Murder, She Wrote TV Guide cover story from February 1986

Murder, She Wrote has graced the cover of TV Guide magazine five times during its original run. My post from last month profiled the first of these cover stories, from March 1985. Below, I continue in the same vein by profiling the second TV Guide cover story about Murder, She Wrote—which appeared in the February 15th 1986 issue.

I was able to locate the scanned pages of the original article on the “Definitive Guide to Murder, She Wrote” website (whose author has sadly since passed on). In addition to presenting the scanned pages, I have also retyped the entire article below. Just as I stated in my previous post, 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.

As you read the article, you may be interested to know which specific episodes it makes reference to. In order of mention, those episodes are:

  • “Murder Digs Deep” S2E11: takes place at an archeological dig
  • “Murder by Appointment Only” S2E12: guest stars Jayne Meadows and Robert Culp
  • “Dead Heat” S2E8: guest stars Priscilla Barnes
  • “Murder to a Jazz Beat” S1E12: set in New Orleans
  • “Sing a Song of Murder” S2E5: with Angela Lansbury as Jessica’s cousin Emma
  • “Reflections of the Mind” S2E6: guest stars Martin Milner
  • “Murder in the Afternoon” S2E3: guest stars Lloyd Nolan

The article also includes photo inserts of “Lansbury as Jessica’s cousin, an English music-hall singer, in an episode with Patrick Macnee.” and “Lansbury with the late Lloyd Nolan, the last work Nolan did before he died.”

‘I Have to Be Bullheaded’

Angela Lansbury—who can be quite tender—has taken a tough line on Murder, She Wrote to protect her health and her professional standards

By Bill Davidson

There is a minor flap on the Chatsworth, Cal., location for this week’s filming of Murder, She Wrote. The star of the hit CBS series, Angela Lansbury, is throwing her weight around—in her usual ladylike but emphatic British way. She is doing a scene in a tent at an archeological dig and has come across a line that she feels is inconsistent with her character, Jessica Fletcher, a mystery writer who gets involved in solving real-life murders. Holding up the action, Lansbury says to director Philip Leacock, “This is ridiculous. Jessica would know all about this poison and wouldn’t have to ask the doctor.”

Leacock calls executive producer Peter Fischer. The line is changed—to Lansbury’s liking. Says Fischer to me later, “Angela’s tough, but she’s usually right. Besides, when you have a star in a series with a 27 rating, it’s like having an 800-pound gorilla. It can do anything it wants.”

Murder, She Wrote has consistently been near the top of the Nielsens (as high as No. 2 at times) and Fischer—quickly dispensing with his gorilla analogy as tasteless—expounds further on the phenomenon of his show’s second-year success with a star of previously proven stage and screen ability, but who has recently turned 60. “It’s a matter of youth versus maturity,” he says, “and generally, maturity seems to be winning out. There’s been a big change in TV viewing habits lately. The kid stuff is losing favor because the teens and sub-teens are watching MTV or youth-oriented movies on tape, and many of them have dropped out of the Nielsen network-viewing audience.”

Two weeks later, the show is on location at the venerable Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and the youth-versus-maturity factor is on everyone’s mind. One of the guest stars is Jayne Meadows Allen, who is about the same age as Lansbury and who is doing a brilliant job playing the flamboyant purple-and-violet-clad founder and owner of a cosmetics business.

Meadows Allen, who was at MGM in the 1940s when Lansbury was there, has a very loud voice and amplifies her views to all within hearing: “Angela’s success with this show has opened the doors to reemployment of, shall we say, seasoned actresses my age. I’ve never gotten so much TV work from so many shows. And let me tell you this: without Murder, She Wrote last year, there would be no Golden Girls this year. Angela proved to network executives that a lot of us more mature people can help make hit shows, too, and we’re being hired again for the first time in years. Maybe the time is past for all those kid stars in their 20s who don’t know how to act.”

Allowing for exaggeration, there is some validity to what Meadows Allen has to say. A few weeks earlier there was a vivid example of the youth-versus-maturity flap. One of the guest stars on Murder, She Wrote that week was Priscilla Barnes, who not so long ago was a star of the vastly successful Three’s Company. One of the keys to the popularity of Murder, She Wrote is that the audience tries to guess who among the stars is the murderer. Barnes, the murderer-of-the-week, couldn’t conceal the guilt in her face in the very first scene she played with Lansbury, and thus gave away the entire plot.

“My God,” said Lansbury to director Peter Crane, “we’ve got to do something. Let’s work with her.” She worked with Barnes, in her usual kindly fashion. Director Crane worked with Barnes, a little less kindly. The guilt was still there. It finally had to be covered up with clever splicing diversions in the editing room.

With such tested performers as Jayne Meadows Allen and Robert Culp, there is no such problem in the episode being filmed at the Ambassador Hotel. In fact, Culp is so skilled in his expressions of innocence that he fools even those members of the crew who have not read the script and are unaware that he is the murderer-of-the-week. For example, a key clue is a lipstick handed him by Meadows Allen. He slips it into his pocket so nonchalantly, using the cover of Meadows Allen’s flamboyance, that it goes unnoticed by all but the most avid mystery fans.

Culp is outspoken about the youth-versus-maturity controversy. He says, “This shows of Angela’s is the only dramatic series that stars one no-nonsense, absolutely professional individual. It’s a pleasure to work with her. She’s a very rare animal in television today. The networks like ensemble casts of four or more stars, so they cancel each other out in terms of getting better contracts. As a consequence, there has been a propensity for sudden discovery—to hire immature people who haven’t had time yet to learn how to act.”

Mostly, however, the conversation on the set is not so heavy. Much of it is about the almost miraculous emergence of Murder, She Wrote this year as a blockbuster show that regularly tops such previous ratings invincibles as Dallas and Dynasty, and that drew a bigger audience than the World Series when they ran head-to-head in some time zones.

