It is hard to believe that Angela Lansbury was not the first choice to play Jessica Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote." CBS offered the role to Jean Stapleton, who declined. With all due respect to the talented Stapleton, only Angela Lansbury ("Gaslight," "The Manchurian Candidate", "Bedknobs And Broomsticks" and Broadway's "Mame", "Gypsy", "Sweeney Todd" and "Blithe Spirit") could have made Jessica such a vital and interesting character. With Lansbury as star, "MSW" became an enormously popular success; running 12 years (1984-1996) and earning Lansbury 12 Emmy nominations. Amazingly, and inexcusably, she never won.
The series begins with a well-crafted 93 minute movie titled "The Murder Of Sherlock Holmes." Jessica's adorable nephew Grady (Michael Horton) sends her murder-mystery manuscript to a publisher. It is published, becomes an instant best-seller, and Jessica becomes a overnight celebrity (Surprise!). A guest is murdered at a costume party, and catching the killer comes at great personal cost to Jessica.
Jessica is an American variation on mystery novelist Agatha Christie and Christie's crime-solving heroine Miss Marple. She lives in the quiet, fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine. But the series soon sends her off on a series of whirlwind adventures; in such places as Hollywood, Broadway, Washington D.C. and a Mediterrian Island. And everywhere that Jessica goes, a murder occurs. "MSW" employs a gallery of guest stars every episode, who appear as murder suspects and murder victims. Many of the weekly guest stars had previously worked with Lansbury.
Jessica is intelligent, observant, no-nonsense, fearless, and caring and compassionate when she needs to be-- with a strong sense of justice, of course. Her character is best described in the episode "Tough Guys Don't Die." When a judge marvels at her persistence and determination, Jessica modestly replies, "It is not in my nature to leave things undone." Although "Murder" is in the title, the series is, basically, a light-hearted and fun affair; with a great deal of humor thrown in with the suspense. In the episode "Hooray For Homicide", Jessica searches for an important clue that went unnoticed by others. A police detective says, "Tell me, Mrs. Fletcher, do you have any theories on Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance?" She replies, "There's no need to be sarcastic." In the episode "Tough Guys Don't Die," disgruntled detective Harry McGraw ("Law And Order's" Jerry Orbach) is not at all happy to have Jessica working with him on a murder case. Harry flippantly suggests that Jessica return to Cabot Cove and her needlepoint. She says, "I tried that and it put me to sleep. That's why I wrote my first book." Harry growls back, "I read your first book and it put me to sleep," Jessica instantly replies, "Well, that's your privlege," as she storms out, refusing to be insulted any further.
There are many memorable episodes. In "Lovers And Other Killers", Jessica travels to Seattle to be a guest lecturer at a university. Her much younger male secretary David (Andrew Stevens) is accused of the murder of a wealthy older woman. The plot goes in some rather interesting directions, and we are never actually sure that David, while not a killer, is not a con-man and a seducer. And is he really attracted to Jessica? Never fear; Jessica doesn't fall for obvious tricks. The episode "We're Off To Kill The Wizard" features a wonderful performance by guest star James Coco as the tyrannical owner of a house of horrors. In "My Johnny Lies Over The Ocean", Jessica pretends to be falling-down drunk in order to catch a killer.
The fan-favorite episode "Murder Takes The Bus" features all the elements of a tight, classic whodunit. Jessica takes a bus ride to Portland, Maine with her friend, the easily flustered Sheriff Amos Tupper ("Happy Days'" Tom Bosley). A thunderstorm erupts, a passenger is murdered. Suspects on this deadly bus trip include Linda Blair ("The Exorcist"), Larry Linville ("M*A*S*H") , Rue McClanahan ("The Golden Girls") and Michael Constantine ("Room 222"). Most of all, though, it is the charismatic Angela Lansbury who makes "Murder, She Wrote" so entertaining.