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Kennedy Center honors Lansbury and others

Tuesday, December 26, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In retrospect, losing the Academy Awards for best supporting actress of 1944 and 1945 was a blessing in disguise for actress Angela Lansbury.

"It was an astonishing sensation to be nominated in a town and a business that I had only just started to work in. It was extraordinary," a recognition that left the London-born performer, just 19 when first in the Oscar race, amazed and thrilled.

    TV Preview

The Kennedy Center Honors: A celebration of the Performing Arts."

When: 9 to 11 p.m. Wednesday on CBS.

Honorees: Angela Lansbury, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Chuck Berry, Placido Domingo and Clint Eastwood.


"Of course I never won it, and now, in retrospect, I'm thankful that I didn't. So many times when you win that supporting actor or actress award early in a career, you worry so much about how you're going to top it that you don't work easily again," she says.

Lansbury, who turned 75 in October, has worked easily in movies, musical theater and television in the past half-century and then some. She also has amassed four Tony Awards, three Oscar nominations ("Gaslight," "The Picture of Dorian Gray," "The Manchurian Candidate") and 16 Emmy nominations, including a dozen for the popular mystery show, "Murder, She Wrote."

Earlier this month, Lansbury added another prestigious award to her resume: The Kennedy Center Honor. Joining her in the class of 2000: dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, musician Chuck Berry, singer Placido Domingo and actor-director Clint Eastwood.

CBS will broadcast "The Kennedy Center Honors: A Celebration of the Performing Arts" from 9 to 11 p.m. Wednesday, with retired newsman Walter Cronkite as host. The honorees were toasted by their peers at a gala performance, taped Dec. 3 at the Kennedy Center Opera House and attended by President and Mrs. Clinton.

The recipients, selected by the board of trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, are recognized for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts. The primary criterion is excellence.

"I don't think I ever felt more American than I did on this occasion," Lansberry says. "I felt that I was the embodiment of what this country can mean to an immigrant coming from another place. I made my life and I made my career and my fortune here. The opportunities were here. ... I'm so at home here. This is my home."

Lansbury, speaking by phone with reporters, says it was a moment off stage in Washington, D.C., that touched her the most.

"The greatest thrill of this whole weekend, as far as I was concerned, was that I had my grandchildren with me. And my youngest grandson, who is 11 years old, Ian Shaw, was extraordinary because he walked into the White House and it was as if he had lived there all his life. He greeted people, he went over and he spoke to people, and they spoke to him."

The polite preteen was joined by Lansbury's 15-year-old granddaughter and 17-year-old grandson. "It was a wonderful moment for me, as a grandmother, to see them be so comfortable and to be so accepted by the adults who were there and standing around with glasses of champagne in their hands. This was my perfect moment and also to be, of course, with my son Anthony and his wife, as Peter couldn't be there."

Peter Shaw is her husband of 51 years who has been ailing. He underwent heart surgery this past summer but suffers from a nerve condition of the legs which makes walking difficult.

His health problems prompted the actress to bow out of a musical version of "The Visit" (the 1956 movie starred Ingrid Bergman), scheduled for a Broadway tryout in Boston in December and January. "I couldn't have done the show and been with my husband, which I was more interested in doing."

Lansbury isn't withdrawing from all work, though. She has another "Murder, She Wrote" TV movie in the can. Although there is no air date for "The Last Free Man," it co-stars Phylicia Rashad and deals with the Underground Railroad. It's set in the Civil War era and in the present day. "We're very much hoping CBS will show it on a Sunday evening because I think it warrants that kind of audience after 'Touched By an Angel.' "

She plans to start shooting another, unspecified TV movie after Christmas, and she's hoping to do a sequel to "Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris," a 1992 charmer about an English charwoman and her dream of a Dior gown. "She's a lovely character, Mrs. 'arris," Lansbury says, slipping into her character's Cockney accent.

"There's another one in that group of stories about her, 'Mrs. Harris Goes to New York,' and I'm going to ask CBS if they won't consider making that with me because I think it would be a perfectly lovely movie and a marvelous follow-up. That's in the cards. We have a script, we're ready to go, it's just simply finding the slot for it."

Lansbury is that rare actress who has fans literally from 98 to 8 and younger. Credit the animated "Beauty and the Beast," in which she supplied the voice for Mrs. Potts, a teapot with a son named Chip. "It's introduced me to a young, young group of children who otherwise would never have known who Angela Lansbury was, but they know Mrs. Potts and they know my voice."

Although Lansbury calls the theater her first love, she knows she will best be remembered for her television work - most notably for playing a widowed mystery writer from Cabot Cove, Maine. Lansbury dearly loves the character of amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher. "I like her and I love portraying her, and I will continue to portray her because I know it brings such pleasure to so many people."

Tonight at 9, CBS viewers can revisit another Lansbury favorite, "Mrs. Santa Claus," an original musical written by Jerry Herman. Also starring Charles Durning and Michael Jeter, it debuted in 1996 and has become a holiday perennial.

As Lansbury, as gracious and dignified on the telephone as you might hope, winds up the interview, she says of the Kennedy Center award, "Believe me, I'm very proud and happy, and it's like a warm affirmation for a life well spent." The writers couldn't have said it any better.

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