Many people would pick out the exceptional Angela Lansbury for her 12-plus years as the inquisitive murder-novel author and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher in the television series Murder, She Wrote.
But at 87, Lansbury’s prestigious acting career is legendary and goes well beyond the cult show. She has featured in more than 50 films; performed in about 20 plays, mostly on New York’s Broadway or London’s West End; and racked up countless TV credits.
Respect for her talent is high among the three different institutions, with five Tony Awards and six Golden Globe Awards for her television and film roles.
In fact, Lansbury is one of three performers who have won the most Tony Awards; a tribute to her success on stage despite her TV fame among younger generations.
Driving Miss Daisy is Lansbury’s latest project here in Australia, accompanied by the superb James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines.
The veteran actress told the Star Observer the role of Daisy Werthan had been of interest for some years.
“I saw this play off-Broadway, as we call it, in a tiny theatre with Morgan Freeman playing Hoke and Dana Ivey playing herself and at that time, I thought ‘what a gem of a play this is,’” she said.
The show opened in 1987 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year.
Driving Miss Daisy playwright Alfred Uhry, a good friend of Lansbury, had told her over many years she would make a good Daisy, however, the actress said she had always been busy in TV or film.
“Finally this tour was suggested by [producer] John Frost and my agents in New York. I had just finished working with James in The Best Man,” she explained.
“I just said yes! Why not, this was my chance to play Daisy so that was the reason I did it – it was a very snap decision.
“We had been courting the idea for years, as I said, and he had done it previously with a great actress, Vanessa Redgrave, in London and also New York. I couldn’t do it there with him so Australia was a wonderful, wonderful idea.”
For Driving Miss Daisy newbies, this timeless American play tracks the decades-long relationship between an elderly Southern Jewish woman, Daisy Werthan, and her compassionate African-American chauffeur, Hoke Colburn. While Daisy is frustrated and acerbic at first, Lansbury said she cannot help but like her.
“I have to like her because she represents a time of life. Her situation is a time of life that all women of a certain age, myself included, run into. We run the risk of losing our ability to drive,” she said.
“The crux of this story is frustration and annoyance. She is an opinionated and difficult woman to begin with, let’s face it, but she is brought to her senses by her relationship with a man who under normal conditions would not have had anything in common with whatsoever. But because of the circumstances of her not being able to drive herself because she has a terrible accident with her car, it mellows her.
“It’s very moving but it’s also very, very funny and I’m working with two of the greatest actors on Broadway, James Earl and Boyd Gaines. I’m in very hot company right now.”
Over the past five years, Lansbury has stormed the stage once again after an almost 25-year hiatus. She was coaxed back to Broadway by her great friend and admired director Terrence McNally for his play, Deuce.
Her work on stage before the quarter-century lapse helped the theatre stalwart gain a strong following as a gay icon.
Whether it was for the classy-cum-conniving Mrs Iselin in the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate or the slapstick pie-making Mrs Nellie Lovett in the original Sweeney Todd stage production, Lansbury said she was happy to have the community’s support.
Her role in the 1966 musical Mame doesn’t get much more camp, as she played the fabulous Mame Dennis whose modest motto was: “Life is a banquet and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death.” You can see the appeal.
“I know I’ve got a huge audience among the gay community,” she said.
“I understand what pleases them about my career because if you go into the past, the roles I’ve played have been very glamourous and wonderful, especially in the theatre and musicals.”
Driving Miss Daisy is currently playing in Brisbane and will travel to Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.