Murder, She Wrote TV Guide cover story from January 1987

This year, I have taken it upon myself to document the various articles about Murder, She Wrote that were featured in TV Guide magazine during the show’s original run. The show was featured five times on the cover of the magazine and this blog post is about the article that appeared in the January 3rd 1987 issue. (You can also check back to see my previous posts about the articles from March 1985 and February 1986.)

This particular article is a deep look at the production of a specific episode of Murder, She Wrote. Namely, it looks at the 11th episode of season 3, “Night of the Headless Horseman”, which aired for the first time that week (on January 4th 1987). Interestingly, as the article notes, the episode was initially meant to be a sequel and feature the character of Horace Lynchfield from the season 1 episode “Footnote to Murder” (S1Ep19). However, the guest starring character was rewritten when Paul Sand, the actor who played Horace Lynchfield, could not be brought back to appear in the episode. In addition to this little bit of trivia, the article goes into a lot of interesting details regarding the set dynamic involving the cast and crew.

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.

It Can Be Murder Putting This Show Together

A visit to the set of Murder, She Wrote reveals the frustrations of casting, rewriting, filming—and salving the egos of its numerous guest stars

By Susan Littwin

Sunday night settles in; the weekend is almost over. You pour a cup of decaf, sliver off a piece of cake too small to have calories, and curl up for one last treat: a cozy hour with Jessica Fletcher, that elegant, sensible sleuth reminiscent of the amateur detectives in those delicious 1930s mysteries.

Tonight, just after the credits roll, Jessica arrives at a train station in Wenton, Vt., where she is met by an eccentric-looking young man with an antique car. As the story unfolds, we realize that we are seeing an unabashed knock-off of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Great. Vintage Murder, She Wrote. Picturesque settings, a provocative murder, a soupçon of spoof and famous guest stars. Almost as good as a movie.

Putting this almost-movie on the air every week, 22 times a year, is one of the fast-food miracles of television. TV Guide got a rare, backstage view of the making of the episode of Murder scheduled to air this week (Jan. 4, CBS, 8 P.M. [ET]), and we will tell you everything, except who the killer is.

Murder is known as an efficient, businesslike show, free of the temper and chaos that rule some series Still, the manufacture of this 53rd episode was a feat that involved art, craft, technology, long hours and the successful meshing of some of the most diverse people on the face of the earth. To produce 45 minutes and 45 seconds of entertainment took seven days of preparation and eight 12-hour days of production—three on location, one on the Universal Studios back lot, and four on sound stages. The episode cost about $1.3 million and involved a staff and crew of 76 and a cast of 14.

But we are already ahead of ourselves. In the beginning, there was a writer. Many episodes of Murder are staff-written. But this one, called “Night of the Headless Horseman,” comes from a freelancer named R. Barker Price. It is his first Hollywood TV sale. A fresh-faced Kentuckian who looks much younger than his 36 years, Price was a contract administrator who wrote as a hobby. He came to Los Angeles three and a half years ago to try his hand in the business and submitted a Murder script “on spec” (without a deal). Executive producer Peter S. Fischer couldn’t use it, but he liked Price’s work and invited him in to “pitch” ideas. Price suggested an episode based on “Sleepy Hollow,” a favorite childhood story, and Fischer bit.

From there on, it was a collaborative process. Price worked closely with story editor Robert E. Swanson at turning his idea into a script that would work for the show. The main problem of every Murder script is how to lock Jessica into the story and give her a franchise for sleuthing. In this one, it was decided that the Ichabod Crane character was an old friend who needed her help. An orphan, he has fallen in love with the daughter of a genealogical snob, and he maneuvers Jessica into posing as his mother. Fischer thought it would be a good idea to bring back Horace Lynchfield, the hapless, tippling poet played by Paul Sand in a previous episode. The role was written for Sand and alluded to their earlier relationship.

There was also a problem specific to this story: beheading. They had to avoid being too gruesome or too farcical. And they had to find a reason for someone to murder in this bizarre and unwieldy way. Price wrote two “treatments” (story descriptions) and two drafts of the script; he will make a total of $26,000 for it. So far, he has not met the star, and he will have nothing else to do with this show.

Months later, Fischer, producer Robert O’Neill, casting director Ron Stephenson, and the director of this episode, Walter Grauman, meet in Fischer’s office at Universal Studios to cast the show. Shooting will start the following week, but there is no sense of panic here, not even urgency. The funny thing is—they have a real problem. Paul Sand, who was to play Horace Lynchfield, is up for a regular role on Gimme a Break! and may not be available. It is a difficult part to cast because the character is goofy, quirky, but also romantically appealing.

