We are kicking off a new series: Murder, Mystery and Mayhem. Perhaps no person represents this theme better than Jessica Fletcher, the crime solver behind Murder She Wrote.
Airing on CBS from 1984-1996, Jessica (Angela Lansbury) is one of our longest-running sleuths on television, averaging more than 30 million viewers a week in its prime. The series produced 264 episodes and four made-for-television films. The title was a play on words from Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple story, Murder She Said from 1961.
Although it’s hard to picture anyone else in the role, Lansbury was not the first choice for the part; both Jean Stapleton and Doris Day turned down the role.
The creative team who worked on Murder She Wrote was the same team behind Columbo—Richard Levinson, William Link, and Peter S. Fischer. While Columbo’s tag line is “Just one more thing,” Jessica’s is “I couldn’t help but notice.”
Jessica lived in Cabot Cove, Maine. (Spoiler alert: the show was actually filmed in Mendocino, CA.) She was a widow and retired English teacher who becomes a successful mystery writer. Her first novel was The Corpse Danced at Midnight. Although she has no children, she has a network of friends and extended family in her small hometown. She had four siblings but only Marshall, a doctor, was seen on the show.
We get to know many of the town folk. Dr. Seth Hazlitt (William Windom) is the local doctor and one of Jessica’s best friends and a potential romance. Sheriff Amos Tupper (Tom Bosley) works with Jessica often on crime cases. Sheriff Mort Metzger (Ron Masak) takes over when Tupper retires and moves to Kentucky. Jessica’s nephew Grady (Michael Horton) seems to get in trouble with the law often despite his aunt’s influence. Jean O’Neil (Madlyn Rhue) is the local librarian. Sam Booth (Richard Paul) is the mayor and is voted in every year because he promises to do nothing and that is exactly what he does. Eve Simpson (Julie Adams) is the local realtor and gossip extraordinaire. Loretta Speigel (Ruth Roman), keeps up with Simpson’s gossiping and is a hairdresser. Ethan Cragg (Claude Akins) is a fisherman.
Of course, none of us would want to live in Cabot Cove because there was a huge number of murders occurring there over a twelve-year span. In fact, the term “Cabot Cove Syndrome” was coined to describe the constant appearance of dead bodies in remote locations. During season eight, Jessica rents an apartment in New York City to teach criminology and participate in more murder cases.
The police around the town never seem to learn. They are always ready to arrest the wrong person until Jessica solves the case. Some officers appreciate her help, knowing her skill for deducing the murderer while other officers dread seeing her show up at a crime scene.
Several characters who Jessica worked with regularly included insurance investigator Dennis Stanton (Keith Mitchell); private investigators Harry McGraw (Jerry Orbach) and Charlie Garrett (Wayne Rogers); British agent Michael Haggerty (Len Cariou); and NYPD detective Artie Gelber (Herb Edelman).
Cabot Cove was almost another character on the show. Viewers loved getting to know the charming town with a population of 3650. Jessica never drove a car around town; she biked or took a cab.
With twelve years’ worth of shows, it is not surprising that the guest star list is formidable. Just a smattering of stars include Ernest Borgnine, George Clooney, Neil Patrick Harris, Buddy Hackett, Janet Leigh, Julianna Marguiles, Leslie Nielsen, and Joaquin Phoenix
In its final season, the show was moved from its Sunday night slot with loyal viewers to Thursday night against Mad About You and Friends. The show went from 8th to 58th in the ratings and was cancelled. Although Lansbury considered retirement several times during the show’s airings, she was blindsided by the move. In a Los Angeles Times article, she was quoted as sharing “I’m shattered. What can I say? I feel very emotional about it. I just felt so disappointed that after all the years we had Sunday night at 8, suddenly it didn’t mean anything. It was like gone with the wind.”
Obviously, the show was popular with viewers staying on the air for twelve years, but it was also popular with critics. Lansbury received an Emmy nomination for best lead actress in a drama every single season the show was on the air. Unfortunately, she never won.
Often when you picture a crime solver, it’s someone who is young and sexy, such as the cast on Charlie’s Angels or Magnum PI. Jessica Fletcher does not pretend to be young or anything other than a middle-aged woman from Maine. But she does like to travel, she has romantic relationships with men, and has interests and a career. What you see is what you get. Perhaps that was the biggest reason for her popularity during those twelve years.
The show continues to do well in syndication, appearing on WGN mornings and the Hallmark Mystery and Movie Channel at night. Spend some time with the good folks in Cabot Cove and watch Jessica Fletcher solve a few murder mysteries. No one embodies murder, mystery, and mayhem more than she does.