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'THE BLACKWATER LIGHTSHIP' Lansbury takes risk with role and makes it pay off

Wednesday, February 4, 2004

The movie, set in Ireland, is about three generations of estranged women.
NEW YORK -- Angela Lansbury read the script three times while puzzling whether to accept the part of 84-year-old, tough-as-nails Granny in "The Blackwater Lightship."
Then John Erman, the director of this "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production, made his pitch.
"He called me at my house in Ireland, which is where the film is set," Lansbury recalls with a smile, "while I was standing at my stove. He said, 'Angie, if you have the guts, you should do this role.' And I said, 'Well, you know me, and I do have the guts."'
Despite their proximity in age, Granny proves a gutsy leap for the 78-year-old Lansbury, almost unrecognizable in the gray, thatchlike wig and dowdy garb the role demanded.
The story
Besides, "The Blackwater Lightship" (which CBS airs at 9 tonight) is fraught with larger gambles that, in lesser hands, could have sunk the project into schmaltzy melodrama.
It forces an encounter between three generations of estranged women, who, besides Granny, include Lily, her cold, long-widowed daughter (Dianne Wiest) and brooding granddaughter, Helen (Gina McKee).
"I love this triumvirate of women faced with an extraordinary problem in their lives," says Lansbury.
The cause of their fractious reunion: Declan, Helen's brother, who has re-entered their lives in the final stages of AIDS. He wants to spend a bit of his remaining time at Granny's, where two of his close friends, who consider themselves his true family, show up, further heightening the tension.
Stuck in this emotional traffic jam, the three women must at last confront old hurts and air their old grievances.
"This comes after years of thinking they were helping each other by not telling each other things," says Lansbury, "when, as it turns out, that's all the other person was waiting for."
"The Blackwater Lightship" (named for a floating lighthouse the family wistfully remembers from bygone days) was shot last September entirely in Ireland, with the principal location a quaint seaside village down the coast from Dublin -- and a bit north of County Cork, where Lansbury and Peter Shaw, her husband of nearly 60 years, shared a happy retreat over the decades.
And this is her first film project since Shaw -- a talent agent and studio executive who co-produced Lansbury's long-running series, "Murder, She Wrote" -- died last February at 84.
"It was a lovely shoot, friendly and warm," says Lansbury, clearly glad she make the decision to say yes.
Lansbury's film career began with her Oscar-nominated debut in 1944 as a take-no-guff servant girl in the suspenseful classic "Gaslight."
Never an ingenue or leading lady, Lansbury typically played take-charge types, whether the ribald flapper of Broadway's eponymous "Mame" or the power-mad mom in the 1962 thriller "The Manchurian Candidate," or even kindly Mrs. Potts, the tea pot she voiced in the 1991 cartoon "Beauty and the Beast."
"I was always a good feature character actress," says Lansbury, "and I didn't become a really big star until I did 'Murder, She Wrote' -- except on Broadway, of course: I was on the sides of buses!" Not to mention the winner of four Tonys.
"It's fun to think back over it all and say, 'DAMN! Did I do THAT?!' But I still have a sense of being uncertain of myself as an actor. You know what they say: You're only as good as your last project."
So don't even mention the word "retire."
"Oh, God, no!" she exclaims. "Oh, no, never! Never!"