcher) I beg your pardon?
BEATTY: (As Chief Roy Gunderson) You know people, ma'am, I can tell that. You see the little things, the inconsistencies. So what do you think about Mrs. McCallum?
LANSBURY: (As Jessica Fletcher) Well, surely she's not a suspect, is she?
BEATTY: (As Chief Roy Gunderson) At the moment, she is the suspect.
LANSBURY: (As Jessica Fletcher) She is? Oh, my goodness. Chief, did Mr. Giles tell you about last night's intruder?
BEATTY: (As Chief Roy Gunderson) Oh, you mean the private eye from New York? You think he killed the captain?
LANSBURY: (As Jessica Fletcher) Oh, no, no, not at all. But I'm sure you noticed the shoes on the body floating in the swimming pool.
BEATTY: (As Chief Roy Gunderson) Shoes?
LANSBURY: (As Jessica Fletcher) Now, last night at the party, Captain Caleb was wearing black patent leather, highly polished.
BEATTY: (As Chief Roy Gunderson) Is that so?
LANSBURY: (As Jessica Fletcher) Now, that private detective was discovered on the second floor. I'm almost sure that he got in through that window. Now, look here. You see this broken plant and there, that footprint? Now, in order to climb up to that window, that detective would have had to be wearing soft rubber-soled shoes.
BIANCULLI: Terry Gross interviewed Angela Lansbury twice, first in 1980. But we'll start with an interview recorded 20 years later in 2000.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Let's start with your childhood. You grew up in London. Your mother was an actress. What kind of work did she do?
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 actress.
GROSS: During World War II, when you were young, your brothers were sent to a family in the countryside, as many British children were, to get away from the bombing. But you wanted to stay home. But your school was moving, so 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 dancing lessons?
LANSBURY: That's absolutely true. And 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. 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: You came to the United States with your mother. I believe it was during World War II.
LANSBURY: Yes. We came in 1940, which was a terrible year because it was the - 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 middle of a rather unproductive and unsuccessful love affair. She wanted to get away from it, but mainly, No. 1, 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?
LANSBURY: Yes. My mother wanted to pick up eventually her career. And when we first arrived, we used to do readings together. We'd do Shakespeare. We'd go to the various schools all around, primarily in New York and Miss what's its names - I forget the name - I should remember.
LANSBURY: 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 as Desdemona. And she also did epic poems by Alice Stewart Miller and 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.
GROSS: So sometimes you worked as a team. Did you ever feel competitive with your mother?
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: She felt competitive towards you?
LANSBURY: You? Yes, I think so, because she thought, 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 found it - working and learning roles very, very difficult. Acting, for her, required tremendous concentration and devotion to duty. And she loved doing it, but it put a tremendous strain on her. Whereas I seem to do it with one hand tied behind my back. So it was - there was an unevenness, shall we say, in our approach to the - to work.
GROSS: And you started getting roles in movies.
LANSBURY: Eventually, of course, when we moved out to Los Angeles - and I got my first big interview, and I got the part. So my career in movies was jump-started by my being accepted for the role of Nancy in "Gaslight."
GROSS: Yeah. Let's talk about what led to that audition you thought you were auditioning for - 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?
LANSBURY: Yes. Well, I was introduced to the studio, which was MGM, by a young 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. Ballerino, 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." So right then and there, I was whipped off to to meet George Cukor. So - well, the rest, as they say, is history.
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. In this scene, you're getting flirtatious with him.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GASLIGHT")
LANSBURY: (As Nancy Oliver) Seems to be getting worse, doesn't she, sir?
CHARLES BOYER: (As Gregory Anton) You will please not refer to your mistress as she. Thank you, Nancy.
LANSBURY: (As Nancy Oliver) Going to work on your tunes again tonight, sir? You're always working, aren't you?
BOYER: (As Gregory Anton) Yes. What are you doing with your evening out?
LANSBURY: (As Nancy Oliver) Oh, I'm going to a music hall. (Singing) Up in a balloon, boys, up in a balloon.
BOYER: (As Gregory Anton) I've never been to an English musical hall.
LANSBURY: (As Nancy Oliver) You don't know what you've missed, sir. (Singing) Up in a balloon, boys, up in a balloon.