Undaunted, Stephenson proposes some backup names from a list. Most are rejected as too old, too young, or not the type. Others categorically will not do episodic television, because their agents or managers think it is beneath them. A few names are pursued and Stephenson will arrange for them to come in and read.

They proceed briskly with the other nine adult parts that have to be filled. Fritz Weaver is the obvious choice for the snobbish prep-school owner, and they “owe him” because he played a small role last year. Stephenson suggests Hope Lange for the headmistress. At first, Fischer thinks she is too feminine, too vulnerable, but he is reminded that the role has a romantic side. “Lange has great marquee value,” he muses. “Let’s make her an offer.” Within an hour, they have a first choice and a backup for each role, and Stephenson goes off to make the calls. By the next morning, they have closed a deal with almost all of the first choices.

They also have learned that Paul Sand won’t be available. The script is revised by Fischer; Jessica’s old friend Horace becomes a new character, Dorian. And the search for Dorian is underway. Two actors come in to read, with Stephenson playing Jessica. One is funny, but not romantic enough. The other has “no comedy.” The actor is wrong for the role, but he thinks the problem is that he read badly. “This was a rocky ride for me. I’m sorry. I could do better. Good script, though. Maybe next time.” The four remain cordial, accustomed to these embarrassing scenes. Stephenson is instructed to make encouraging noises to the first actor’s agent and to keep looking.

The next day, he brings in Thom Bray, who played Murray, the computer expert on Riptide. Bray ranks somewhere between the well-known actors who get offers over the phone and the newcomers who have to read for parts. So he comes in for a “meet.” Cleverly, he dresses in rumpled tweeds and a bow tie. They have their Dorian, and production starts.

Technically, this is a difficult show because it involves locations, stunts, horses, night shooting and child actors, who are subject to special laws. The staff analyzes the technical problems of each scene at a production meeting. What kind of antique car? How many pumpkins? How many horses? “Breakaway” balsa wood tables or tables with scored legs for the fight scene? Director Grauman and a carful of staff visit the locations, and Grauman rapidly analyzes and diagrams each shot. “Cut in with the camera, he crosses, she crosses, dialogue, blah, blah, blah,” he mutters, as he sketches his hieroglyphics. Wenton Academy will actually be a ranch owned by the plastic surgeon who operated on Richard Pryor after he was burned. The stable scenes will be shot a half mile away in a barn that serves as backdrop for many television stable scenes. Other Wenton scenes will be filmed on the Disney Ranch about 30 miles away. The railroad station will be on the Universal back lot, with a produce truck blocking off the façade of a European street. The interiors will be sets constructed on sound stages.

Miraculously, it all comes together, and shooting begins. Ten studio vehicles move the traveling circus to location. The cameras and the lights and the sound are set up, and, at last, here comes Angela Lansbury. Fretting. She is supposed to be riding a bicycle in this scene, but for some reason, the studio has provided a man’s bike with a crossbar. It has to be sawed off and resoldered, and there is some concern about whether it will hold.

Unlike most series, Murder has only one regular performer, Lansbury, who is in virtually every scene. Lansbury is not a prima donna. But she is 61 years old and she works 12 hours a day nine months a year. This is a hit show, and everyone is eager to keep her happy. Most one-hour shows are done in seven days, but after a year of 16-hour days, Lansbury protested. So Universal accommodated her with an eight-day schedule.

For her part, Lansbury is not in love with television. She likes Murder, and playing Jessica—instead of her usual character roles—“has given me great freedom.” But the speed of television production bothers the stage-screen veteran. There is barely time for actors to learn their lines, let alone explore their motivations. After a quick rehearsal, the cameras roll. And this script is not one of her favorites. “I prefer the shows that are more dramatically valid. We’re playing this as light comedy. There’s a fine line in a farcical drama, and it has to be understood by every actor. There isn’t time, so we fly by the seat of our pants,” she says.

Lansbury also attaches a lot of importance to her appearance. She is frank in requiring that the lighting and camera work “treat her with care and consideration.” She has dieted and gone from a size 14 to what costume designer Al Lehman calls “an expensive 10.” And, in her travels, at least, she has exchanged Jessica’s L. L. Bean sweaters for more sophisticated designer clothes.

This is Lansbury’s series and things revolve around her. Everyone else is a guest star. For actors like Weaver and Lange, doing Murder is a good time. Lange recently married Broadway director Charles Hollerith Jr., and is busy remodeling and expanding their three small homes. She likes playing Charlotte, the middle-aged headmistress who had an affair with a younger man. “She’s realistic and contemporary,” she says. The slender Lange eats double helpings of pie a la mode off the catering cart. And between takes, she does a playful samba in her 4-inch heels. Similarly, Weaver, who lives in New York, sees his role as “my annual paid vacation to California. I go out to dinner and stay out late and get into all kinds of trouble.” But he shows up for work knowing his lines and delivering them in that deep, reach-the-back-of-the-theater baritone that delights the sound mixer. It will prevail over music, sound effects, even a plane overhead.

