At 89, enigmatic Angela Lansbury is back in the 'Spirit'

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Angela Lansbury has moved yet again.

This time, home is the Ahmanson Theatre, where the 89-year-old Tony winner and honorary Oscar recipient has settled in for a six-week run of Noel Coward's comedy "Blithe Spirit."

This is Lansbury's third time around with Coward's 1941 farce, which is propelled by a medium who accidentally conjures the ghost of a writer's precocious wife. Lansbury played the clairvoyant Madame Arcati on Broadway in 2009. She reprised the role last spring on the West End.

Now, she's taking the character on the road for a four-city North American tour that began in Los Angeles Dec. 9.

"It's a role that I enjoy playing tremendously," Lansbury said in a recent interview, adding it was a no-brainer returning to a part "that really, really makes the audience sit up and say, 'Oh my gosh, what is she doing now?'"

A passion for bicycling may be the only tie binding the eccentric Arcati and Lansbury's best-known character: the earthbound mystery writer-turned-sleuth Jessica Fletcher, whom the actress portrayed on the television series "Murder, She Wrote" from 1984-96.

"People say to me, 'Well, how can you play Jessica Fletcher and then you come along and play Madame Arcati?'" Lansbury said. "I say, 'It's all about imagination.' That's what acting is, is imagination. If you don't have imagination, you're not going to want to play different roles. I've always wanted to attack roles that didn't appear to be something I'd ever done before."

Lansbury added that, personally, she is "nowhere near" either character, "even though a lot of people would say, 'Well, you must be like Jessica.' I'm probably closer to Jessica than I am to Arcati, because I'm a very ordinary person."

But she's had an extraordinary career, even if the actress herself occasionally begs to differ.

The London-born Lansbury was just 19 when her first film, "Gaslight," earned her an Oscar nomination. Nevertheless, precious-few A-titles and great screen roles would come her way for the next two decades. "I knew that Hollywood didn't know what to do with me," said the actress, who received two more Academy Award nominations before receiving an honorary statuette last year.

Even before putting movies on the back burner, she accepted offers to do plays in both London and New York, "but then I got into musical theater, and that opened up doors," Lansbury said. Her first was the original 1964 Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents tuner "Anyone Can Whistle," which, after critical pans, closed following a mere nine performances. However, just two years later, Jerry Herman insisted on casting Lansbury in his new musical "Mame," which became a smash, and, at age 40, a Broadway baby was born. Of the actress's five Tonys, four are for musicals.

As for television? It's ironic that Lansbury's greatest hit, "Murder, She Wrote," the work that finally brought her global recognition, in some ways, took the least effort. Jessica Fletcher "was a lovely woman to play," Lansbury recalled. "But it didn't require acting ability on my part, at all — none.

"Arcati, on the other hand, requires every bit of imagination I can muster."

Lansbury will be packing up the character and moving on soon, with the "Spirit" company heading to San Francisco, Toronto and ending up in Washington, D.C.

And on most of the marketing materials in each city, there will be just one image: a headshot of Lansbury.

Identify the actress as you like. While some have tried, Lansbury's never allowed herself to be pigeonholed.

"Well, I think that's what keeps me ticking along, is that nobody ever has," Lansbury noted. "It's all about imagination. That's what it's all about."

Center Theatre Group presents Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit through Jan. 18 in Los Angeles.


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