You'd like it a lot, sir.
BOYER: (As Gregory Anton) Oh? We must see about that. And whom are you going to the music hall with?
LANSBURY: (As Nancy Oliver) Gentleman friend, sir.
BOYER: (As Gregory Anton) Oh. Now, you know, Nancy, don't you, that gentleman friends are sometimes inclined to take liberties with young ladies?
LANSBURY: (As Nancy Oliver) Oh, no, sir - not with me. I can take care of myself when I want to.
BOYER: (As Gregory Anton) You know, Nancy, it strikes me that you're not at all the kind of girl that your mistress should have for a housemaid.
LANSBURY: (As Nancy Oliver) No, sir? She's not the only one in the house, is she?
LANSBURY: What cheek.
GROSS: Angela Lansbury, was that your bit of business, singing that vaudeville kind of song, "Up In A Balloon"?
LANSBURY: No. Nothing was my idea in that movie. That was all prearranged and thought up by George Cukor - Yeah - 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?
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. You see, I've always been a very private person. When it comes to the work, I'm on solid ground. When it comes to the - Angela Lansbury the young woman, I was on very uncertain ground.
But I - 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 I could understand what he wanted and then deliver it. This is what I do, and this is what I've always maintained throughout my career, was that I had that ability to take direction and also to understand what the - what was required of the character.
GROSS: Do you remember any of the more helpful or interesting directions that Cukor gave you?
LANSBURY: Well, simply that he felt that she was a naughty, rather dirty girl and that that was the way he saw her. And when I gave him that, he thought it was terribly funny. And he encouraged me to be 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 my ability to do that worked, thank goodness, because I understood exactly what Cukor was asking me to do, you know? And I said, well, you know, she's not the only one in the house, is she, you know?
LANSBURY: But that came - I mean, totally. I understood that. And that made me roar with laughter.
BIANCULLI: Angela Lansbury speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. Lansbury died last week. She was 96. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD LEONARD'S "OVERTURE")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2000 interview with Broadway, movie and TV actress Angela Lansbury, who died last week at age 96. When we left off, they were talking about her first film role at the age of 17 in the movie "Gaslight," starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Well, you were still a minor when you were making "Gaslight." What kind of special provisions were made for you on the set?
LANSBURY: Oh, it was required that there was a social worker with me until my 18th birthday, which 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, which was a lovely, smelly cologne, which I - 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. I don't know whether you remember, but I do smoke a rather long cigaretello in the movie. And that was part of the business in the movie of "Gaslight." But they only let me puff it, and I wasn't allowed to inhale, as Mr. Clinton would say.
LANSBURY: So I - but in fact, I had been smoking for a couple years.
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 like?
LANSBURY: Very well. I do remember very well. Joseph Ruttenberg 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 (laughter). It must've been pretty heady to be nominated your first time out.
LANSBURY: Oh, I should say so. I was absolutely knocked off my pins.
LANSBURY: Couldn't believe it.
GROSS: Did you feel comfortable at MGM in Hollywood in the '40s with all the kind of glamour and publicity surrounding the movies then?
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 girls who were under contract. But I really wasn't. I just didn't fit in that mold. And I know now that it was a difficult period of trying to be what I really wasn't.
The only - let's say the comfort I took was - and even then I kind of leant 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, playing roles where I was much older than I actually was. I was playing Frank Morgan's wife as the queen of France in "The Three Musketeers." I got to dress up and look kind of staggering and terrific with all of 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 sort of realized that, so I had to make peace with myself on that score.
GROSS: Well, how did you feel about playing the older women?
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. It all added to my training, really. It was like training on the job. And I think 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 was - it didn't do any harm. And I was being paid. Good heavens. So, 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. It enabled me to help my family. And so I was a working actress.
