Murder, She Wrote TV Guide cover story from December 1992

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Over the past several months, I have been documenting the various articles about Murder, She Wrote that were featured in TV Guide magazine during the show’s original run. Previously on this blog, I have posted about the articles from March 1985, February 1986, January 1987, and December 1988. The show was featured five times on the cover of the magazine, and this blog post is about the last of these articles: the one that appeared in the December 26th 1992 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 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.

This article was first published when Murder, She Wrote was in its 8th season. After Angela Lansbury stepped back and appeared in fewer episodes in Seasons 6 and 7 (the two seasons full of so-called “bookend” episodes), Season 8 found Lansbury in the role of Executive Producer, while the old Executive Producer (Peter S. Fischer) left the show. As mentioned in the article, this marked a major shift for the series with several changes and modernizations—most notably with Jessica Fletcher’s move to New York City.

The article also discusses more of Angela Lansbury’s personal life and mentions several notable examples from her film/stage career. Specifically, it mentions her appearances in “Beauty and the Beast“, “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris“, “Gaslight“, “The Picture of Dorian Gray“, “The Manchurian Candidate“, and “Mame“.

The article includes images captioned: “Pulling the strings: Lansbury stalked by Herb Edelman in a scene from Murder, She Wrote” and “Almost an Oscar: Lansbury in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.'”

My Show, She Wrote

Angela Lansbury took control of Murder and made it shine again—but at a price: “I’m at the height of my power,” she says, “yet I feel trapped”

By Mary Murphy

Angela Lansbury has a toothache. A bad one. It’s so bad that on her way to work at 6 this morning, she was suddenly rushed to the dentist for a root canal. Now she’s in terrible pain. But is this 67-year-old veteran going to let a little tooth keep her down?

“Where’s my Motrin?” she asks. Never mind that it should be Bufferin—which she pitched on TV for two years—it’s her British accent, so crisp, polished, and sophisticated, that stands out. She’s sitting in a director’s chair on Universal’s Stage 25, massaging her mouth, surrounded by her crew. “We need to breathe more life into this next scene,” she says.

It’s late, and Lansbury’s already had, on top of the root canal: several rehearsals; script, wardrobe, and casting discussions; plus a phone call from the CBS brass. And her work-day isn’t over. “Watch the camera movement,” she warns. “Make sure we don’t step into each other’s lighting.”

The crew steps back, the cameras roll, and Angela Lansbury becomes America’s most lovable crime-solver—Jessica Fletcher. She fires her lines, never missing a cue. When the scene is finished, she goes back to her chair and motions to the director with a nod. “Cut,” he yells.

The technicians and assistants swarm toward her. “Was that OK? Do you think the camera moved in too close?”

“It was fine,” she says. “Time to move on.” This is Angela Lansbury at work: tough, vibrant, and very much in control of what goes on in the production of Murder, She Wrote, her long-running Sunday-night series on CBS. Indeed, watch her on the set and one this is immediately clear: Lansbury is nothing like the sweetly eccentric New England mystery novelist she portrays in the show.

“She’s the boss,” says one staffer. “She’s definitely the one running things now.” Yes. Angela Lansbury—TV star, Broadway star, wife, mother, grandmother—is the turbo-diesel powering one of the most successful shows in TV history. Last year, in a move that fast-forwarded her from aging actress to re-charged power broker, Lansbury took control of the show. She gave Jessica a New York apartment, a more modern style, and hired young writers and new actors—all while trimming the budget.

For years, she had wanted more control over the show. Yet she always stayed in the background, even cutting back her appearances to 13 episodes one season while executive producer Peter Fischer made all of the key decisions. “When Angie wanted to get her point across with Peter,” says her son David, “she would do it in a very subtle way. She would write Peter notes.”

But in 1991, when Fischer reportedly tired of the series, Angela got tough. Fischer left, and Lansbury’s input became emphatic, rather than subtle. This season, as executive producer, she’s been the hand guiding CBS’s top drama. The reward this year? In its ninth season, Murder is a Top 5 show.

“There were many naysayers in Hollywood about Angela’s taking over,” says Universal Television vice-president Charles Engel. “People were confused because Angela at one time said she only wanted to work four days a week. Now people asked, she wants to run it? Oh boy, does she want to ride this ship down!”

Instead, she righted it. “The show was tracking downwards,” notes CBS president Jeff Sagansky, who says he’s “amazed” at the show’s turnaround. “This never happens; shows that are a decade old don’t get stronger like this one has.”

But the show is stronger, and so is Lansbury. “Taking this job as executive producer,” she says, “has given me the clout I couldn’t wield in previous years. I used to be champing at the bit because I didn’t have control. I’m glad this locomotive is getting back on the track. It was too valuable to let it fall by the wayside.”

At a time in life when women are told they should be thinking “retirement,” Lansbury is moving at full speed. She still scores high on the Q ratings (which networks use to assess stars’ popularity). She was a smash last year as the voice of Mrs. Potts in “Beauty and the Beast.” She’ll even be grand marshal in the ’93 Tournament of Roses Parade.

And, more important, Lansbury’s learning to use her power. On Dec. 27, for example, CBS airs her TV-movie “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris”—a simple story of a charwoman’s trip to the City of Light. The film’s a far cry from today’s familiar women-in-jeopardy movies, and were it not for Lansbury’s clout and persistence, it would not have been made. “I dug in my toes,” she says. “I was really stubborn.”

