Murder, She Wrote – TV Guide cover story from March 1985

Murder, She Wrote has graced the cover of TV Guide magazine five times during its original run. Although there is now an archive of TV Guide covers, it is much more difficult to find an archive of the articles published within the magazine.

Thankfully, the woman behind the website “The Definitive Guide to Murder, She Wrote“, had scanned many of the original articles about the series that she had added to her a scrapbook over the years. You can view the page with her original archival materials here: https://jesmaine.tripod.com/mswarchives.html . (Note: I had wanted to reach out to Dr. Anne Del Borgo, the creator of that website, but in searching for her contact information I learned that she had passed away in August 2019.)

Unfortunately, many of the scans were a bit hard to read, and so I thought it would be nice for fans of the show to be able to read a transcript of those articles. Below, I have included the original scanned pages to the very first TV Guide cover story about Murder, She Wrote-–which appeared in the March 9th, 1985 issue—and have retyped the entire article below. I do not own the copyright to the article, and I hope the original author can forgive my sharing it with fans on this website.

I hope you all get a kick out of reading it so many years later.

(P.S. The author of the article mentions being on set during the filming of one of the show’s episodes. The episode he is referring to is Season 1 Episode 9 “We’re Off To Kill The Wizard”, which premiered on December 9th 1984.)

Angela Lansbury

The Big Mystery: Why Is She Enduring ‘Almost Forced Labor’?

Murder, She Wrote is a tough grind for the legendary actress; here’s why she said yes to the grueling lead role

By Robert MacKenzie

Angela Lansbury was working when I arrived and I was glad of the chance to stand back and look her over before we met. I had seen her in person only once before—as the scintillant centerpiece of “Mame” on a New York stage—and my most vivid memory was of her hanging from an enormous moon, kicking a pair of elegant legs. That was 19 years ago. Today the legs were covered in sensible tweeds, befitting the practical New England tastes of Jessica Fletcher, the detective heroine of CBS’s Murder, She Wrote.

In her Jessica persona, Lansbury was now standing in the open air on a hot Los Angeles day, arms crossed and wide blue eyes alert for clues, surveying a quite incredible scene. A “medieval fair” was under way, crowded with customers and performers in period costume, milling beneath the walls of a gigantic stucco castle, one of those endlessly recycled back-lot sets left over from some forgotten knights-in-armor epic. James Coco, a guest star scheduled to be mysteriously murdered in the episode, was being hauled about in a cart, in some jovial ceremony that would no doubt turn sinister. Lansbury, at 59, is perhaps past the stage of hanging from moons in tights and sequins. But she is a striking woman, tall and straight and clean-featured, with something direct and penetrating in those arresting blue eyes, something uncompromising in the set of that small, perfect mouth.

The scene broke and a press agent introduced us. “Hi,” she said, with a quick smile and a firm handshake. Why had I expected an austere “How do you do?” Perhaps that’s part of her magnetism, a disarming homeyness that seems to break through an English reserve. We talked about the character of Jessica, a widow who writes mystery novels and has an uncanny faculty for being present when homicides happen. “She’s not an eccentric, not a busybody or a ‘character’. That’s just what we didn’t want,” said Lansbury. “I think she’s a very honest and straightforward person, very ethical, with an open mind. She’s a good all-rounder. And she’s an American. That’s very important, she’s very American.”

Angela Lansbury is herself an American, not by birth but by choice. Born in England into a theatrical family, she was a teenager preparing for an acting career when World War II cast its shadow over London. “My mother said to me, ‘Look, you can go to the country and be away from the bombs or you can stay here and take your training’.” Angela, of course, elected to remain in London for drama school. But in August 1940, Angela and her two brothers and their mother arrived in New York, where Angela had won a a drama scholarship. Later her mother moved on to Los Angeles, and Angela followed, finding a job behind the cosmetics counter at Bullocks Wilshire.

A friend got her an appointment at MGM. The self-possessed teen-ager with delicate features and reserved manner was immediately screen-tested and quickly signed as a contract player. Almost as quickly, she was cast in an important role in a major film, “Gaslight.” She would appear in “National Velvet,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “The Harvey Girls” and many other films.

With a little time to kill between setups—television acting is mostly waiting—Lansbury walked me to her trailer. Gold-plated roadsters and champagne baths may be gone, but there are still a few perks for stars; an air-conditioned trailer-dressing room is one. Lansbury’s was decidedly in the mobile-home category, with comfy seats and coordinated curtains. I said something about the “other-woman” parts she used to play in the movies. I remembered her as the girl who didn’t get the guy.