BIANCULLI: Angela Lansbury speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. Lansbury died last week at age 96. Coming up in the second half, Lansbury talks about playing Mama Rose in "Gypsy," Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd," Elvis' mom in the film "Blue Hawaii," and Jessica Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOME PEOPLE")
LANSBURY: (As Rose) Anybody who stays home is dead. If I die, it won't be from sitting. It'll be from fighting to get up and get out. (Singing) Some people can get a thrill knitting sweaters and sitting still. That's OK for some people who don't know they're alive. Some people can thrive and bloom living life in the living room. That's perfect for some people of 105. But I at least got to try when I think of all the sites that I got to see and all the places I got to play, all the things that I got to be at. Come on, Papa, what do you say? Some people can be content playing bingo and paying rent. That's peachy for some people, for some humdrum people to be. But some people ain't me. I had a dream, a wonderful dream, Papa.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's interview from 2000 with Broadway, film and TV actress Angela Lansbury. Lansbury died last week. She was 96. Her stage performances earned her five Tony Awards, as well as a special life achievement Tony.
GROSS: 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...
GROSS: ...Originated on Broadway by Ethel Merman. 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?
LANSBURY: I was completely nonplussed. I said no (laughter). In 1972, when Barry Brown and Arthur and Fritz Holt, 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 a 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 Zadan's 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's 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 - your daughter has become a famous stripper. But you're wondering, when's it your turn? When's it your turn to be onstage and to be before the lights? So you're onstage in front of an empty theater and singing your number. And anything else you want to say about it before we hear it?
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: Here's Angela Lansbury.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSE'S TURN")
LANSBURY: (As Rose, singing) 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, Herbie. And if it wasn't for me then where would you be, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee?
Well, someone tell me, when is it my turn? Don't I get a dream for myself? Starting now it's going to 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 on - you know, onstage?
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 and breathing a big sigh of relief. 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 is a technique. And that's acting (laughter). 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 the theater. But I was not one of those people. To me, when it's over, it's over, you know?
BIANCULLI: Angela Lansbury speaking to Terry Gross in the year 2000. Lansbury died last week at the age of 96. Coming up, Lansbury talks about playing Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." That's from an interview she did with Terry in 1980. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're paying tribute to Broadway film and TV actress Angela Lansbury, who died last week. Terry first interviewed her in 1980 when Lansbury was starring as Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." That role earned her one of her many Tonys. The show was about a murderous barber in Victorian London.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: I wonder what the first things were they told you about it to explain what the show would be like.
LANSBURY: Well, they took it for granted that I knew the legend because coming from England originally, I know all about Sweeney Todd. When I say I know all about Sweeney Todd, I know that he was almost a Grand Guignol character that was sung about and little doggerel rhymes were written about. You know, Sweeney Todd will get you if you don't watch out. He's a character almost like Jack the Ripper in English folklore. And he turns up, and people quote his name all the time. He is also written into several very melodramatic types of almost Grand Guignol one-acters that actors used to go out on the road with at the turn of the century. So he's a very well-known name and character in theatrical folklore.
GROSS: This is the third musical that Stephen Sondheim had a contribution to. Of course, he wrote this, but he did the lyrics for "Gypsy," which you starred in. And...
LANSBURY: Yes. It's the third time I've worked with him, actually.
GROSS: Is he the kind of composer who will sit down at the piano with you and sing his songs for you to give you an idea of what he had in his mind?
LANSBURY: Absolutely. Steve always auditions all his own work. And the thing he loves to do - when he has a new song, he wants you to come over and hear it. And he'll - when he's got a few, he'll say, come on over. I want to play you what - play you the song that I've written for you in such and such a place in the script. And, you know, I'll pop over to his house, and he'll sit down at the piano, and he'll sing the song. He kills himself laughing when he was playing "The Worst Pies In London." Can you imagine trying to play that and make all the sound effects and, you know, all the beats and so on, which are done with the dough and the rolling pin and all of that? He'd worked it all out, every piece of business. And that song Steve had written, it was right there on the music. She swats the fly, she hits the dough, she pops her mouth - whatever she does, you know, at that moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORST PIES IN LONDON")
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) And no wonder with the price of meat what it is when you get it. Never thought I'd live to see the day. Men'd think it was a treat, finding poor animals what are dying in the street. Mrs. Mooney has a pie shop, does a business but I've noticed something weird. Lately all her neighbors' cats have disappeared. Have to hand it to her - what I calls enterprise, popping pussies into pies. Wouldn't do in my shop - just the thought of it's enough to make you sick. And I'm telling you them pussycats is quick. No denying times is hard, sir - even harder than the worst pies in London. Only lard and nothing more - is that just revolting? All greasy and gritty. It looks like it's molting and tastes like - well, pity. A woman alone with limited wind and the worst pies in London - ah, sir, times is hard, times is hard.
