Murder, She Wrote TV Guide cover story from December 1988

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Since January of 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 December 24th 1988 issue. (You can also check back to see my previous posts about the articles from March 1985, February 1986, and January 1987.)

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 posts, 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.

The article makes mention of the episodes “No Laughing Murder” (S3E18) (inaccurately referred to as “No Laughing Matter”) and “Witness for the Defense” (S4E3). It also references the TV movie “Shootdown“, in which Angela Lansbury starred in 1988. (You can stream the movie or purchase it on DVD.)

The main picture in the story is captioned: “In an episode entitled ‘No Laughing Matter,” Angela Lansbury is upstaged by a large group of guest stars. Counterclockwise from bottom left: Sheree North, Buddy Hackett, Lansbury, Beth Windsor, Arte Johnson, George Clooney, George Furth, Steve Lawrence and Pat Crowley.”

Shame on Murder, She Wrote

What a Crime! Look What They’ve Done to Angela Lansbury

The renowned actress ruefully points out that her guest stars get more dramatic scenes to do than she does

By Susan Littwin

If you expected Angela Lansbury—like Jessica Fletcher of CBS’s Murder, She Wrote—to live in a cozy New England clapboard filled with maple wood and pewter, you will be disappointed.

She lives instead in an area of rugged California hills and winding roads, where there are no sidewalks and where the chaparral and the sage could easily take over if the owners of its quietly expensive homes ever relented just a little. Her white stucco house with its weathered gray wood trim is surrounded by foliage and entered through a little atrium. Peter Shaw, Lansbury’s husband of 39 years, ushers the visitor into a light-washed, Southwestern-looking living room. The dining room is open to the kitchen, where Shaw makes fresh coffee. No servant or secretary is in evidence.

“Angie does the cooking,” he explains, “and she likes to talk while she works, so we removed the wall. We used to have this old house in Santa Monica that was built for servants. There was a bell under the dining-room table. I used to ring the bell and then get up and get the dessert myself.”

Lansbury, he apologizes, had a bad night. She had lunch with her nephew at a studio commissary. No murder occurred—as it certainly would have if Jessica Fletcher had lunched with one of her nephews—but the mayonnaise may have been bad and she got sick. Shaw seems concerned, but Lansbury appears, relaxed in jeans and blue shirt, perhaps a little pale but otherwise recovered.

Shaw settles us in the living room, the visitor with a cup of strong, fresh coffee and Lansbury with a soothing mint tea. The cups are almost hidden among the stacks of interior-decorating magazines. “I look through them for ideas,” Lansbury says. This house and the terraced garden that slopes behind it are her work.

She sips her tea and her color revives. Behind her on the piano are pictures of their sons, Anthony and David, and their daughter, Deirdre, and her husband. Family life for her has not always been the stuff that Christmas pictures are made of, but now they are all smiling for the camera, and the smiles seem real. This house is more than nest and refuge for her. It is her center, her creative focus, which is an odd thing to say about a woman who has had an outstanding career in theater and film and now stars in television’s top-rated dramatic series. But show business, she has learned, needs to be kept in its place. She doesn’t complain, but if asked, she speaks frankly about television.

“I need the responsibility of looking after things at home . . . because my work is a 12-hour day, and it has to do with a mechanical phase of my business. I’m a woman of the theater and of movies, and a television series becomes a habitual involvement over five seasons. It’s not real life.” And mystery writer Jessica Fletcher is not always a very satisfying role for an actress. “Jessica is a listener, a questioner. She’s a cerebral soul. She’s seldom emotionally involved in the plots. That’s up to the guests. They get to play the dramatic roles. I don’t mind. It’s fun. But you know, someone likened by job on Murder, She Wrote to my being a horse pulling a milk wagon, while I’m ready to run the Grand National.”

She contrasts Jessica with her role in NBC’s “Shootdown,” in which she plays the crusading mother of one of the passengers killed in the Korean Air Lines 007 tragedy. “This was a dramatic undertaking, and the sort of thing I never get to do on Murder, She Wrote.” But television, she says, is a “production-line process, like making slices of cheese. They have to be uniform and cut to size.”

She considers Murder a “very comforting show. The audience who watch our show know exactly the format. It’s like doing the Times crossword.” The show’s surprises, she says, are in its casting. She credits executive producer Peter S. Fischer for “bringing people out of retirement who normally wouldn’t want to work again but do it just for the fun of it and because it’s Murder, She Wrote.”

For her, the fun of the show often is discovering how the scriptwriters will get Jessica involved in the story each week. “She’s not a detective. She’s a writer. How does she happen to be there? . . . It’s a very interesting thought, isn’t it, that this woman that everybody likes so much has murder perched on her shoulder, like the raven.” She enjoys recalling an episode called “Witness for the Defense” that mocked her character’s penchant. “I was in the witness box, and Patrick McGoohan was saying, ‘My dear lady, how is it you have four nephews and three nieces all accused of murder?’ ‘But they were all innocent!’ I answered.”

Still, she is serious about playing Jessica well and protecting her from writers who don’t understand her. She won’t let them make her Victorian or narrow-minded. She campaigned successfully to change Jessica out of the tweedy clothes she wore in the show’s first year into the elegant designer clothes she has worn since. “People didn’t want to see me looking frumpy. Women didn’t and neither did men. . . . Anyway, she was traveling more. She was getting used to her widowhood. She discovered that she was attractive and that men paid attention. And why not? Her sense of romance was still in her life and that was very refreshing. I think people were very relieved to know this. Women wanted to feel this.

“I think that men tend to be preoccupied with young women,” she reflects. “Sexually, they can’t get over that desire to prove themselves, so that’s their hangup.”

And television, she believes, is dominated by “masculine mystique. They’re out there in their cars and motorcycles and helicopters, and the good guys overcome the bad guys. . . . I’m afraid that network television has completely ignored the needs of its audience in that it has put all of its money into this kind of derring-do programming.”

Now 63, and with just a season left on Murder, she would be ready, one would think, to say goodbye to television and its long workdays and sliced-cheese roles. But she surprises again. She would like to do a sitcom someday, perhaps after a rest and a play. “A sitcom is a piece of cake compared to dramatic television. They rehearse all week and do the show rather like a live performance on Friday night. It’s concentrated work, but it’s fun and bright and alive. It sounds as if I’m interested in it, quite frankly.”

But right now, on a summer morning, she is interested in her garden, and she takes her visitor on a tour. The slope behind the house has been terraced in four levels. Over there, she points are the vegetables. There are the roses, the dahlias, the marigolds. She has dug and turned the soil herself, and planted and weeded and pruned. “The first thing I do when I get home from work is come out here and see what’s coming up.” After 12 hours on a set, it’s nice to see your world blossom. ⬛

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