Murder, She Wrote is an American television mystery series starring Angela Lansbury as mystery writer and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher. The series aired for 12 seasons from 1984 to 1996 on the CBS network, with 264 episodes transmitted. It was followed by four TV films and a spin-off series, The Law & Harry McGraw. It is one of the most successful and longest-running television shows in history, with close to 23 million viewers in its prime, and was a staple of its Sunday night lineup for a decade. The series is also successful around the world.
Lansbury was nominated for a total of ten Golden Globes and 12 Emmy Awards for her work on Murder, She Wrote. She holds the record for the most Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress in a television drama series and the most Emmy nominations for outstanding lead actress in a drama series for Murder, She Wrote, with those nominations netting her four Golden Globe awards. The series received three nominations but no wins in the Outstanding Drama Series category at the Emmys. It was nominated for a Golden Globe in the same category six times and won twice.
Since the series ended in 1996, a series of four TV movies were released between 1997 and 2003, and a game created by Legacy Interactive was released for the PC platform in 2009. A second game was released in 2012. A spin-off book series, written by Donald Bain, continues to the present.
Murder, She Wrote might never have come about had producers Richard Levinson and William Link succeeded with their TV series Ellery Queen. That series folded after a single season, but Levinson and Link were still committed to the concept of a bestselling murder-mystery novelist who solved real murders when not at the typewriter. In collaboration with writer-producer Peter S. Fischer, with whom they had previously worked on Columbo, Link and Levinson changed the sex of their protagonist from male to female and transformed the character from a good-looking, absent-minded young pedant to a middle-aged, down-to-earth widow.
Murder, She Wrote was never pitched as an American version of the Agatha Christie character Miss Marple, contrary to rumors. The show was initially offered to actress Jean Stapleton, who turned it down stating that, after nine years of playing the ditsy but well-meaning Edith Bunker on All In The Family and Archie Bunker's Place, respectively, she did not want to be tied down to another television series. Doris Day was offered the part afterwards, and also declined.
Fischer, Levinson and Link thought Lansbury would be perfect in the part but had not dreamed that she would be interested in a television series. When she made it known she would be available if the right project came along, the trio of creators sent her the script and almost immediately, Lansbury felt she could do something with the role of Jessica Fletcher. WithMurder She Wrote debuting on Sunday, September 30, 1984, the producers were able to parlay their "mystery writer/amateur detective" premise into a 12-year hit for CBS. It also made Angela Lansbury, known previously for her motion picture and Broadway stage work, a household name for millions of television viewers.
The show revolved around the day-to-day life of a retired English teacher who, after being widowed in her early fifties, becomes a very successful mystery writer. Despite fame and fortune, Jessica remains a resident of Cabot Cove, a cozy coastal town in Maine, and maintains her links with all of her old friends, never letting her success go to her head. Exterior shots of Cabot Cove were filmed in Mendocino, California.
The show mostly starts with a little segment of what's going to happen in the episode and Jessica says "Tonight On Murder,She Wrote..." Jessica invariably proves more perceptive than the official investigators, who are almost always willing to arrest the most likely suspect. By carefully piecing the clues together and asking astute questions, she always manages to trap the real murderer, who, given the series' "special guest star" policy, was often played by a famous film or TV personality.
Murder occurred with such regularity in her vicinity that the term "Cabot Cove syndrome" was coined to describe the constant appearance of dead bodies in remote locations. In fact, a 2012 study of episodes found that Cabot Cove had a murder rate of 1,490 per million, more than 50 per cent higher than Honduras, which has the real world's highest murder rate.
Jessica's relationship with law enforcement officials varies from place to place. Both sheriffs of Cabot Cove resign themselves to having her meddle in their cases. However, most detectives and police officers do not want her anywhere near their crime scenes, until her accurate deductions convince them to listen to her. Some are happy to have her assistance from the start, often because they are fans of her books. With time, she makes friends in many police departments across the U.S., as well as with a British police officer attached to Scotland Yard.
In 1991, newly appointed executive producer David Moessinger and producer J. Michael Straczynski were brought aboard in an effort to shore up ratings. They moved Jessica to New York, and revitalized the show, bringing it back into the top ten in the yearly ratings. It was Straczynski who made her an instructor in writing and criminology, and is widely held to have most emphasized her role as a working writer, with all the deadlines and problems involved in that profession.
