An Angela Lansbury series: From Mame to Miss Marple
Auntie Mame meets Miss Marple! Starting on CBS in September. If ever there seemed to be a recipe for television-series success, it is the formula for the role of Jessica Fletcher in CBS's new series ''Murder, She Wrote ,'' which will air in the fall on Sundays from 8 to 9 p.m.
Take one part Agatha Christie, one part Miss Marple, just a pinch of Auntie Mame, and, of course, a large helping of Angela Lansbury, who will be playing the role.
The show is already being pinpointed by advertising agency prognosticators as ''the sleeper of the year.'' But, of course, its position in the schedule - right after ''60 Minutes'' - might alone be considered a recipe for instant success.
Before she left for the West Coast to start filming the series, Miss Lansbury and I met for tea at the Algonquin. She arrives looking chic and casual in a khaki cotton pantsuit with a navy silk blouse and matching navy shoes and purse. Miss Lansbury is greeted like an old friend by most of the dining-room personnel. She explains to me that she came to America in 1940 as a 15-year-old wartime evacuee from London and ''this is where we lived. The headwaiter was a kid, then.'' Another waiter comes over to wish her success in her new series, and they exchange information about summer vacations. ''I know them all,'' she says proudly.
Miss Lansbury has boned up on Miss Marple. ''Agatha Christie got her idea for Marple from her mother's sister, a handsome, slender, maiden lady not at all like Dame Margaret Rutherford. I know the family didn't like that depiction at all, although they must have enjoyed the money it brought in.''
According to Miss Lansbury, producer Robert O'Neill is allowing her a great deal of input in establishing the character of Jessica. ''I've been able to say what her education was, where she has traveled, that she is recently widowed. She's probably English with Irish roots and came to Maine from Boston.''
Although Miss Lansbury says she has seen both Margaret Rutherford and Helen Hayes in the Miss Marple role, when she reads Agatha Christie she sees a very different person from the placid lady they portrayed. ''She was an active, inquisitive woman. And she was not Agatha at all. Agatha was a fascinating lady who moved around a great deal, owned about 20 houses in the London area at one point. Then she got interested in archaeology because of her scientist husband and lived in tents in the desert.''
Miss Lansbury is happy that there is a bit of Auntie Mame, too, in Jessica because ''it makes it interesting for me. There's a bit of Mame in me, too, you know.''
Is she afraid that the writers will steal too much of the Angela Lansbury persona in their portrayal of Jessica?
''It's bound to happen that the real persona of an actor in a series is taken for the character. It makes it so much easier for the writers if they are able to call on tried and true realities in a person. There's no harm in that.
''However, I plan to retain a certain amount of myself for myself.''
Miss Lansbury says there are several things she has in common with Agatha Christie. ''Houses. I love them, too. I maintain an apartment in New York, a house in Cold Spring Harbor, a cottage in Ireland, and although we're renting a house in Los Angeles, if the series goes, we will buy there, too.''
Does she relish the idea of a five- or six-year run for the new series?
She shrugs. ''I haven't addressed myself to that possibility yet. It's certainly going to take a huge slice out of life, obviously.''
On the streets of New York, Angela Lansbury is recognized as a stage actress who has starred in such huge successes as ''Auntie Mame,'' ''Gypsy,'' and ''Sweeney Todd.'' But she says that the rest of the world knows her best for her films, ''Gaslight,'' ''The Manchurian Candidate,'' and ''Death on the Nile.''
Although she has sung in most of her stage successes, Miss Lansbury has never had a real vocal coach. ''I have a natural voice,'' she says, ''and I felt I was an actress first. You have to be careful that the quality in your voice that makes you unique is not replaced with a rather unnatural sound.''
Angela Lansbury has done movies, theater, television specials, and presently a TV series. What would she like to do that she hasn't already done?
''I'd like to do some Oscar Wilde, some Restoration comedy, some Shaw. And I'd like to do a humdinger of a movie role again, something that would reestablish me as a movie actress. I've devoted so much time to the theater that I haven't been around long enough to do movies and now I'm hoping that somebody will come along with a real crackerjack part.
''But don't forget that 'Murder, She Wrote' is a first for me. I haven't done a TV series yet. I want to reach the great United States public out there. I want to bring some of the experience and expertise I've been learning all these years to them via a series. I just hope they will enjoy being with me.''
What many film buffs recall most vividly in Angela's career is her role as a young music hall actress in one of her earliest films - ''The Picture of Dorian Gray'' - which has been revived often on late-night television. In it she sang a song with which she has been associated ever since - ''Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird.'' Does she still remember it?
''Do I remember it?'' she allows an Auntie Mame roar to break the genteel silence of the Algonquin. ''I used to sing it during World War II bond rallies and now I have it on a music box. My daughter plays it on the piano, my grandson goes to sleep with me singing it, anybody with whom I ever came in contact knows it. I can sing it in my sleep.''
Could she, would she ... now?
Without a moment's hesitation, Angela Lansbury/ Auntie Mame/ Agatha Christie/ Jessica Fletcher starts to sing:
''Goodbye, little yellow bird
I'd gladly mate with you.
I love you, little yellow bird
But I love my freedom, too.
So, goodbye, little yellow bird....''