Lansbury lent urbanity to all mediums


Come to think of it, I don't recall watching an episode of the TV program that CBS aired for years on Sunday at 7 p.m. Central.

Remember how the late Pat Summerall, keying the network's nightly lineup (starting with "60 Minutes," lest a viewer lived on the West Coast and then got local news) before signing off on a National Football League telecast, would hesitate on the last two words of a hit show?

"Murder, She Wrote," with Summerall pausing over the comma as if it were an ellipsis. Unless the game was tight, Pat and his broadcasting partner might comment upon the title.

People watched the program, which aired for more than a decade, to see British actress Angela Lansbury portray crime novelist Jessica Fletcher. A week after country singer Loretta Lynn passed this life at age 90, Lansbury died Tuesday at her home in Los Angeles, five days shy of her 97th birthday.

Lansbury gave stage and screen an urbanity rarely seen now whatever the medium. Broadway honored her with five Tony Awards, in works such as "Mame" (1966) and including "Gypsy" (1975) and "Sweeney Todd" (1979).

Akin to soap-opera star Susan Lucci (Erica Kane on "All My Children"), Lansbury was frequently denied a similar award for TV. Whereas Lucci won once, in 1999, after her 19th of 21 nominations for a Daytime Emmy Award, Lansbury went 0-for-18 in the Emmy race.

Likewise, she was a bridesmaid for the Academy Award three times. "Gaslight" (1945) brought Ingrid Bergman her first of three Oscars; she was nominated again for "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1946) and "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962).

The latter movie, spearheaded by Frank Sinatra, who portrayed the male lead, holds up splendidly after 60 years. Released a year before John Kennedy was assassinated, then long taken out of circulation by Sinatra when the connection between the film's brainwashed contract killer and Lee Harvey Oswald was explored, it is one of the great political thrillers in film history.

Jonathan Demme ("The Silence of the Lambs") directed a 2004 remake with Denzel Washington in the part played by Sinatra, whose younger daughter, Tina, earned a producer's credit, John Frankenheimer's original is not to be missed, containing one of the screen's greatest performances by Lansbury.

Her screen son, a Medal of Honor winner in Korea played by Laurence Harvey, is under the control of the character cast as "Raymond's mother." From a black comedy by Richard Condon, Lansbury portrays a Communist agent who enlists her son in a plot to overthrow America, abetted by her spineless husband, played by James Gregory, as president after Harvey guns down his running mate at a convention in Madison Square Garden.

The treachery in which Lansbury engages no doubt will shock those who can't see her as a villain. An incestuous relationship between Lansbury and Harvey is touched on in the original, more fully explored by Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber in the remake.

This is one tale that Jessica Fletcher, albeit on the other side of the law, could have written in her sleep.