Murder She Wrote: Cabot Cove, the Murder Capital of the World

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Photo: irishtimes.com

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.

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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.

Remembering William Christopher

I wanted to pay a tribute to William Christopher, who passed away December 31, 2016, exactly one year after Wayne Rogers, one of his co-workers on the show M*A*S*H.

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Christopher was born in Evanston, Illinois October 20, 1932. Growing up in that area, he attended New Trier High School in Winnetka, the same high school as Rock Hudson.  His family’s genealogy apparently included Paul Revere. Ironically, his grandmother hoped he would go into the ministry like his grandfather who was the founder of the First Methodist Church in Chicago, and in some ways, he did. Christopher went to college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, graduating with a BA in Drama, focusing on Greek Literature. (In the last episode of M*A*S*H, Father Mulcahy wears a Wesleyan sweatshirt.) He participated in fencing, soccer, and the glee club in college.  Connecticut was also where he met his wife Barbara on a blind date.  They married in 1957 and later adopted twin boys, John and Ned.

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Building on his theater experience which began with him playing a groundhog in the third grade, he moved to New York.  Eventually he made his Broadway debut in Beyond the Fringe where he worked with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Not long after, he moved to California to continue acting.

He began his work in television in 1965 appearing in 12 O’Clock High. For the next seven years, he worked regularly appearing in Hank in 1965, The Patty Duke Show in 1966, 2 appearances in The Andy Griffith Show in 1965 and 1966, Death Valley Days in 1966, four separate episodes of Hogan’s Heroes from 1965-68, Gomer Pyle where he was in 16 episodes from 1965-8, That Girl in two episodes as Chippy Dolan, The Virginian in 1971, Alias Smith and Jones in 1971, Insight in 1972, and 4 shows of Nichols from 1971-2.

Along with his television roles, he appeared on the big screen during this period. His first movie was Fortune Cookie in 1966 where he played an intern, The Perils of Pauline in 1967 as a doctor, The Private Navy of Sargent O’ Farrell in 1968 as Private Jake Schultz, The Shakiest Gun in the West in 1968 as a hotel manager, and With Six You Get Egg Roll in 1968. With Six You Get Egg Roll was Doris Day’s last movie before she moved into television and then retired. After playing so many military and religious roles, this one was out of character as he played a hippie Zip Cloud along with future M*A*S*H member Jamie Farr.wc6

In 1972 he got his big break, being cast as Father Mulcahy in the television version of M*A*S*H. George Morgan, who was cast in the pilot, was replaced and Christopher received the role. Morgan appeared in four series and three movies before the pilot, but only two other series after. M*A*S*H was on the air from 1972-1983, and Christopher was in 213 of the 251 episodes. Fans loved the goodness Father Mulcahy displayed, along with his humanness when the inhumanity of war tried his patience and frustrated him. Some of his best lines from the show included:

“This isn’t one of my sermons; I expect you to listen.”

“Klinger, how’d you like the last rites…and a few lefts!”

“I think the world of Colonel Potter. He’s a good Christian – yet hardly dull at all.”

“Remember what the good book says: Love thy neighbor, or I’ll punch your lights out!”

While he was part of the M*A*S*H cast, he appeared on other series including Columbo and Movin’ On in 1974, Lucas Tanner, Karen, and Good Times in 1975. Like so many of the stars we meet in this blog, he was on The Love Boat in four episodes from 1981-4. He appeared again on the big screen in the movie Hearts of the West in 1975 as a bank teller. He also made a TV movie, For the Love of It in 1980.

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In 1983, the series After MASH debuted, and Christopher reprised his role of Father Mulcahy along with Harry Morgan as Dr. Sherman Potter, Jamie Farr as Klinger and Gary Burghoff as Radar. The show was not a great success and ended after 30 episodes.

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Christopher never had another recurring role in a television show, but he continued to work in the business appearing in Murder She Wrote in 1985, CBS Summer Playhouse in 1987, The Smurfs 6 times from 1984-88, The New WKRP in Cincinnati in 1993, Lois and Clark: Adventures of Superman in 1997, Diagnosis Murder, Team Knight Rider, and Mad About You in 1998. His last television role was in 11 episodes of Days of Our Lives where he played a priest. In 1987 he made his second TV movie, The Little Troll Prince.

During the years of 1975-2011 he also appeared on several game shows, talk shows, and M*A*S*H-related specials and reunions. In 1994 he made his last movie, Heaven Sent.

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He continued his love of theater touring the country with Jamie Farr in The Odd Couple in the mid-1990s. He also toured with the Church Basement Ladies in 2008-9.

Christopher was generous with his time, helping to raise money for the National Autistic Society (NAS).  The organization was near and dear to his heart because his son Ned suffers from autism. He and his wife wrote a book in 1985, Mixed Blessings, about their experience with their son.

 

William Christopher is revealed to be a very nice man liked by everyone who worked with him.  He was married to Barbara for the rest of his life, was a good family man, generous in working with the NAS, and had a full career.

After Christopher died, Alan Alda tweeted “His pals from #MASH miss Bill powerfully. His kind strength, his grace and gentle humor weren’t acted. They were Bill.”

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Jamie Farr summed it up best in his tribute to his friend and co-worker:

We are all devastated by our beloved Bill’s passing. I have known him for over 50 years. During the 1960s we lived in the same neighborhood in Studio City. My Joy and I would see him and his wife Barbara going for walks as we were going for walks. Bill and I did the very last Doris Day movie together, “With Six You Get Egg Roll.” We were both cast in the tv series “M*A*SH” at almost the same time. He was a gentle soul and in my opinion probably the most underrated actor of all of us on the show. He was wonderful. During between set ups for camera angles Bill would read his Homeric book in Homeric Greek. He was a real egg head. He and his Barbara traveled the world and he would try to learn the language of the countries they were going to visit. He went to Egypt one year and tried his Arabic on me. He was better than I was. We used to imitate Bill on the set using his high pitched voice. One time he came down with hepatitis and when he returned to the series we had his actor’s chair painted yellow. Bill and I did a National Tour of the play “The Odd Couple” with Bill portraying Felix and me doing Oscar, Bill was at one time on the Board of the Devereaux Foundation for Autistic Children. It was a real honor to have had him and Barbara as friends and a great honor to have shared the tv screen with this gracious, talented and charming soul. May his memory be eternal. Rest in Peace Father Mulcahy.