What becomes an acting legend most? A legendary role, and Angela Lansbury has made another one her own.
The stage, film and television icon teamed with another entertainment titan – James Earl Jones – for a 2013 Australian tour of “Driving Miss Daisy,” Alfred Uhry’s seriocomic, Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a stubborn Southern widow and the folksy chauffeur hired for her by her son (Boyd Gaines, a multiple Tony Award winner like his co-stars). Shown briefly in U.S. movie theaters last summer, a production recorded at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre airs on PBS’ “Great Performances” on Friday.
“It affords one tremendous opportunities, quite frankly, to bring forth the qualities that you sense are inherent in the script,” Lansbury reflects of spanning 25 years (1948-73) in the life of no-nonsense Daisy Werthan. “I just really believed every word I was saying, and I really understood her attitude. Then, there’s the way the story unfolds, how her friendship (with driver Hoke Colburn) becomes so touching and so warm.
“It was a great experience doing this, especially being a British woman,” adds Lansbury, who considers Jessica Tandy’s Oscar-winning 1989 portrayal of Daisy “simply marvelous, to be British and to play a Southern woman of that age in that period in history. I consider myself more American than anything, but I have those English instincts that I have to push aside when I’m playing this role. They don’t fit.”
Jones and Gaines also played their “Daisy” parts opposite Vanessa Redgrave in the play’s 2010-11 Broadway premiere (it originated off-Broadway in the late 1980s), and in London later in 2011. Lansbury deems them “the best. Boyd’s a lovely actor, and (with Jones,) it was a fairly immediate rapport between two actors who knew exactly what they were going to do. It was thrilling to bring it off the page and into the reality which is theater.”
Lansbury also has returned to the stage in “Blithe Spirit” (which brought her the most recent of her five Tonys, plus England’s Olivier Award) and “The Best Man” over the past several years. She has received other major accolades lately, including an honorary Oscar, an American Film Institute doctorate and appointment as a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
“It seems that if you remain alive long enough, these are the things that come drifting your way,” she muses. “I’m very proud and humbled to have received, and to have been given, so much recognition. What can I say? It’s terrific.”
Ever-popular with young fans for her work in the Disney classics “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and (in voice only) “Beauty and the Beast,” Lansbury also remains beloved globally for her 12-season run on “Murder, She Wrote.” While she appreciates the fans the series’ repeats have, she wouldn’t consider reviving mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher now.
“I think it would be a downer,” she said. “In some way, we’d have to show her as a much older woman, and I think it’s better to maintain that picture we have in our mind’s eye of her as a vigorous person. I’m still pretty vigorous, especially in the garden ... but if I wanted to transform myself back into the woman I looked like then, it would be ridiculous. And I can’t do that.”