Murder, She Wrote


The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation Presents

02:26

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About

Murder, She Wrote, starring Angela Lansbury as amateur sleuth and mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, has been the only significant dramatic series on American television to feature an older woman in the sole leading role. Lansbury, who received Oscar nominations and Tony awards over her long film and stage career, started the series at age 58 and is now probably most widely recognized for her television character.

Creators Richard Levinson, William Link and Peter S. Fischer brought with them a combined resume from Columbo, Mannix, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Ellery Queen. In Murder, She Wrote, they created a classical mystery program set in the fictional seaside village of Cabot Cove, Maine. The program quickly became one of CBS's most successful offerings and among the most expensive for it to produce. It frequently placed first among the network's lineup in the Nielsen ratings and was a champion in its time slot, 8:00 P.M. Sundays. It finished in the Nielsen top ten during most of its run.

The series narrative has remained fairly stable. Widowed Jessica Fletcher, a retired high school English teacher, became a best-selling mystery author after her nephew, Grady, sent a manuscript to a book publisher. She quickly became world famous and affluent, but she maintains the rambling, old house that she and her longtime husband, Frank, shared in Cabot Cove. Jessica remains close to old friends in the village, including Dr. Seth Haslett, played by character actor William Windom. A few cast changes have occurred; most significantly, Tom Bosley, who portrayed bumbling Sheriff Amos Tupper, left after four seasons to pursue his own mystery series. Familiar former television stars and unknown character actors appear as guests on the program.

In the earlier seasons, a matronly Jessica frequently bicycled across town, boiled lobsters, planned fishing trips on a friend's trawler, or dropped in at the beauty parlor. She wore conservative pantsuits and spoke with an occasional New England influence. Her signature was her ancient manual typewriter, and the opening credits showed her tapping merrily away on one of her mystery novels. Gradually, the character evolved. The manual typewriter eventually shared time in the opening sequence with Jessica's personal computer (which has, itself, been involved in two mysteries). Jessica added a second residence, a Manhattan apartment and the character became more glamorous in appearance coinciding with Lansbury's own personal makeover in the 1988-89 season.

Murder, She Wrote's formula is true mystery: Jessica encounters several people displaying animosity toward a mean person. An innocent person, often a friend or relative of Jessica's, publicly threatens or criticizes the bully. The audience sees the bully murdered, but the killer's identity is hidden. The authorities accuse Jessica's ally, based on circumstantial evidence. Jessica notices--and the camera lingers on--details that seem inconsequential but later prove central to the solution. She investigates, uncovering various means, motives, and opportunities and eliminating suspects. A few minutes before the program ends, she suddenly realizes the last piece of the puzzle and announces that she knows who the killer is. She confronts the killer, privately, in a group, or with authorities observing off camera. Almost always, the killer confesses, and Jessica presents the person to the police. A final scene often shows Jessica sharing a good-natured exchange with someone, often the wrongly accused friend.

Coincidences abound. Nephew Grady (Michael Horton) has been arrested for murder on several occasions, and Jessica always proves him innocent. In fact, each of the many times Jessica's family members or old, "dear friends" have been introduced, one has become involved in a murder. Tiny Cabot Cove has been the site of about fifty of the more than 250 murders Jessica has solved. Rarely has a suspect been shown in touch with a lawyer; Jessica always happens to be on the scene when a murder has just taken place and makes time in her schedule to solve the crime. She usually happens upon the body herself. The police never get it right. Her friend is almost always innocent. Jessica is always present when crucial evidence comes to light.

Despite the formulaic nature of the program, the notion that violent death can invade even the quiet world of Jessica Fletcher connects it to old meanings of the mystery genre. The world, as the profession of the mystery writer demonstrates, is not a safe place. The wisdom and acute mental capacity of this older woman are weapons in an ongoing struggle for order.

On the professional, rather than the fictional level, Lansbury's involvement with the series changed over time. In the 1989-90 season, CBS persuaded her to stay with the show after she announced plans to leave. The network cut demands on her time, and Lansbury made only brief appearances in several episodes. She addressed the viewer directly to introduce the evening's mystery, involving, for example, her sleuthing "friends," Harry McGraw or Dennis Stanton. And she often returned at the end of the hour, explaining how the mystery was solved. In the following 1992 season, however, Lansbury was back in force assuming the role of executive producer. Her sons and brother are also involved in the production.