But for the other stars, especially those who used to have their own series, being a guest is gull of complications, adjustments and subtle agendas. Barry Williams, who used to be Greg, the oldest sibling of The Brady Bunch, plays Nate Findley, the cocky, womanizing riding instructor. Williams is now 32, lean, athletic, and good-looking. He would like to get action/adventure parts, but he can’t convince producers that he isn’t Greg Brady any more. This script calls for Nate to ride and rear a horse and to fight in a tavern, and Williams is looking forward to strutting his stuff.

The director, of course, is opposed to this kind of thing. If Williams is allowed to do the stunt, and is injured, how do they finish the show? “If he gets hurt, I get fired,” says stunt coordinator Mary Albee. The stuntmen are edgy, since it takes work—and mystique—away from them. But Williams is eager. “It’s better for the picture if I do it,” he insists, and the wranglers take him out to the barn to try out the horses. He rides well, they admit, but still . . . actors shouldn’t do their own stunts.

That night, during a rehearsal, the “rearing” horse stood up too high and fell over, throwing stuntman Steve Cremin. Cremin had the wind knocked out of him—as well as his pride—and was badly bruised. But, the biggest damage was to Williams’ chances of doing his own stunt. The horse had reminded everyone how dangerous it could be.

The next morning, Cremin arrived on location, dressed and bewigged to look like Williams. He moved a little gingerly, but he was ready to ride. And Williams stood on the sidelines sulking. Cremin took the horse through its gallop and its high rear three or four times. Then, finally, Williams was allowed to mount, gallop into the camera, do a low rear and then laugh wickedly. He looked dangerous and sexy doing it; much better, everyone agreed, than the stuntman. But the high rear we see on the air will be Cremin’s. In editing, it will be cut in with a close-up of Williams, who, till the end, insists he could have done it better.

By contrast, Thom Bray, who is built like a child’s stick-figure drawing, sees anything involving motion as a stunt, and he comes with his own personal stunt double, who even drives for him when the script calls for it. “I will get hurt,” insists Bray. During the first day’s shooting, he approaches Grauman. “I have to talk to you about tomorrow,” he says, matter-of-factly to the veteran director. “The script has me dodging a car. Either the stunt-man does that or you can get somebody else.”

Grauman is furious. “I don’t need you to tell me that. I look out for the actors,” he retorts. Bray walks off, unaware that he has left Grauman fuming. But Bray and his romantic co-star, Karlene Crockett, turn in charming performances, and he and Grauman are soon having amiable lunches together.

And then there is Doug McClure, the one-time “pretty boy” cowboy star of The Virginian. McClure is 51 now, a little paunchy and maybe a little worse for wear. He plays the not-so-bright sheriff on this show. Asked how he likes doing character parts, he says slowly, “Well, the book says I’m a leading man, but, I guess I should just be glad I’m working.” During breaks, McClure tells long stories of the old days, when he was on the cover of TV Guide and on the “Merv” show and ran around with Burt Reynolds. “When I come on the Universal lot now, sometimes I run into a driver or somebody who knows who I am. But mostly they don’t know me.” He is sometimes volatile. “It’s no secret,” he says, “that I used to do a little drinking.” At a roast a few days before, someone made a joke about it, and he is still seething. He retells the joke at lunch and challenges anyone to find it funny.

Lansbury keeps a sensible distance from all of this. She is cordial to everyone on the set, but most days she has lunch in her trailer with her husband, former talent agent Peter Shaw. During breaks, she retreats there to read or make telephone calls. She is not aloof so much as she is, well, English. After lunch on location one day, she settles into a camp chair and chats about marriage, children, and the plight of modern women with Lange, whom she considers an old friend. It is intimate, intelligent talk. When Lansbury is there, she is all there.

Meanwhile, the production winds on. Assorted technical problems arise and get solved, often by assistant director Joe Ingraffia, the harried intermediary between the production crew and the “creative” people. Ingraffia worries that they will “lose” the sun or lose the children (because of curfew rules) or have to pay meal penalty to the crew. He worries when the crane Grauman ordered isn’t available. Most A.D.’s become bellowing top sergeants. Ingraffia manages a certain grace. “You don’t know what worries I’m shielding you from,” he chides Grauman. One afternoon, while the crew is setting up a shot, Grauman, Weaver and Crockett are chatting in the shade. Just then Ingraffia comes up and says, “We’re ready in 10 minutes, Walter.” The dapper Grauman looks up and says, “Ready for what?” Then he laughs. “Don’t worry, Joe. We’ll make this picture. We always do.” ⬛

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