Murder, She Wrote 5.7 “The Last Flight of the Dixie Damsel”

The episode starts with a flashback to a newsreel that focuses on the crash of the Dixie Damsel, a C97 cargo plane that crashed in Alaska. Jessica’s very own Frank Fletcher was on board, and he and (most of) his crew men were able to escape the crash alive.

Back in present-day Cabot Cove, Jessica receives a phone call from Bonnie, her old room-mate from San Diego who shared a one-bedroom apartment with Jessica while their (future?) husbands were serving as airmen. Apparently, the Dixie Damsel was found perfectly preserved in ice! Jessica rushes to meet with them at a California air base, and soon learns that the dead body of one of the crew men was found on board with a bullet hole in his chest. By process of elimination, the crime is about to be pinned on Frank as the prime suspect!

Just the facts ma’am:

While there is an attempted murder in this episode (on Sgt Dressler), the only actual murder that we are dealing with is one that happened 35 years in the past.

Spoilers are in white font, so highlight the text below to reveal the answers.

  • The victim was… flight engineer Gagliano!
  • killed by… his “cousin” and partner in a diamond smuggling operation!
  • in… the cargo area of the plane!
  • with… a .45 caliber gun!
  • because… (probably) the plane was crashing and there was only one parachute left!
  • vital clues: calling Dressler “Sarge”, holes in the Cadillac, and picking up duffel bags.

Cast of characters:

Within the newsreel footage, we get a glimpse of a very young Frank Fletcher, credited as being played by John Newberg (even though he didn’t have a speaking part).

In the present-day story, the characters include:

  • Classic noir movie actress, Jane Greer, playing Jessica’s old roomie Bonnie Phelps.

The cast notably features four former TV detectives:

  • Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (left) as the crew’s old boss, Gen. Marcus Havermeyer, in his first of three total appearances on the show. Zimbalist had a starring role on 77 Sunset Strip.
  • Martin Milner (right) as Frank’s old crew buddy, Lt. Clint Phelps, in his second of five total appearances on the show. He plays different characters in most of his other appearances; however, he reprises his role as Clint Phelps in the episode “Thursday’s Child”. Milner had a starring role in Adam-12.
  • Richard Roundtree (left) as Maj. Kevin Cooper, the man in charge of the murder investigation, in his only appearance on the show. Roundtree is best known for playing crime-fighter Shaft!
  • Dale Robertson (right) as another one of Frank’s army buddies, Lee Goddard, in his first of two total appearances on the show, both times playing the same character. Robertson played a detective in a short-lived series “J.J. Starbuck” as a texas billionaire driving around the country and solving crimes.

Other cast members include:

  • Clifton James (left) as former sergeant and Dixie Damsel crew member, Ray Dressler. James is known for playing a lot of on-screen sheriffs, including during his appearances in a couple James Bond films with Roger Moore.
  • Robin Strasses (centre) as the victim’s daughter, Sylvia Gagliano. Strasses is a fairly prolific soap opera actress.
  • Michael Ansara (right) as the victim’s “cousin”, Nicholas Rossi. Ansara is known for being one of nine actors to play the same character on three Star Trek series — in Ansara’s case, he reprised his role as the Klingon Kang.

While the three actors above had only made a single appearance on MSW, a couple of minor roles were played by actors credited as appearing in multiple episodes:

  • Mark Costello plays a “Guard” in his second of three total appearances.
  • Gerry Okuneff plays “First Man” in his second of three total appearances. He previously appeared in “Showdown in Saskatchewan“.

Final thoughts:

This is perhaps as close as the show gets to a flashback to Jessica’s married life. Not only do we get a glimpse of Frank in old news archive footage, but we also learn about their early days together — Jessica living in San Diego with Bonnie, while Frank and Bonnie’s (future) husband fly off to serve in what I assume was the Korean war.

A couple other notable facts about this episode revolve around Dale Robertson and his character Lee Goddard. Robertson was not credited for his role in this nor the following episode, and the following explanation is given in the book “The Unofficial Murder She Wrote Casebook” by James Robert Parish:

Dale Robertson…was one of the few MSW performers to question the show’s policy of listing the guest stars in the credits in alphabetical order. According to then executive producer and co-creator Peter S. Fischer, “This arrangement didn’t sit well with Dale Robertson, who allowed as how he would just as soon have no billing…This was okay with us. He did two shows, we didn’t break our top fee and he didn’t get billing. That was his choice and I never knew why.”

Finally, this is perhaps the only time on the show where there is continuity from one episode to the next. The episode ends with Lee trying to persuade Jessica to come visit him in Arizona… and in the next episode, she’s actually in Arizona!

It’s also possible to purchase an original press photo from this episode featuring Angela Lansbury and Dale Robertson!


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