Murder, She Wrote skews toward older audiences, however, especially older women, and advertisers will pay much more to attract younger viewers. In the 1994-95 season, the show charged lower advertising rates than competitors such as Lois and Clark, appearing in the same time slot on rival network, ABC. Lois and Clark attracted fewer viewers, but was watched by more young viewers, hence the higher advertising rate.

At a time when less traditional programs, such as the quirky, more serial Northern Exposure and the offbeat Seinfeld, were attracting favorable critical notices, Murder, She Wrote did not. It attracted instead large numbers of viewers with its combination of a highly ritualistic formula and its progressive treatment of a 60-plus heroine played by a popular star. Jessica Fletcher is, significantly, an amateur, unlike James Rockford or Thomas Magnum. However, although unfailingly well behaved, she displays a worldliness about modern life, and she has a career that contributes to her vitality. These elements distinguish her from Agatha Christie's Miss Marple character, to whom she has often been compared.

Since her involvement in Murder, She Wrote, Lansbury, the actress, has spoken out on occasion against the tendency for network television to propagate a "masculine mystique" and unfairly favor programs oriented toward younger audiences. (Murder, She Wrote has always followed CBS's other long-running successful program, 60 Minutes, which has also collected large numbers of older viewers.) Because portrayals of older people on American television have traditionally been infrequent and unflattering (in such silly roles as Fred Sanford of Sanford and Son, Designing Women's dotty Bernice, and some of the women of The Golden Girls), Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher is especially significant. She has demonstrated that competent, glamorous older women can draw large prime-time audiences. As a result, Murder, She Wrote is one of CBS's most valued programs.

-Karen E. Riggs

CAST

Jessica Beatrice Fletcher..................... Angela Lansbury

Sheriff Amos Tupper (1984-1988)................. Tom Bosley

Grady Fletcher (1985-1990)..................... Michael Horton

Dr. Seth Hazlitt (1985- )........................ William Windom

Mayor Sam Booth (1986- ).......................... Richard Paul

Sheriff Mort Metzger (1989- )......................... Ron Masak

Dennis Stanton (1990-1991)....................... Keith Michell

Robert Butler (1990-1991)......................... James Sloyan

Lt. Perry Catalano (1990-1991)................... Ken Swofford

Rhoda (1990-1991)....................................... Hallie Todd

Dr. Raymond Auerbach (1991- ).......... Alan Oppenheimer

PRODUCERS

Peter S. Fischer, Anthony J. Magro, J. Michael Straczynski, Peter Lansbury, Angela Lansbury

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBS

September 1984-May 1991   Sunday 8:00-9:00

June 1991-July 1991 Sunday   9:00-10:00

July 1991- Sunday 8:00-9:00

FURTHER READING

Allman, Kevin. "Auntie Angela(interview)." The Advocate (San Mateo, California), 22 September 1992.

Smith, Wallace E. "'Cabot Cove,' California: TV Intrigue on Mendocino Coast." American West (Cupertino, California), December 1988.

Waters, Harry F. "A New Golden Age; The Over-55 Set Flexes its Wrinkles on Prime Time." Newsweek (New York), 18 November 1985.

Highlights
Angela Lansbury on her Murder, She Wrote character, "Jessica 'J. B.' Fletcher"
01:58
Betty Garrett on guest-starring on Murder, She Wrote, and on working with Angela Lansbury
02:41
Tom Bosley on his Murder, She Wrote character "Sheriff Amos Tupper"
00:40
William Link on the creation of Murder, She Wrote and originally considering Jean Stapleton for the lead role
07:01
J. Michael Straczynski on writing for Murder, She Wrote
04:01
Angela Lansbury on the audience who watched Murder, She Wrote
03:03
Who talked about this show

Lucie Arnaz

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Lucie Arnaz on guest-starring on Murder, She Wrote
01:11

Tom Bosley

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Tom Bosley on his Murder, She Wrote character "Sheriff Amos Tupper"
00:40
Tom Bosley on location shooting for Murder, She Wrote in Mendocino, CA (which served as the fictional Cabot Cove, Maine)
00:41
Tom Bosley on the number of appearances he made on Murder, She Wrote
00:32
Tom Bosley on an unusual location predicament during the filming of the Murder, She Wrote episode "Joshua Peabody Died Here... Possibly"
01:29

