BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MAY 09:  Actress Angela Lansbury attends the 25th Anniversary screening of "Beauty and the Beast": A Marc Davis Celebration of Animation at Samuel Goldwyn Theater on May 9, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
See iconic moments from Angela Lansbury's acting career
02:44 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She is morning editor at Katie Couric Media. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Her story began like a classic Hollywood fairytale, but that’s not how it ended. Angela Lansbury, who died on Tuesday aged 96, starred in her first film, “Gaslight,” in 1944 at just 19 years old. She’d been signed by MGM Studios just two years previously, having studied acting in New York City after her family, which had fallen on hard times, was forced to flee their home in Blitz-stricken London.

Holly Thomas

Like Ingrid Bergman who starred alongside her, Lansbury was nominated for an Oscar for her role in “Gaslight,” but unlike her luminous colleague, she did not win. Her loss that night was the first of a career marked by stunning performances that consistently won her critical acclaim, but rarely saw her cast as the leading lady. She later said that “earning an Academy Award too early is a terrible deterrent because you don’t know what to do next.”

What Lansbury did was forge a path through the next seven decades that looked nothing like that of her golden-age contemporaries. Her unfashionable evolution from Los Angeles to Broadway to television meant that her legacy was never tied to one period or genre in particular. An industry misfit, she was forced to transform the less sexy, less obvious roles she was often offered into gems that ensured she was constantly introduced to new generations with a fresh image. Ultimately, they showcased a self-confidence and sprawling talent that sealed her place as an all-time Hollywood icon.

Like many people my age, my first introduction to Angela Lansbury was as the voice of Mrs. Potts in Disney’s 1991 animated smash hit “Beauty and the Beast.” Being as superficial as most pre-pubescents, my main focus was on the leads, Belle, and the intriguing horned monster of a Beast who later turns into an underwhelming prince.

Nevertheless, the bit of the movie that relayed in my head for days after I watched it was always the title song, “Beauty and the Beast,” performed by Mrs. Potts. Lansbury sang it in one take, having not slept, just hours after getting off a plane that’d been held up by a bomb scare. She later explained the feat away as the product of an adrenaline high, saying: “I think it was the excitement of it all, the sense of ‘do it now!’”

Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, and David Ogden Stiers in Beauty and the Beast (1991) (Walt Disney Pictures)

It’s no wonder she nailed it, though. After movie offers dried up in the mid-1960s, Lansbury, then in her 40s, moved to Broadway. Her starring role in “Mame” in 1966 earned her a Tony award – the first of five, plus one for lifetime achievement – and established her as one of the first ladies of musical theater.

Cruelly, despite being a proven hit with audiences, Lansbury was replaced by Lucille Ball in “Mame“‘s 1974 movie adaptation. Lansbury later called the decision as a “big, dashing hopes disappointment.” Jerry Herman, who wrote the show’s music and lyrics, attributed the film’s dire commercial run to Hollywood’s tendency to pick actors who they think will be “a big box office star,” and disregard “whether the person’s right for the role.”

As Lansbury herself noted, Hollywood never seemed quite sure how to use her. Even in her 20s, she was often cast as a scheming, villainous matriarch. When she was just 35, she played a 26-year-old Elvis Presley’s idiotic mother in 1961’s “Blue Hawaii.” In 1962, she was Oscar-nominated for the third time for her chilling turn as the mother of a brainwashed son in “The Manchurian Candidate.” Laurence Harvey, who played the son, was only three years her junior. She was so convincing that many fans wildly overestimated her age. “I played so many hags 20 years older than myself in those early films that now everyone thinks I’m 80 years old!” she explained in a 1984 interview.

Frustrating though this clearly was, when her turn came to exercise power, Lansbury seized the opportunity to include those who show business typically overlooked. When the TV crime series “Murder, She Wrote” made her a household name in the 1980s, Lansbury apparently went out of her way as its star to help cast veteran actors who were struggling to get work – and gave one chronically ill actor who was in danger of losing her Screen Actors Guild medical coverage a recurring role to ensure she met her earnings requirements.

Lansbury was also determined that her own role as the author-cum-accidental detective Jessica Fletcher wasn’t warped by the sexist stereotypes that writers often fell back on. “I find that male writers, as a whole, don’t know how to write women, therefore you have to put that in yourself,” she explained in 1996. “And I did – I used to fight and squabble, and get on their backs about writing her as a real person… She was athletic, she was fun, she wasn’t a prude, she was outgoing, she was private, she was everything.”

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    In bringing Jessica Fletcher to life, Lansbury upended the ageism that plagued her early career, and the limitations she’d faced for want of – in her words – romantic, “chocolate box” looks. Her tenacity throughout her working life, setback after setback, year after year, ensured that new generations encountered her in an array of roles so diverse that when she was finally awarded her Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2013, Geoffrey Rush paid tribute to her as the “living definition of range.”

    Now, when fans picture Angela Lansbury, they don’t see a starlet frozen in black and white, all tight curls and wide eyes. They see a grown woman, vital, in full color.