Angela Lansbury first attended the Academy Awards at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on March 15, 1945. Just 19, she was nominated for supporting actress for her role as a conniving Cockney maid in "Gaslight."
And now, nearly seven decades later, the 88-year-old legend is winning her first Oscar. On Saturday evening, Lansbury will receive an honorary Oscar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' fifth Governors Awards at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at the Hollywood & Highland Center.
"It's very, very special for me," said Lansbury over the phone from her New York home. "It is very unique and wonderful to receive at my time of life though I am still in the running — doing things and acting."
Comedian Steve Martin and noted Italian costume designer Piero Tosi also will be receiving an honorary award, while Oscar-winning actress and philanthropist Angelina Jolie is the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
"When a light shines brightly, it really lasts a long time," academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs said. "I would say Miss Lansbury is a perfect example of a light shining brightly. Her skill, her passion for acting is such that she has influenced many actors and actresses, I would say, through the years."
She was only 17 and a newcomer to Los Angeles when she began work on her film debut in 1944's "Gaslight," which was directed by George Cukor and starred Oscar-winning Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten.
Lansbury, her mother, actress Moyna Macgill, and her twin brothers had left Britain at the outbreak of World War II. They first lived in New York and then settled in Los Angeles.
"I was introduced to MGM studios by a young friend of mine who was an actor and was being considered for a role in 'The Picture of Dorian Gray,'" Lansbury said. That friend, Michael Dyne, became a noted playwright and screenwriter.
Dyne, she said, had become chummy with MGM casting director Mel Ballerino, who told the young British actor they were looking for someone to play the maid in "Gaslight."
"He told him about this young girl who had just come from England and had been training to be an actress and maybe he would like to see her," Lansbury said.
Lansbury and her mother reported to MGM. "I was immediately snatched by the casting director who said, 'I will take you to see Mr. Cukor and the producers. I would like them to meet you.' That was my introduction to MGM. I tested in the role and I was tested for 'Picture of Dorian Gray.' I played both parts and through happenstance was nominated for best supporting actress for both. My mother and I were shocked."
Still, MGM didn't seem to know what to do with the character actress. She ended up playing women far older than her years. "I was villainous or a rather distasteful woman, the unpleasant wife," Lansbury said. "I was a character actress at a very young age, and I simply adapted myself to the requirements of the role. That is what actors do."
Lansbury earned her third and final Oscar nomination for supporting actress for her chilling performance in 1962's "The Manchurian Candidate." She played the frightening Eleanor Iselin, the Lady Macbeth-esque wife of a senator (James Gregory) who is involved in a plot with Communists to overthrow the government. Laurence Harvey, who was not quite two years younger than Lansbury, played her son, who had been brainwashed to become a political assassin.
The actress had just worked with "Manchurian" director John Frankenheimer on his 1962 drama "All Fall Down" as Warren Beatty's mother.
"On the last day of dubbing, he slapped this book on the table next to me and said, 'Your next role is in this book,'" Lansbury recalled. "I don't know how he knew, but he knew I could pull that one off."