Engel recalls another time when Lansbury’s mettle showed through. A young, muscular actor kept her waiting under hot lights while he pumped up. “She was furious,” says Engel. “She made sure we never used that actor again.” The actress confirms Engel’s account, and while she’s willing to indulge an actor “if I think he or she has some real talent,” she admits, “I do not suffer fools.”

Lansbury developed her survival instinct in her earliest years. “I came out of a very uneven and troubled childhood,” she says. “I lost my father when I was 9 and I had to be a strong right arm to my mother, who was an extremely sensitive woman, dependent upon people to help her.” Her mother uprooted the family and immigrated to the U.S., she recalls, “with nothing, no money at all. I was always forced to manage. I can remember being very, very depressed. But I had to grow up, snap, boom! Like that!”

The family moved to Hollywood, where Lansbury had her 18th birthday on the set of 1944’s “Gaslight.” Her role as Ingrid Bergman’s maid in the picture won her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. Oscar knocked again for roles in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” but the statuettes went elsewhere. She became known as a character actress but not as a leading lady. “I was always in makeup to play beastly women in their 40s or 50s,” she says. “My movies were usually stinkers.”

In ’47 she met husband-to-be Peter Shaw, like her an MGM contract player. “I was an actor who couldn’t act,” he recalls. “Angie said, ‘Peter, you can do anything you want in the world, but not act.’ She was the only one with enough guts to tell the truth. Bless her heart.” She left MGM in 1951, just as she and Peter were beginning a family (they have three children, their two and Peter’s son David from his previous marriage). Many thought then that the best years of her career were past.

She never gave up. “I always believed in myself, so I just redirected my path. I went into the theater.” And how. In 1966 she became a Broadway star as “Mame.” But then came an unexpected and troubling twist. In the late 1960s, around the time her mother was found to have inoperable cancer, Angela discovered that her teenage son Tony had become addicted to heroin. Her daughter, Deirdre, too, was having drug problems.

Like a tornado, Lansbury moved her family to Ireland, out of harm’s way. “Things were totally in disarray,” she says. “Everything was falling apart. I knew Ireland was where we’d be happiest.”

In retrospect, Lansbury says that the Hollywood climate may have contributed to her family’s problems. “But I blamed myself, too. Sometimes I say, what could I have done? I was at home a great deal during his early years until he was 13. But then there were great stretches of time when I was gone.” She pauses. “I don’t know how to tell anybody how to do it differently. But perhaps I should have made it my business to be more accessible to my kids.”

She’s certainly accessible now. The whole Murder production is a family affair. She had Tony hired as director on the show. Her other son, David, runs her production company. Peter Shaw, meanwhile, is “the watchdog over everything,” says Angela. Only daughter Deirdre—now a chef in L.A.—passed up show biz. Lansbury has wrapped her once-troubled clan around her in a warm, nurturing cocoon.

Lansbury seems to have everything she could want at this age—a series at the very top of its form, and a united family always with her. “In terms of power,” says one Hollywood producer, “she’s at a point in her career where she doesn’t have to flex her muscles to get what she wants. She just has to raise a pinkie.”

Despite her success, however, Lansbury’s future is hardly certain. Her series is very expensive to produce, and CBS has been ominously silent about its renewal for next year. In a backstage scenario that would perplex Jessica Fletcher, CBS execs secretly hope that Lansbury will agree to appear in a cheaper-to-produce, slice-of-life sitcom. “They want me to do a situation comedy at 8 on Sunday nights,” she says. But the same-time, same-channel, different-show concept leaves Lansbury cold. “This idea has no future,” she says, so a standoff persists.

But, for now, playing Jessica Fletcher has become a ticket to freedom—perhaps even to take Murder to another network should CBS fail to renew it. The irony amuses her: “Freedom? Not for me. You could say that I am at the height of my power. But I feel absolutely trapped. I can’t get out, can I?”

And if CBS murders Murder? “I’ll go to Ireland. Or to Broadway. Or who knows? Maybe Hollywood will finally offer me that leading role that will win me an Academy Award!” ⬛

1 comment

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing this article, Joanna! It really gives an unusual view of the production of the show. I love Angela, and I am grateful that the show kept going so if she had to make changes to do that I am glad. But this article glosses over the interesting points made by showrunner Tom Sawyer in his autobiography that the ratings were down in season 8 when she took over, and that they got angry letters from fans for the first time. In his book and in Peter Fischer’s, it’s made quite clear that while they cut anything Angela didn’t like, that the good story ideas necessary for a successful show came from the writers. The success does hinge on her but had the writing stunk it would have been canceled so it was not a one person show, it was Tom as head writer doing what Peter had done that turned it around in S9 imo, and he states it plainly. He says that he threatened to leave when they tried to cut his pay to pay Angela more and she agreed to pay him more to stay so obviously she didn’t think she could do without him. I prefer the first 7 seasons, and while I see that she needed to cut down on the work, by using cue cards and being in less scenes, her instincts on story were inferior to Fischer’s. Tom had to work extra hard to train those “young writers”, they were substandard, and they made continuity mistakes and wrote mysteries that were convoluted and hard to follow. He said he didn’t have time to rewrite them all! So despite the lower quality of many of the later episodes (and the younger actors) I still have favorites there.
    However she did what she had to do to succeed and I am glad she cared enough about the audience to work so hard to keep giving us a show for as long as she did.


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