GROSS: I want to talk with you about the character that you play. Now, you had said that finding the character was left completely to you, and you went back to books written about Sweeney Todd and the original book to find out a little more about the character. Now, you manage in the production to convey simultaneously meanness and humor, an ability to be murderous with an ability to be extremely warm and friendly and huggable, lovable. And you have the audience on your side as you're...
GROSS: ...Participating in these murders. What are some of the ways do you feel that you're able to convey all of that and have the audience with you like that?
LANSBURY: Mrs. Lovett is really a conglomerate of all of that knowledge that I have of English theater going way, way back. She is almost a choreographed character. She is so broad in her scope. She can - the idea is that she can do anything. She can slit your throat, and you will love her as she's doing it because she does it with such a total childlike joy and amorality that anything goes. Now, this is everybody's dream of a companion, somebody who will adapt instantly to anything you would like to expect from her at that moment. Now, that's what we all long for. Sweeney Todd, lucky devil, found the very one.
Now, occasionally she goes off on her own little tangents, such as when she confides to him that her dream in life is really to retire by the seaside. But if she didn't, and if he didn't provide her with the little house by the sea, she would still do anything in the world he wanted. Why? Because she absolutely adores him and always did. Now, these are all the things that I know about Mrs. Lovett. I have to try and sell you on the fact that this is the case about this old bag lady. But I do understand these things about her. And so that is what I am playing all the time. She's a victim of the gutter. She is on the edge of the establishment - absolutely anything goes. The fact that they have no money and no food for the pies - the most obvious thing in the world to her is to utilize those poor fellows coming down the chute.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LITTLE PRIEST")
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett) But you know me, bright ideas just pop into my head, and I keep thinking (singing) seems a downright shame.
CARIOU: (As Sweeny Todd) Shame?
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Seems an awful waste. Such a nice, plump frame What's-His-Name has - had - has. Nor 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. No? Seems an awful waste. I mean, with the price of meat what it is, when you get it - if you get it.
CARIOU: (As Sweeny Todd) Ha.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Good, you got it. Take for instance Mrs. Mooney and her pie shop - business never better, using only pussycats 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.
CARIOU: (As Sweeny Todd, singing) Mrs. Lovett, what a charming notion.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Well, it does seem a waste.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Eminently practical and yet appropriate as always. Mrs. Lovett, how I've lived without you all these years, I'll never know.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett) It's an idea.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) How delectable.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Think about it. Lots of other gentlemen will soon be coming for a shave.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Also undetectable.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Won't they? Think of...
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) How choice.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) ...All them...
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) How rare.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) ...Pies.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) For what's the sound of the world out there?
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) What, Mr. Todd? What, Mr. Todd? What is that sound?
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Those crunching noises pervading the air.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Yes, Mr. Todd. Yes, Mr. Todd. Yes, all around.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) It's man devouring man, my dear.
ANGELA LANSBURY AND LEN CARIOU: (As characters, singing) And who are we to deny it in here?
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd) Oh, these are desperate times, Mrs. Lovett. And desperate measures must be taken.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett) Here we are now. Hot out of the oven.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd) What is that?
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) It's priest. Have a little priest.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Is it really good?
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Sir, it's too good, at least. Then, again, they don't commit sins of the flesh, so it's pretty fresh.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Awful lot of fat.
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Only where it's at.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Haven't you got poet or something like that?
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) No, you see, the trouble with poet is, how do you know it's deceased? Try the priest.
CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd) Heavenly. Not as hearty as bishop perhaps...
BIANCULLI: Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou from Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GYPSY ORCHESTRA (1973) AND RICHARD LEONARD'S "OVERTURE")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's interview from 2000 with the late Broadway film and TV actress Angela Lansbury.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: I want to ask you about a different kind of musical. In the Elvis Presley musical, "Blue Hawaii," you played Elvis' mom (laughter).
GROSS: What did you think about the opportunity to...
LANSBURY: It's one of my great claims to fame, I don't have to tell you.
