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Angela Lansbury looks back on her great performances on 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. Next month, Angela Lansbury will receive a special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award. She can add that to the Tonys she's earned already for such roles as the star of "Mame," portraying Mama Rose in a revival of "Gypsy" and playing the pie maker Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street." Both those latter musicals had lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and both were very juicy leading roles.

In "Gypsy," Mama Rose was the ultimate stage mother. And in "Sweeney Todd," Mrs. Lovett was running an unsuccessful bakery in London in the Victorian era, when she was inspired to team up with a local barber named Sweeney Todd. He was a serial killer intent on murdering many of his customers. And in the song "A Little Priest," Angela Lansbury, as Mrs. Lovett, suggests a particularly gruesome partnership. He's piling up bodies, and she offers a uniquely advantageous means of disposal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LITTLE PRIEST")

ANGELA LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) I mean, with the price of meat what it is, when you get it, if you get it. 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.

LEN CARIOU: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Mrs. Lovett, what a charming notion...

BIANCULLI: Angela Lansbury grew up in England and came to the U.S. during World War II. Her first role in a movie came at age 17, playing the maid in the 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." She also won four Best Actress Emmys for her role as Jessica Fletcher in the long-running CBS mystery series "Murder, She Wrote." Not counting next month's Lifetime Achievement Tony Award, she already has five Tonys for both musicals and dramas. Terry Gross spoke to Angela Lansbury in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Angela Lansbury, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the Kennedy Center Honor.

LANSBURY: Thank you. Thank you so much.

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 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. And - 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 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?

LANSBURY: Well, I realized that what I was going to be doing in the theater really was quite different, 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 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 - I 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 sort of felt that, although I didn't get big-headed about it, but I felt it - gave me tremendous confidence.

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. And she wanted to get away from it. But she - but mainly, No. 1, she recognised 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, preferably 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 as Desdemona. And she also did epic poems by Alice Duer 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. 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 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: 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 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: 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 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 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: (Laughter) 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." And so right then and there, I was whipped off to meet George Cukor. And 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. And 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 would 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 musical. (Singing) Up in a balloon, boys, up in a balloon.

BOYER: (As Gregory Anton) I've never been to an English musical.

LANSBURY: (As Nancy Oliver) Oh, 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 musical 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?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Angela Lansbury, was it...

LANSBURY: What cheek.

GROSS: 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.

GROSS: Were the...

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?

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 know from my own uncertainty about my personal - 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.

So I had to marry those two rather carefully. And that's why, as I say, I always felt that I had to, shall we say, tread rather warily from a personal point of view. Just listen and hear and do what I was told and asked to do. I could discuss it, 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 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 - 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 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 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? You know...

GROSS: (Laughter) Right.

LANSBURY: ...That came - I mean, totally, I understood that. And that made me roar with laughter.

BIANCULLI: Angela Lansbury speaking to Terry Gross in 2000 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2000 interview with Broadway, movie and TV actress Angela Lansbury. 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. Next month, Lansbury will be honored at the Tonys with a special Lifetime Achievement Award.

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'd never had anything as lovely as that - and powder, you know, sort of talcum powder and things that, you know, 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 don't know if you remember, but I do smoke a rather long Cigarettello 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.

(LAUGHTER)

LANSBURY: So - but in fact, I had been smoking for a couple of 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). Must have been pretty heady to be nominated your first time out.

LANSBURY: Oh, I should say so. I was absolutely knocked off my pins...

(LAUGHTER)

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, you know, playing roles 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.

LANSBURY: No? Well, it was one of those films of the 1940s with Deborah Kerr. And I was playing older women. 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 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 my - 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. And all added to my training, really. It was like training on the job. And I think I - you never - nothing is - 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. It enabled me to help my family. And so I was a working actress.

GROSS: It's funny because your situation was the opposite of Judy Garland. For years, she tried to get out of playing the juvenile and grow up in a movie.

LANSBURY: Yes. Well, there you go. You see; we all have different problems as youngsters.

BIANCULLI: Angela Lansbury speaking to Terry Gross in 2000. Next month, she's scheduled to receive a special Lifetime Achievement Tony Award. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. And I'll review "Keeping Company With Sondheim," a new "Great Performances" documentary on PBS that looks at the history and making of the current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Company." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WORST PIES IN LONDON")

LANSBURY: (As Mrs. Lovett) A customer. (Singing) Wait. What's your rush? What's your hurry? You gave me such a fright. I thought you was a ghost half a minute. Come here. Sit. Sit you down. Sit. All I meant is that I haven't seen a customer for weeks. Did you come here for a pie, sir? Do forgive me if me head's a little vague. What is that?

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2000 interview with Broadway, film and TV actress Angela Lansbury. Her movie credits include "Gaslight," "The Manchurian Candidate" and Disney's animated version of "Beauty And The Beast." On TV, she starred as amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote." And on Broadway, she's won five Tony Awards for such performances as her starring roles in the musicals "Gypsy," "Mame" and "Sweeney Todd." Next month, she'll receive yet another Tony, a special Lifetime Achievement Award.

GROSS: 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.

LANSBURY: I wouldn't say, yes, I was, but it's a very curious thing. I had known so many gay people in Hollywood. 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'd never had any kind of experience. I wasn't - I had nothing to draw on to know - as I say, I had had no experience sexually, and I didn't really didn't 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 my - 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: So you say you learned a lot from him. What are some of the things you learned?

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, you know? So I got to listen to all kinds of performers. 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. I'm sure many of our...

GROSS: Right.

LANSBURY: ...Listeners will remember those. But, you know - and we would listen to music all the time. He also had a tremendous classical repertoire of music in his collection.

GROSS: Did you learn a different style of singing from being exposed to all the singers in his collection?

LANSBURY: Absolutely. Oh, sure. You - and I picked up a tremendous amount at MGM, working with Kay Thompson and Judy and Andy Williams, all those. Andy was a backup singer in those days. So, I mean, you - if - 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. 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 I - 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?

LANSBURY: Learned about lyrics, learned about clarity, learned that, 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 queue coming on.

(LAUGHTER)

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...

LANSBURY: Yes.

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. 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: 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 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 2000. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GYPSY ORCHESTRA AND 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. Next month, she's scheduled to be honored at the Tonys with a special Lifetime Achievement Award.

GROSS: 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. 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'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. 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 us 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 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 before my liberty. Is that absolutely clear?

GROSS: Wow (laughter). And at the end of that scene...

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 do 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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LANSBURY: 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 relish 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: 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...

LANSBURY: Jessica Fletcher.

GROSS: ...Who has solved God knows how many murders.

LANSBURY: (Laughter).

GROSS: Over the years that you did that show, did you ever count how many murders you solved?

LANSBURY: Two hundred sixty-four.

GROSS: Oh, really?

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?

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 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'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 the character. And it really doesn't matter. The main thing is I have - I feel that 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. The actress, who is 96 years old, is scheduled to appear at next month's Tony Awards and be presented with a special lifetime achievement award. Coming up, I review "Keeping Company With Sondheim," a new PBS "Great Performances" documentary about the new version of one of Stephen Sondheim's classic Broadway musicals. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICARDO LORENZ'S "THE WORST (EMPANADAS) IN LONDON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.