11 Facts About Angela Lansbury's Hit Show Murder, She Wrote

Try to imagine the components of a hit television series. Certain elements would probably suggest themselves: a fast pace, youth for energy and sex appeal, a mix of comedy and action, and not too high a demand on an audience's attention span. In the 1980s, the "big three" American networks rarely strayed from safe bets, and an hour-long mystery series with a middle-aged star was anything but.

Yet within its first year on air, "Murder, She Wrote" was a hit for CBS. Described by The New York Times in its early days as a spiritual successor to past small-screen whodunits such as "Perry Mason," the adventures of mystery writer and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher became a network staple. Starring as Fletcher was the late Angela Lansbury, who attributed the success of the series to its format. "People find mysteries extremely satisfying," she told the Times in 1991. "There's a beginning, middle and end. You solve the mystery along with me. ... It's a perfect recipe."

The success of "Murder, She Wrote" did not deter other networks from chasing the youth market, nor their executives from claiming that was the only way to make it big in TV. But Lansbury's Fletcher defied conventional wisdom for 12 seasons before ending her run in 1996 (per the Chicago Tribune). After Lansbury's death on October 11, 2022, it's worth reflecting on the series and, as some would argue, how she was the secret to "Murder, She Wrote's" success.

It was the second stab at mystery by its creators

The creators of "Murder, She Wrote" were no strangers to the mystery genre. Richard Levinson and William Link were friends and writing partners since junior high according to The New York Times, and they were lifelong fans of mysteries. Their biggest accomplishment before "Murder, She Wrote" was serving as the creators and producers of the hit detective show, "Columbo." Between their work with the uncouth Lieutenant Columbo and the homely Jessica Fletcher, Levinson and Link tried to make a show out of Ellery Queen.

Ellery Queen was the pseudonym of writing partners Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee, who wrote 35 novels under the name between 1929 and 1971 (per Britannica). Besides being a nom de plume, Queen was the central character, a writer and investigator just like Jessica Fletcher. Levinson and Link's "Ellery Queen" premiered with a 78-minute pilot film in 1975. Set in the late 1940s, a gimmick of the show saw Queen (played by Jim Hutton) break the fourth wall by explaining the clues to the audience and inviting them to solve the case. A retrospective review by the Times was unimpressed with the gag or the series, which did not find an audience. However, it paved the way for the duo's next television success: "Murder, She Wrote."

It all came back to Agatha Christie

The immediate inspiration for "Murder, She Wrote" came when producer Richard Levinson happened to catch a movie on TV one night. Per The New York Times, that movie was "The Caribbean Mystery," an adaptation of an Agatha Christie mystery starring Helen Hayes as Christie's long-running detective, Miss Marple. Levinson and his writing partner William Link, already mystery fans, noted the good ratings "The Caribbean Mystery" picked up and were motivated to come up with a mystery series of their own.

But the third creator of "Murder, She Wrote," Peter S. Fischer, remembered things slightly differently. Writing in Christian Science Monitor, he said that he, Levinson, and Link were already talking to CBS about a mystery show when "The Caribbean Mystery" played. The initial concept for the series revolved around a retired male magician, but the network asked for a female lead. Fischer feared such a note would doom an already hard sell to audiences, but the ratings of "The Caribbean Mystery" gave him and his team hope.

Whatever the timeline for catching "The Caribbean Mystery" on TV was, the creators' accounts agree on one thing: their goal was to not build a series around Christie's Maple, or a character patterned after her. Instead, it would be based on Agatha Christie herself — an elderly mystery writer who served as a model for Jessica Fletcher.

Angela Lansbury wasn't the first choice for Jessica Fletcher

The character of Jessica Fletcher was inspired by mystery author Agatha Christie (via The New York Times). But Angela Lansbury was not the first name that came to mind to play Fletcher for producers Richard Levinson, William Link, and Peter S. Fischer. Their initial choice for Fletcher was Jean Stapleton, most famous to audiences for her role as Edith Bunker on "All in the Family," according to Christian Science Monitor.

Levinson's recollection to the Times was that Stapleton and CBS were both delighted by the idea, but that everything went wrong when the actress received the two-hour pilot script. It wasn't that the script was bad; Stapleton just didn't understand or take to Fletcher as a character. "I think," said Levinson, "after playing Edith Bunker she wanted something more sophisticated than this bicycle-riding widow from Maine."

Fischer remembered Stapleton being less enthusiastic from the get-go (via Christian Science Monitor). While she was always polite and did entertain the idea, she had other projects in development that she wasn't willing to put on the back burner for the series. Her withdrawal, however high her initial interest had been, meant that "Murder, She Wrote" had no star to support its development. Fischer thought that the project was doomed — until Angela Lansbury came along.

