Murder, She Wrote was the mystery show America fell in love with before Stranger Things, before Dexter, and before every true-crime documentary on Netflix. In the '80s and '90s, Angela Lansbury played Jessica Fletcher, a retired English teacher who became a mystery writer and an amateur detective.
Jessica lived alone in Cabot Cove, a place where dead bodies seemed to turn up on the regular. Murder, She Wrote aired on CBS from 1984 to 1996. During the show's ninth season, it was the fifth-most watched show in America. Keep reading to find out behind the scenes facts about this wildly popular series. You might be surprised to learn that the cast and crew have a few mysteries of their own.
What's Up With The Title?
Murder, She Wrote may seem like an odd title for a television show, but the name of the show is actually a reference to Murder, She Said, which is a comedy-mystery movie that came out in the '60s. That movie is based on a novel written by Dame Agatha Christie.
Jessica Fletcher's character is based on Dame Agatha Christie, and her characters Miss Marple and Ariadne Oliver. Angela Lansbury actually played Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack'd which came out in 1980.
Shifting Time Slots May Have Hurt The Show
During the 12th season of the show, CBS moved Murder, She Wrote from its normal Sunday time slot to a Thursday time slot. Some people (including Angela Lansbury herself) believe that CBS executives moved the show in an attempt to kill it.
Friends had begun airing on NBC on Thursday nights by that time, and most shows that went up against Friends didn't stand much of a chance. Every other show that CBS put in Murder, She Wrote's original Sunday slot ended up failing miserably, so Murder, She Wrote got its slot back and it was aired on both Thursday and Sunday.
A Response To Friends
While Murder, She Wrote was airing against Friends, Lansbury, who was the executive producer of the show at the time, decided to make an episode that would poke fun at the popular sitcom.
She wrote an episode called "Murder Among Friends" in which a cast member of a fictional show called "Buds" was murdered. "Buds" was basically a parody of Friends. It had six main characters who hung out at a coffee shop in New York.
The Real Cabot Cove
Murder, She Wrote takes place in "Cabot Cove" which is a fictional town in Maine. Even though Cabot Cove is fictional, the show was filmed in the town of Kennebunkport, Maine, which is a real working inlet harbor. There are small hotels and seafood restaurants near the cove, which is a short distance from the main village.
In the pilot, the exterior shots were filmed in Mendocino, California. The cove in the pilot is actually the Jaws Lake attraction at Universal Studios.
A Long Time On The Air
For a period of time between 1993 and 1996, Murder, She Wrote was the longest-running American primetime scripted series on the air. The show rose to this status after Cheers, which began in 1982, ended in 1993.
After Murder, She Wrote ended in 1996, Married with Children became the longest-running scripted primetime series on the air. Murder, She Wrote is still the last drama to have held this status because Married with Children, Murphy Brown, Family Matters, and The Simpsons are all sitcoms.
Somebody Else Almost Played Jessica Fletcher
We can't imagine a better Jessica Fletcher than the one and only Angela Lansbury, but surprisingly, she wasn't actually the network's first choice for the role. Originally, CBS wanted Jean Stapleton to play Jessica. Stapleton is best known for playing Edith Bunker on All in the Family.
Jean Stapleton wanted to take a break from show business after the lengthy run of All in the Family, so she turned down the role. Later, Stapleton said that she though Lansbury was a perfect fit for the part.
The Long Feud Between Lansbury And Fischer
While you wouldn't know it from watching the show, Angela Lansbury and Peter S. Fischer (who was the co-creator and producer of Murder, She Wrote) didn't always get along. Lansbury felt like Fischer asked too much of her and required her to work long hours without adequate pay. Lansbury almost left the show over her disagreements with Fischer.
Eventually, Lansbury took over as executive producer and she agreed to stay on the show. That's a real boss move.
Jessica Fletcher Never Drove A Car
Eagle-eyed viewers may have noticed that Jessica Fletcher never drives a car in Murder, She Wrote. She gets around in a myriad of other vehicles including cabs, bikes, trains, and sometimes she hitches a ride in a friend's car. This is because Jessica Fletcher is supposed to be a younger version of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, and Miss Marple always jogged or rode a bicycle.
Also, because Jessica doesn't drive, she doesn't get caught up in any car chases, which would be pretty expensive for production.
Jessica Fletcher's House
While filming in Mendocino, California, Murder, She Wrote used the Blair House Inn Bed and Breakfast as the exterior of Jessica Fletcher's house. The bed and breakfast was built in 1888 for Elisha Blair and his family by Oliver Johnson, a local builder.
The production used the location so much that the V.I.P. room in the bed and breakfast was renamed "Angela's Suite." There's even a replica of Jessica Fletcher's bike in the front garden.