“Well, I suppose if I had gotten the guy I might have been one of those actresses whose careers came and went so fast, poor dears. I was never the sex symbol or the glamour queen. Right from the start I played women much older than I really was. There was something mature about my face and my demeanor. I always felt 29. I felt 29 for years and years. Now I feel 40.” She smiled.

Lansbury’s husband, Peter Shaw, leaned into the trailer to say hello. A former talent agent and producer, Shaw is a tall, distinguished-looking man with a droll way of speaking. He promised to see us at lunch, and departed.

“We’ve been married 35 years,” said Lansbury. “I feel very blessed that we’ve managed to come thus far. At home I’ve always had total support, total reassurance. I think that’s why I’ve managed to get so much work done. I suppose if I’d had a lot of romances and marriages and so forth I couldn’t have done so much.”

I mentioned Spencer Tracy’s famous remark that acting mainly consists of knowing your lines and not bumping into the furniture. Lansbury felt there was more to it than that. “It’s very hard to describe how one goes about acting. But the English approach is that you learn the tools of the trade. The vocal equipment, for instance. You can have all sorts of dramatic passion, but if you can’t use your instrument to convey it to an audience, you’re only halfway there, aren’t you? Laurence Olivier once said that the one thing an actor must have is tremendous physical strength, great stamina. I’m fortunate that I have that. I couldn’t have done ‘Mame’ for two years, and ‘Sweeney Todd’ for two years, unless I’d had that.”

Those triumphs on the Broadway stage came late for an actress who had thought of the movies as a steppingstone to the theater. Lansbury left MGM in 1951, when the film industry had fallen on hard times, for what turned out to be mostly unemployment as a free-lance movie actress. “Fortunately I was married and my husband had a job. But it was a very lean period.” By 1953, the Shaws had three children to raise. Though restless for work, Lansbury applied her strength and stamina on the home front and discovered what was to be a lifelong interest in gardening.

At last, the girl who had trained for the stage found her way back to it. In 1957 she opened on Broadway in “Hotel Paradiso,” to critical encomiums. “A Taste of Honey” followed, then the show that revealed her musical talents, “Anyone Can Whistle.” Then in 1966 came the smash hit “Mame,” the musical version of Patrick Dennis’s novel “Auntie Mame.”

As the indefatigable aunt, saucily hoofing and singing Mame’s life-loving message, Lansbury became the darling of New York. Critics wrote admiringly about her legs. “Up until then, nobody had ever mentioned the fact that I had legs.” But the “Mame” highs were soon overcast by the troubled times of the late ’60s. The Shaws’ oldest boy was sent to Vietnam, while their two younger children were sucked into the dropout drug scene in Malibu, where rich kids did their drugs in expensive cars. Angela and Peter looked around them at a country that seemed to be falling apart and a family that was out of control. They packed up their offspring and moved to Ireland. “That was the most wonderful time,” she remembers. “We discovered so much. Simple things. Gardening and walking in the country.” And Lansbury had an inkling, for the first time, of how pleasant it could be not to work.

Years later, after two exhilarating but grueling years of starring in the hit musical “Sweeney Todd”—by then she had won four Tony Awards and three Oscar nominations—a quiet life of gardening and traveling with her husband beckoned more beguilingly than ever. But then came the offer to do Murder, She Wrote on weekly television. Lansbury would appear in virtually every scene, which would require 12-to-15-hour workdays. But in one week she would be seen by more people than had seen all her movies and plays. “All those millions of people. It’s just boggling, isn’t it? And if you could bring them something really good . . . . Well, I suppose I just couldn’t resist it.”

There had been a delay in resetting the scene, so Angela (as she was now insisting I call her) invited me to lunch. This turned out to be 50 feet away, a picnic meal served out of a catering truck, to be enjoyed on portable tables and benches. Angela’s husband joined us and we talked about upstate New York, where the Shaws keep a house they hope to get to someday.

“I’m not going to work this hard forever,” said Lansbury, with something approaching conviction. “It’s almost forced labor. But you have to be thrilled with the way we’ve gone over. Not only the critics, but the numbers. You know, there are so many television shows that have nothing real in them. I think it’s the first time a show has really been aimed at the middle-aged audience. I never go shopping without some comfortable lady coming up and saying, ‘Thank you for giving us something to watch.’ Young people are coming around to it, too, when they see a story instead of a car chase.”

Angela and Peter, standing close together, waved me goodbye as I headed to the far side of the stucco castle, where the studio gate lay beyond the Western street and the English village. Angela would work another seven or eight hours that day. For her sake I hoped she would get to that gardening one day. For our sake I rather hoped she wouldn’t. ⬛


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