Angela Lansbury was a long time in coming to TV

These days, it's no strange thing to see major movie stars on television and vice versa. But in the 1980s, the big names in film were extremely reluctant to get involved with TV, let alone hour-long dramas like "Murder, She Wrote." And the icon Angela Lansbury was a Broadway and film star who had been turning down TV for years (per The New York Times).

The reluctance wasn't just a matter of the medium's reputation. An ongoing television series is a major time commitment, and the production of "Murder, She Wrote" would ultimately see up to 17-hour days. But Lansbury began dipping her toes in the TV waters when Broadway work dried up in the early '80s, and was willing to consider a series when she was sent two scripts: a sitcom and "Murder, She Wrote." Against her agent's advice, she picked the latter.

A proud character actor, Lansbury worried initially that the producers' request for predictability would be boring, but they insisted that Fletcher must be reliable and pleasant — and that Lansbury could play such a likable character without effort. She herself told the Times that she was attracted to Fletcher's sincerity. "Mostly, I've played very spectacular bi***es," she said. "Jessica has extreme sincerity, compassion, extraordinary intuition. I'm not like her. My imagination runs riot. I'm not a pragmatist. Jessica is."

Lansbury had her own ties to Agatha Christie

As noted, "Murder, She Wrote" was in part inspired by creator Richard Levinson taking in a TV adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, according to The New York Times. But Angela Lansbury came into the part with her own connections to the famed mystery author. The film Levinson saw, "The Caribbean Mystery," was one of Christie's Miss Marple stories, and Lansbury had played the part of Marple herself in 1980.

The Marple yarn she starred in was "The Mirror Crack'd," based on "The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side," and directed by James Bond director Guy Hamilton. When she made the film, Lansbury was 20 years younger than her character, but a retrospective review in Paste Magazine praised her work in the film and drew connections between her performance as Marple and her later work in "Murder, She Wrote."

Lansbury also played a supporting role as Mrs. Otterbourne in the 1978 adaptation of Christie's novel "Death on the Nile." Her performance there was used by Johnny Depp as a model for his take on Ichabod Crane in "Sleepy Hollow," directed by Tim Burton. Crane was reconceived for that film as a detective — much like Marple and Fletcher. According to the book, "Tim Burton: Interviews," producer Scott Rudin got Depp an autographed picture of Lansbury for his birthday during the production of "Sleepy Hollow." She signed it: "From one sleuth to another."

No one thought the show would find an audience

Nothing about "Murder, She Wrote" seemed likely to appeal to a wide 1980s TV audience. It was an hour-long, dialogue-heavy mystery series that needed careful attention for the mysteries to be understood. Despite its title, there wasn't violence, action, or sex. Co-creator Peter S. Fischer wrote in Christian Science Monitor that he and his partners wanted to make something they could feel proud of, but they were aware every step of the way that their show was a gamble and fretted over potential failure.

The gambles continued past the development stage. The show's pilot was a two-hour movie that CBS scheduled after "60 Minutes" on Sunday nights, a notoriously unstable time slot, per The New York Times. No one had confidence that "Murder, She Wrote" would fare any better at that time. "We were getting condolences before we even went on the air," Levinson told Times. "At best, we hoped it would be a marginal success." He, Fischer, and CBS were all pleasantly surprised when "Murder, She Wrote" became far more than that.

Lansbury fought for Jessica's character

While "Murder, She Wrote" had three creators, Richard Levinson and William Link had withdrawn from the day-to-day of network television by 1984. As Peter S. Fischer notes in Christian Science Monitor, he would develop concepts with Levinson and Link, but he would oversee the series if it were picked up. Once the show was up and running, Fischer in his capacity as showrunner found himself in weekly arguments with star Angela Lansbury.

According to The New York Times, the two fought because Lansbury had definite ideas about Jessica Fletcher and how she wanted her to grow. While the character was meant to be a warm and comforting presence, Lansbury felt that a writer and retired teacher needed to associate with people on a similar intellectual level as herself, which sometimes clashed with Fischer's desire that Fletcher not be too sophisticated. Caught in the middle was Fletcher's relationship with a boat owner and handyman who Fletcher regularly saw in the first season. He didn't make it to the end of the series — Lansbury's argument won out.

The star also resisted pressure from CBS, which at various times wanted to see Fletcher have either a sidekick or a romance. Lansbury objected to the former on the grounds that she couldn't portray an independent middle-aged woman if she had an assistant tending to her needs. As for the romances, she said the network's ideas would have made for too many would-be lovers week after week.

