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Angela Lansbury Refused to Be Defined By Her Lack of an Emmy

The veteran actor was 0-for-18, including 12 defeats for Murder, She Wrote, but in the end, it was the Emmys' loss.
  • Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote (Everett Collection)
    Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote (Everett Collection)

    Angela Lansbury, legend of stage and screen, died on Tuesday at the age of 96 with a legacy as glitzy as any performer who's ever lived. She won five Tony Awards, including a record four as Best Actress in a Musical. She was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning an Honorary Oscar in 2013. She received a BAFTA Special Award in 1991, a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1997, and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2000. Six Golden Globes. One People's Choice. And yet in one of the more mystifying twists of fate in Hollywood's awards-giving history, she never won an Emmy Award.

    Despite starring in the long-running and hugely popular Murder, She Wrote from 1984 to1996 and receiving a whopping 12 Lead Actress in a Drama nominations for it (in addition to six other Emmy nods for a total of 18), Lansbury never won. No lead actress in a drama has been nominated more times than Lansbury was, and yet every year, as she became more and more beloved for her performance as Cabot Cove author and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher, she came up short. She lost the award to the likes of Cagney & Lacey stars Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless (twice apiece), China Beach's Dana Delaney and Thirtysomething's Patricia Wettig (twice apiece), Picket Fences' Kathy Baker three times, and once to Sisters star Sela Ward.

    The kind of losing streak that Lansbury endured at the Emmys tends to become A Thing after a certain number of years: "Is this the year she finally wins??" When Jon Hamm at last nabbed an Emmy for Mad Men, there were headlines that he'd "finally" won, and he'd only suffered half as many defeats as Lansbury did for Murder, She Wrote. Glenn Close has been the focus of two Academy Award campaigns in the last five years predicated on the fact that she's yet to win an Oscar. Susan Lucci might be the most famous Daytime Emmy winner of all time, not merely for the one award she won, but for the 19 previous times she was nominated and lost.

    What's always stood out about Lansbury's regrettable Emmy losing streak is that it never defined her as an actress nor her performance as Jessica Fletcher. There was never anything pitiable about Lansbury as she racked up defeat after defeat, and a lot of that had to do with the unflappability of Murder, She Wrote itself. As Susan Lucci's Emmy losses began to pile up, All My Children made sure to load up Erica Kane with a ton of Emmy-friendly storylines: sick children, baby heists, a painkiller addiction. This was the stuff of soaps, of course, but the impetus was clearly to get Lucci that Emmy.

    But Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote was as steady as a Cabot Cove breeze. No stunts. No Emmy bait. No very special episodes. There was something dignified about the way Lansbury would clock in, knock her performance as Jessica Fletcher out of the park for an entire season with slyness and sincerity in equal measure, and rack up another Emmy nomination. Yes, she lost every season, but there was dignity in that, too… even if deep down it stuck in her craw. In an interview with Radio Times in 2017, Lansbury admitted to feeling irked by the rampant snubbery:

    "'It p***ed me off!' she roars. 'Because I just didn’t add up at all in Hollywood. Everywhere else in the US, Murder, She Wrote was huge, but not in Hollywood – no, no, no, they didn’t want to know. I wasn’t upset… well, I was upset, really. It rankled me. I can’t say it didn’t.'"

    Much as all those losses pissed her off, they certainly didn't tarnish the show's reputation. Murder She Wrote has enjoyed a sparkling transition into the streaming era — a binge-watch and comfort TV favorite for many over the last several years, constantly inspiring appreciation posts, streaming guides, and retrospectives in the New York Times.

    The fact that Angela Lansbury took the L on 12 straight Emmy nominations is mostly considered a quirk of history, or, when a fan is feeling particularly salty, a blight on the Television Academy. Angela Lansbury was never the Emmys' biggest loser; she was an icon they weren't cool enough to catch up to. She went out with a legacy that stacks up to just about anyone in the business, Emmys be damned.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Angela Lansbury, Murder, She Wrote, Primetime Emmy Awards