Supporting Characters Never Outshined Angela
Jessica Fletcher didn't solve all of those mysteries all on her own. She was aided by some colorful recurring characters, including Dennis Stanton (Keith Michell), Harry McGraw (Jerry Orbach), Charlie Garrett (Wayne Rogers), British Intelligence Agent Michael Haggerty (Len Cariou), and N.Y.P.D. Detective Lieutenant Artie Gelber (Herb Edelman).
Only one of these supporting characters was popular enough to warrant his own spin-off show, and that was Harry McGraw, played by Jerry Orbach. The spin-off only lasted for one season.
A Familiar Face For Lansbury
Len Cariou, who played undercover agent Michael Hagarty, had actually worked with Angela Lansbury before. He was part of the original Broadway cast of Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Len Cariou played Sweeny Todd himself and Angela Lansbury played pie shop owner, Mrs. Nellie Lovett.
Angela was reluctant to take the role at first. She told Stephen Sondheim, "Your show is not called 'Nellie Lovett', it's called 'Sweeney Todd'. And I'm the second banana." Sondheim ended up writing some songs specifically for Angela's character to get her to join the cast.
Doris Day Almost Guest Starred On The Show
The first executive producer of Murder, She Wrote, Peter S. Fischer, absolutely loved Doris Day. He really wanted her to appear on the show, so he pitched her as a potential guest star during the 1991-1992 season. When producers asked Doris Day if she wanted to guest star, she said yes, but with a catch. She had a bunch of demands and she wanted her son to receive a "producer credit with pay."
Universal and CBS agreed to pay her what she asked for, but they refused to give her son a producer credit, so she never appeared on the show.
Could Jessica Fletcher Actually Be A Serial Killer?
For a while now, fans have been speculating that Jessica Fletcher may not be as innocent as she seems. There's a conspiracy theory circulating around the internet that Jessica is actually a serial killer herself, and that's why there are so many murders around Cabot Cove.
Think about it, why would a novelist and a journalist always become so involved in the most gruesome murder cases? Maybe she was killing just so she could have something to write about in her books... It's definitely not canon, but it's interesting to think about.
A Record Number Of Emmy Nominations
Angela Lansbury was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series for 12 years in a row. She was nominated every year that Murder, She Wrote was on the air. Her 12 Emmy nominations is a record number in that category.
Unfortunately, she didn't win any of those Emmy awards. You know what they say though— it's an honor just to be nominated. We still think Angela deserved better.
Age Is Just A Number
It is still hard, even with today's modern thinking, for a woman over 40 to maintain a career in Hollywood. We're moving in the right direction, but studios are always in search of the next best (AKA young) thing.
Angela Lansbury was 58 years old when Murder, She Wrote debuted in 1984. The success of the show proved that women of a certain age really can carry a primetime drama. The next year The Golden Girls debuted and saw similar success.
The Murder Rate In Cabot Cove
The BBC has kept track of all of the murders that happened in the small coastal town of Cabot Cove. According to their numbers, the town had 5.3 murders every year.
That means that the murder rate for the town of 3,560 people was about 1,490 murders per million people. That's a murder rate that's 60% higher than the current murder rate in Honduras, where a murder or suspicious violent death occurs every 74 minutes.
A Boost In The Ratings
By the seventh season, Murder, She Wrote had fallen in the ratings. Angela Lansbury didn't like that her show was falling behind, and she thought that she could do something to fix it, so she took on the role of executive producer.
Lansbury made some big decisions about the show. She moved the story from Cabot Cove to New York City, and she gave Jessica some more urban flair. Those decisions turned out to be good ones because ratings were back up by season 9.
An Homage To An Old Friend
Angela Lansbury is very well-liked in Hollywood and she's always had a lot of famous friends. One of her famous friends is her Mame co-star, Bea Arthur. Jessica Fletcher's middle name is Beatrice as a tribute to Bea Arthur.
Also, Jessica's late husband's name also contains a reference to Bea Arthur. Bea's birth name was Bernice Frankel, and Jessica's husband's name was Frank. Bea Arthur died in 2009 at the age of 86. She died of cancer just two weeks short of her 87th birthday.
Another Familiar Face
Dame Angela Lansbury had worked with Jerry Orbach (who played Harry McGraw) and David Ogden Stiers (who guest-starred on Murder, She Wrote) before. All of these actors worked together on the 1991 Disney film Beauty and the Beast.
Angela voiced Mrs. Potts, Jerry Orbach voiced Lumiere, and David Ogden Stiers voiced Cogsworth. Beauty and the Beast actually premiered while Murder, She Wrote was on the air. What a coincidence! Talk about a tale as old as time...
Lansbury Shot Down The Idea Of A Revival
Murder, She Wrote was a super popular show, so you'd think a revival might be in order. Lansbury has decided she doesn't want to revive Jessica Fletcher, though. In 2015, when Angela was 90 years old, she did an interview in which she stated, "I think it would be a downer. In some way, we'd have to show her as a much older woman."
We'd love Jessica Fletcher at any age, but we do think that Lansbury has earned her retirement.