The show inspired a reggae hit

Maine is not the first place that comes to mind when reggae music is mentioned, and genteel middle-aged women who write mystery novels aren't the typical inspiration for reggae songs. But the popular Jamaican duo Chaka Demus and Pliers were big fans of "Murder, She Wrote" growing up, according to the Jamaica Star, and they decided to name a song after the series in 1992.

The subject matter for "Murder, She Wrote" wasn't anything to do with the series itself. It was inspired by Pliers' relationship with a young woman named Maxine, who told him that she was pregnant with their child. Six months later, Pliers told the Jamaica Gleaner News, there was no sign of pregnancy. Maxine never explained what happened, but Pliers guessed that she had an abortion. Despite the heavy subject matter, "Murder, She Wrote" became a hit in Jamaica and the UK.

Angela Lansbury missed out on the song's popularity on its first run. She went years without ever knowing it existed until she gave an interview to the CBC in 2019. Host Tom Power played the reggae song, "Murder, She Wrote," to get a reaction from Lansbury, and found her to be surprised and delighted. Chaka Demus, in turn, was thrilled that Lansbury liked the song. "It is a great feeling to know that this lady who is in her 90s, and is just being introduced to reggae, can make a statement like that," he told the Star.

The guest stars were key to the show's success

Writing in Christian Science Monitor, creator Peter S. Fischer said that there were serious concerns about the viability of the series when first developing it. One possible safety net was inspired by, of all things, "The Love Boat." The dramedy series was on its last legs by the early '80s, but its seven-year run had been sustained by a glamorous setting and prominently featured guest stars. While Cabot Cove, Maine was nothing like a cruise ship, Fischer latched onto the idea of featuring Hollywood luminaries on a regular basis, often several per episode.

It wasn't just a ratings consideration that made Fischer push for multiple guest stars. "If you have a special guest star and a bunch of nonentities, you give away the murderer," he explained to The New York Times. The more big names there were in an episode, the more the audience would be kept guessing about just who did the deed. Guest stars and supporting characters became even more vital to "Murder, She Wrote" during the 1990 season. Angela Lansbury expressed concerns throughout the show's run about the demanding work schedule and her increasing age, and she nearly quit more than once. To help ease her workload, that season only used her for introductions to stories featuring other detectives (per the Hamilton Spectator).

Cabot Cove would be a very dangerous place to live

A cozy little village on the Atlantic coast sounds like an idyllic place to spend one's life. Cabot Cove, Maine, the setting of "Murder, She Wrote," was just such a place. Despite its title,  the series wasn't bloody or violent and its tone wasn't grim. As the series lead, Jessica Fletcher was confident, kind, and unencumbered by angst or torment (per the Los Angeles Times). Were the town to actually exist, the crime statistics of Cabot Cove are such that anyone would pause before settling down there.

BBC Radio 4 (via the Telegraph) ran the numbers in 2012. Based on the number of murders committed over the course of the series, Cabot Cove would have the world's highest murder rate — coming in at 1,490 murders per million in a town of 3,560 people. Cabot Cove would also be more dangerous than the fictional version of Los Angeles seen in "Columbo," "Perry Mason," and "The Rockford Files," as well as the then-real-life murder capital of Honduras. Thankfully for Fletcher and the other residents of Cabot Cove, raw numbers need not affect the tone, logic, or life expectancy of fictional characters.

Angela Lansbury entertained a return as Jessica Fletcher ... for a time

"Murder, She Wrote" ended its run on CBS in 1996 after 12 seasons. It enjoyed unexpected success for 11 of those years, but CBS's decision to change its time slot badly hurt its ratings, a development satirized in the series finale (via The Washington Post). The end of the series wasn't the end of Jessica Fletcher, though. The first of many TV movies to be produced under the "Murder, She Wrote" banner and starring Angela Lansbury premiered in 1997 (per The New York Times).

Lansbury was always disappointed with the way "Murder, She Wrote" ended, according to Entertainment Weekly. Years after the series and the movies were done, she hoped to bring Fletcher and Cabot Cove back to the small screen. "I sort of do see it happening when I'm in a dream state," she said in 2011. Just three years later, however, Lansbury publicly reconsidered. When asked about a "Murder, She Wrote" revival by Zap2it, she confessed that she felt too old for the part. While Fletcher could be portrayed as an elderly woman, Lansbury felt it was best to keep the memory of her as middle-aged and robust. "I'm still pretty vigorous," she insisted, "but if I wanted to transform myself back into the woman I looked like then, it would be ridiculous. And I can't do that."