Charles Dubin

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Charles S. Dubin on directing Jennifer Slept Here, Amanda's, The Four Seasons, Murder, She Wrote, and Hotel
02:47

Nanette Fabray

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Nanette Fabray on her guest appearance on Murder, She Wrote in the episode "From the Horse's Mouth"
02:25

Betty Garrett

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Betty Garrett on guest-starring on Murder, She Wrote, and on working with Angela Lansbury
02:41

Florence Henderson

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Florence Henderson on her appearances on Murder, She Wrote
02:04

Kim Hunter

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Kim Hunter on guest starring on Murder, She Wrote
00:37

Angela Lansbury

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Angela Lansbury on her decision to do a TV series and then her disappointment in the initial projects she was offered
01:52
Angela Lansbury on choosing to star in Murder She, Wrote (over a Norman Lear comedy series)
03:04
Angela Lansbury on Jean Stapleton turning down the role of "Jessica Fletcher" allowing Lansbury to get the role on Murder She, Wrote
01:24
Angela Lansbury on the workload of doing a weekly "anthology" series
01:14
Angela Lansbury on the audience who watched Murder, She Wrote
03:03
Angela Lansbury on the appeal of Murder, She Wrote to its audience on how she wanted to add more sophistication when she became the show's producer
00:51
Angela Lansbury on the contribution of Murder, She Wrote creators Richard Levinson and William Link
00:50
Angela Lansbury of Murder, She Wrote producer Peter S. Fischer
00:53
Angela Lansbury on the regulars who appeared on Murder, She Wrote
01:41
Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote's regular directors, including her son Anthony Shaw
00:38
Angela Lansbury on her brother Bruce Lansbury's work as Murder, She Wrote's showrunner
00:37
Angela Lansbury on demanding a longer and less strenuous work schedule (from seven to eight days)
00:36
Angela Lansbury on sticking with Murder, She Wrote for the long run
01:05
Angela Lansbury on the camraderie on the set of Murder, She Wrote
01:19
Angela Lansbury on getting a hip replacement during the run of Murder, She Wrote
00:49
Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote producer David Moessinger, who served as the executive producer between 1991-92
03:05
Angela Lansbury on transitioning to being Murder, She Wrote's executive producer and the changes she sought
01:19
Angela Lansbury on Murder, She Wrote as a "family affair"
01:47
Angela Lansbury on her approach as a producer of Murder, She Wrote
02:44
Angela Lansbury on her Murder, She Wrote character, "Jessica 'J. B.' Fletcher"
01:58
Angela Lansbury of CBS' decision to move Murder, She Wrote from its long standing Sunday night timeslot to Thursday night
02:13
Angela Lansbury on hearing that Murder, She Wrote was CBS Chairman William S. Paley's favorite show
00:19
Angela Lansbury on the support she received from CBS executive Howard Stringer
01:04
Angela Lansbury on CBS executive Laurence A. Tisch dropping by the set to meet her during Murder, She Wrote
00:27
Angela Lansbury on how without supporters William S. Paley and Howard Stringer at CBS, Murder, She Wrote was allowed to be moved out of its timeslot
01:25
Angela Lansbury on the overseas popularity of Murder, She Wrote
00:27
Angela Lansbury on the fan mail she's received due to Murder, She Wrote
00:24
Angela Lansbury on the subsequent TV movies following the end of Murder, She Wrote as a series
00:41
Angela Lansbury on her many nominations, but no wins, of the Emmy Award
00:41

Piper Laurie

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Piper Laurie on guest-starring on Murder, She Wrote and Matlock
01:11

William Link

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William Link on the creation of Murder, She Wrote and originally considering Jean Stapleton for the lead role
07:01

Harry Morgan

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Harry Morgan on guest starring on Murder, She Wrote
01:20

Jean Stapleton

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Jean Stapleton on turning down the lead role in Murder, She Wrote
01:31

J. Michael Straczynski

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J. Michael Straczynski on writing for Murder, She Wrote
04:01
J. Michael Straczynski on his favorite Murder, She Wrote episode
01:07
J. Michael Straczynski on being made a producer on Murder, She Wrote
01:22

Loretta Swit

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Loretta Swit on appearing on Murder, She Wrote  with Angela Lansbury

Fred Willard

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Fred Willard playing dramatic roles and the types of roles he usually plays
02:57

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