GROSS: Were you interested in Elvis at all?
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, like, the adult, the mother in what was clearly, like, a movie for teenagers?
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 - 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?
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...
LANSBURY: ...Just before he was going to shoot. So - but, you know - but he was this wonderfully built, vital young fellow. And he really loved life and was everything everybody expected him to be.
GROSS: Let's hear a scene from the movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLUE HAWAII")
LANSBURY: (As Sarah Lee Gates) Now we must decide on the orchestra for the party.
ELVIS PRESLEY: (As Chad Gates) Oh, well, if you'll excuse me, I think I'll freshen up a little before dinner. Aloha. Yeah. Orchestra? Say, Mom, how about my friends?
LANSBURY: (As Sarah Lee Gates) You mean those Navy boys?
PRESLEY: (As Chad Gates) I've got to swingingest (ph) group on the islands.
LANSBURY: (As Sarah Lee Gates) Oh, they are not musicians, Chadwick. They're just beach boys.
PRESLEY: (As Chad Gates) Mom, they've turned professional. They do a lot of work around town.
LANSBURY: (As Sarah Lee Gates) How did you know that?
ROLAND WINTERS: (As Fred Gates) Why, he corresponded with them while he was in Europe.
LANSBURY: (As Sarah Lee Gates) 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.
PRESLEY: (As Chad Gates) Mom, do we have to discuss this now?
LANSBURY: (As Sarah Lee Gates) Yes. I don't want you wasting your precious time on those beach boys or that Native girl.
WINTERS: (As Fred Gates) Sarah Lee, the boy just came home.
LANSBURY: (As Sarah Lee Gates) Well, I think he should know exactly what we expect of him.
PRESLEY: (As Chad Gates) 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. But now I know I can't.
LANSBURY: (As Sarah Lee Gates) Well, how do you know? You just got back.
PRESLEY: (As Chad Gates) I've been back for five days, Mom.
LANSBURY: (As Sarah Lee Gates) Five days?
PRESLEY: (As Chad Gates) 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.
WINTERS: (As Fred Gates) Sarah Lee.
LANSBURY: (As Sarah Lee Gates) Yes, Daddy?
WINTERS: (As Fred Gates) Let's talk about it tomorrow, son.
LANSBURY: (As Sarah Lee Gates) Home five days and didn't even come to his mother.
PRESLEY: (As Chad Gates) Mom, it's time...
GROSS: Angela Lansbury, the year after you made "Blue Hawaii," 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 FILM, "THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE")
LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Eleanor Shaw Iselin) You are to shoot the presidential nominee through the head. And Johnny will rise gallantly to his feet and lift Ben Arthur's body in his arms, stand in front of the microphones and begin to speak. The speech is short, but it's the most rousing speech I have 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. And Johnny will really hit 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 up into the White House with powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy. Now, this is very important. I want the nominee to be dead about 2 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 before my liberty. Is that absolutely clear?
GROSS: Wow. And at the end of that speech...
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 mouth.
LANSBURY: Oh, yes.
GROSS: How did you feel about that scene?
LANSBURY: Oh, I thought it was very telling (laughter) - very telling.
GROSS: And how did you feel about playing such a really evil role?
LANSBURY: They are the best. Any the 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 relish 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 leader among, you know, movie women.
GROSS: 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, 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?
LANSBURY: Two hundred and sixty-four.
GROSS: Oh, really?
LANSBURY: (Laughter) 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?
LANSBURY: When I first started "Murder, She Wrote," I thought it would last maybe two, three years, you know, or maybe 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?
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, 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'm 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 beloved?
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 a character. And it really doesn't matter. The main thing is I have - I feel their gratitude so often for all the nights.
GROSS: Well, I thank you so very much for talking with us. And congratulations again on the Kennedy Center Honor.
LANSBURY: Thank you. I really enjoyed talking to you. And as I say, I listen to your program all the time.
BIANCULLI: Angela Lansbury speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. She died last week at age 96. On Monday's FRESH AIR cookbook author and promoter of indigenous cuisine, Shaun Sherman. He's behind this year's James Beard Award-winning restaurant, Owamni. It serves Native American cuisine and only uses ingredients indigenous to North America. Sherman is a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe and grew up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.