Says Lansbury as she smooths out the jacket of a smart Chanel-type suit (a year ago, her clothes in the show bordered on dowdy), “The key is that we have interesting locations, and characters that grip the audience, and the audience plays the whodunit game along with us. We are totally different in that we have no car chases and I don’t carry a gun. It’s a cerebral exercise. When we were filming in Oregon, we found there were a lot of bars where the proprietors set up a pool among the customers, the prize money going to the person who guessed the identity of the murderer before the pool closed at the end of the first act. That kind of audience interest, I guess, is what brings in the ratings.”

Executive producer Peter Fischer says, “Angela is being too modest. People tune in to watch her, although I immodestly admit the scripts are good. Angela has the same pulling power as Lucille Ball and Mary Tyler Moore. Her own character is not too far from Jessica, the character she plays in the show, and the people tune in because they like both Jessica and Angela.”

All this is a far cry from a little more than a year ago when CBS simply wanted a show at 8 on Sunday that would retain some of the intelligent, mostly over-35 audience that watches 60 Minutes in the preceding time slot. It was an enormous gamble, considering that Lansbury, despite her movie and stage successes, was entering episodic television for the first time at the age of 58. Co-creator Richard Levinson says, “Everyone I knew in television was saying that we wouldn’t last more than a few weeks. The best I was hoping for was a marginal success.”

Murder, She Wrote amazed everyone, including Levinson, by immediately locking into a place in the Top 20 in the Nielsens, usually at around No. 14. Nonetheless, it was a tough time for Lansbury. Unused to the tyrannical demands of episodic television, she was working 16 or 17 hours a day (unlike heroes of other mystery shows, she is a woman alone with no sidekick) and had to appear in nearly every scene in every episode. I saw her early in that first season and she was reeling with exhaustion. Also, she was struggling with the identity of her character, whom she perceived as overweight and dowdy. The magnificent-looking Angela Lansbury of “Mame” was visible only in an occasional scene that called for her to be more glamorous.

Even then, she was jealously guarding her concept of Jessica Fletcher, a widowed ex-schoolteacher from Cabot Cove, Maine., who writes mystery novels. I witnessed a confrontation between Lansbury and a director over a scene calling for Jessica to get sidetracked into having a TV talk-show interview when she was expected at an affair at a local library in New Orleans. “Jessica never would be so impolite as to not show up at the library, where 50 people were waiting for her,” insisted Lansbury, “without at least phoning to apologize.” She was unyielding. A reference to the phone call was written into the script.

Today, more than a year later, much of that—but not all—has changed. The show has been close to the top of the ratings all season. Universal Television, which produces the show, relented in the matter of the woman-killing regimen imposed on Lansbury and extended the shooting schedule of each episode from seven days to eight. Lansbury negotiated a deal whereby she now works a maximum of 12 hours a day instead of the previous 16 or 17. Once again, in her ladylike British way, she’s tough about it. On the set, she tells me, “If I begin work at 6 in the morning, I quit at 6 in the evening. I leave. If I make an exception for one scene, they’ll say, ‘You did it last week so why can’t you stay over now?’ I have to be bullheaded—which is very much against my grain.”

Lansbury is bullheaded, too, about guarding the integrity of her character, Jessica. She has lost weight and wears more sophisticated clothes now, because, she says, “Jessica herself naturally would become more sophisticated about her looks as she travels around the world promoting her books.”

But her influence is felt everywhere on the show. There were 13 directors in the first season of the series. Now, through a decision made with Lansbury’s definite input, there are only five. They direct several episodes apiece. She says, “I prefer directors with stage experience who know something about actors and acting and who don’t make you feel like a piece of furniture to be moved around.” She gets involved with wardrobe and casting (“I just want them to give me good actors to work with, no matter what their age or TVQ”), and even with props (to assistant director Alice West: “Those flowers on the table are not right for the life style of the family in this scene. They should be changed to chrysanthemums”).

She recently did an episode in which she played a dual role—Jessica Fletcher and her cousin Emma, who is a British music-hall singer. The script called for her to sing a song, as Emma, so she conferred by phone with the noted Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim and asked him for suggestions. “Do ‘Goodbye, Little Yellow Bird,’ which you sang in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’,” said Sondheim. So she sand “Yellow Bird,” from a film that she made 41 years ago, even though Fischer already had sent to England for dozens of music-hall ditties.

Another time, she phoned producer Robert F. O’Neill at home at 9 P.M. to report what she considered to be a catastrophe in that day’s filming. After being soaked in the rain, Martin Milner, playing a sheriff, is sitting in a blanket in front of a fireplace while his clothes are drying out. Lansbury has played the scene in a nightgown and robe. “Outrageous,” she railed. “It would be against the character of Jessica to be dressed like that with a man in the room.”

“But there also is a doctor in the room,” said O’Neill.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Lansbury, “it’ll have to be changed.” O’Neill changed it.

“And yet,” says one of the show’s producers, “she is not an Iron Butterfly, like some other tough actresses I’ve worked with. Angela is amazingly tender. I’ll never forget when we used Lloyd Nolan as a guest star. Lloyd was 82 years old, and though we didn’t know it at the time, quite ill. In fact, it was the last picture he did before he died. On our show, his memory was gone and he simply couldn’t handle his lines. Other actresses would have walked off, saying, ‘Call me when he’s ready.’ But not Angela. She worked with Lloyd with the patience of a saint. She coached him, whispered his cues, even took him by the hand at one point and said, ‘Don’t get upset, Lloyd. I blow lines, too.’ Somehow, she got him through is scenes and it turned out all right. I’ll remember that little episode as long as I live.” ⬛


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