Following the 1991–92 season, Angela Lansbury became the series' executive producer after she and her husband's production company, Corymore Productions, purchased a majority interest in Murder, She Wrote from Universal Television, which remained as a producer and distributor. As the series entered the middle of the decade, it remained a Sunday night staple and eventually became the longest-running mystery series in television history.While the ratings for Murder, She Wrote had slipped slightly following its resurgence in 1991, it still maintained a loyal viewing audience. In fact, the first season that Lansbury served as executive producer saw another rise in the ratings, as Murder, She Wrote ended the season in the top five for the first time since 1988. For individual episodes synopses please refer to this subpage.
By the end of the 1994–95 season, Murder, She Wrote's eleventh, Lansbury began considering ending the series, as her advancing age became a concern (she had just turned seventy). However, CBS effectively made the decision for her that fall. After spending eleven years on Sunday, the network's longest-running weekly series (at that time) was moved to Thursday nights at 8 PM. This put the series in direct competition with the first hour of NBC's Must See TVlineup, which had been drawing the highest ratings of the week for any network for years. More specifically, Murder, She Wrote would be facing off against NBC's comedy Friends, which was entering its second season on the network and was given the 8 PM timeslot for the fall, and The Single Guy, a brand-new sitcom that NBC gave the coveted 8:30 timeslot between Friends and Seinfeld. CBS cited that Murder, She Wrote was "skewing too old" in the ratings demographics, as—while the series was still successful, having just finished the eleventh season as the eighth-most watched program on television—they were not gaining the valued 18–49 ratings demographic that is most desired among networks.
Despite protests of many of the show's fans, CBS refused to budge on the new timeslot. Friends had finished its first season (1994–95) in ninth place in the final Nielsen ratings. This situation was exacerbated further by the success of The Single Guy (which many attributed to piggybacking off of Friends), as well as another freshman sitcom, Boston Common, which debuted in March 1996 against the second half of Murder, She Wrote. As a result of these combined factors, Murder, She Wrote plummeted from eighth to fifty-eighth in the yearly ratings; the series lost nearly six million viewers as the audience was not willing to follow it to Thursday, which left CBS with little choice but to end Murder, She Wrote after twelve seasons in August 1996. To soften the blow, the network agreed to air several Murder, She Wrote movies over the next few years; the first was broadcast in 1997, with three more following in 2000, 2001, and 2003.
Angela Lansbury stated in May 2011 that she would like to make a comeback appearance as Jessica Fletcher.
- Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher (1984–1996), a retired English teacher who, after being widowed in her early fifties, becomes a very successful mystery writer.
- William Windom as Dr. Seth Hazlitt (1985–1996), the local doctor of Cabot Cove and one of Jessica's best friends. In season one finale Windom played Sam Breen, a lawyer who jointly murdered the victim in that episode.
- Tom Bosley as Sheriff Amos Tupper (1984–1988), Cabot Cove's sheriff at the start of the series. Tupper later retires and goes to live with his sister.
- Ron Masak as Sheriff Mort Metzger (1988–1996), a former NYPD officer who takes Tupper's place as sheriff in the mistaken belief that he would be living in a more peaceful place. In one earlier season episode, the actor played a cheap store owner in New York City who was in trouble with the law and was trying to get out of trouble by selling his business. He also played a police officer in in the first season, investigating the murder of an author.
- Michael Horton as Grady Fletcher (1984–1995), Jessica's not-so-lucky favorite nephew, who (through no fault of his own) always seems to get in trouble with the law. After many romantic disasters, he gets married later in the series. In real life, Horton is married to actress Debbie Zipp, who played Grady's eventual wife, Donna Mayberry. The two had been married for many years before working together on Murder, She Wrote.
- Jerry Orbach as Harry McGraw (1985–1991), an old-school private investigator who becomes friends with Jessica. Orbach was popular enough to garner his own, short-lived spinoff series in 1987, The Law & Harry McGraw.
- Len Cariou as Michael Hagarty (1985–1992), a British MI6 agent who would appear when Jessica least expected him to drag her into a dangerous case. Cariou had previously starred with Lansbury on Broadway in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as the titular character.
- Richard Paul as Sam Booth (1986–1991), the genial, ineffectual mayor of Cabot Cove whose main campaign promise is that he will do nothing.
- Julie Adams as Eve Simpson (1987–1993), the Cabot Cove real estate agent with a great love for men, both single and married, and the hobby of gossiping. She is a good friend of Jessica.
- Keith Michell as Dennis Stanton (1988–1993), a former jewel thief turned insurance claims investigator, who always solves his cases using unusual methods, and often sends a copy of the story to his friend Jessica afterwards. Many episodes starring Michell do not involve Jessica Fletcher or any other main or recurring character, and usually begin with Jessica introducing the story to the audience invoking the fourth wall.
- Wayne Rogers as Charlie Garrett (1993–1995), a disreputable private investigator who usually gets into trouble and needs Jessica's help.