Murder, She Wrote is a classic television show of the 80s that still always seems to be airing on at least two or three channels every Saturday afternoon. Angela Lansbury starred in the crime drama as mystery novelist and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher.
Let’s take a look back at this classic mystery series with some amazing facts you may not have known about Murder, She Wrote.
20. Angela Lansbury was the third choice for the lead role
It’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Angela Lansbury as the sweet but sardonic detective Jessica Fletcher, but there was a time when she wasn’t the first choice to play the role. Not only that, but she wasn’t even the second choice, since multiple other actresses were asked if they were available first. Specifically, the two other actresses approached to play the part first were Doris Day and Jean Stapleton, who both turned it down for their own reasons. Day, for example, had stepped away from the spotlight many years prior, in order to maintain some privacy and focus on her charity work and animal rights campaigning.
As for Stapleton, she turned the role down because she didn’t want to take up another lengthy character run after appearing in All in the Family, another CBS series, for so many years. It worked out perfectly for Lansbury, who was looking to get into TV after a lifetime of film and theatre, and believed Jessica Fletcher was the perfect character for her.
19. There’s an entire Murder, She Wrote episode dedicated to mocking Friends
Murder, She Wrote premiered in 1984, and quickly worked its way up into one of the top five most-watched series on television for its time slot. From its inception, the show had always aired on a Sunday night at 8pm, and the timeslot suited it perfectly. However, CBS decided to make a drastic change for the 12th and final season, by moving the series to Thursdays at 8pm instead. Many were suspicious about this move, as it meant that Murder, She Wrote had to go up against competitors like Mad About You and Friends, which were quickly becoming immensely popular.
This move upset Angela Lansbury, who felt that the producers she had disagreed with throughout her career may have been trying to force the show’s ratings to drop before it ended. In response, the writers decided to take a jab at Friends with the episode ‘Murder Among Friends,’ in which a producer is killed after trying to get rid of a cast member who stars in a fictional television show called Buds. Funnily enough, Buds is a sitcom mainly set in a coffee shop and features a group of young and trendy twenty-somethings… that may remind you of something.
18. The lake in Cabot Cove was actually built for Jaws
Cabot Cove may seem like an idyllic place, with its wholesome residents, beautiful scenery and occasional wacky character. However, it has also been shown to have a few dark secrets, with murder, betrayal and revenge stories playing out around every corner. The residents’ seemingly unstoppable thirst for murder may not be the only dark threat facing Cabot Cove.
The beautiful harbour that we are shown multiple times is actually a shot of Universal Studios Hollywood, specifically ‘Jaws Lake’. That’s right, the beautiful cove from which Jessica Fletcher’s home gets its name is actually the setting of an abandoned theme park ride. Huge animatronic sharks used to leap out of the lake and swim towards the boats that would sail out on it, so who knows what’s still there under the surface?
17. The title was inspired by a Miss Marple story
One author in particular inspired the show’s title of Murder, She Wrote – Agatha Christie, whose famous book character Miss Marple, herself an inspiration for Jessica Fletcher, featured in a 1961 movie titled Murder She Said. Miss Marple is another older female amateur detective, who manages to get away with things and crack the case due to most people regarding her as harmless. Fletcher and Murder, She Wrote were both created to evoke a classic Miss Marple book, and to hopefully have the same kind of appeal as Agatha Christie’s mystery classics.
Marple is an old character, however, and so it’s not surprising that she has been portrayed on-screen more times than Jessica Fletcher. However, it is actually Fletcher, rather than Agatha Christie’s Marple, who holds the Guinness World Record for ‘most successful amateur sleuth’. With 264 individual episodes and four TV movies under her belt, Jessica’s solved far more cases than Miss Marple ever did, either in her books or on screen. Nice!
16. Lansbury almost left the show in season five after falling out with a producer
Jessica’s known for sticking to her guns, and for not taking no for an answer if she thinks that she’s doing what is right. Angela Lansbury’s attitude on the set of Murder, She Wrote was similar, with her constantly standing up for her rights and speaking out against what she considered to be unfair treatment. That led to some serious in-house rivalries with producers, specifically with Peter S. Fischer, with whom Lansbury did not get along with at all.
Lansbury constantly bemoaned being overworked as a result of Fischer’s scheduling, while Fischer believed that the actress was making too many changes to her character.The feud led to Lansbury begging to break contract and leave the role, with the finale of season five being written to function as her exit from the show. However, we all know that Murder, She Wrote managed to forge ahead until its 12th season, so it’s no surprise that the studio eventually managed to smooth things over and convince their star to come back.
15. The season five finale had to be rewritten at the last minute when Lansbury decided to stay
Despite Lansbury’s threat to quit the show, Studio CBS obviously needed the hugely successful detective series to continue airing. The CBS execs tried hard to placate their star, and eventually managed to temper down tensions and convince her to stay. Of course, this meant that the entire season five finale had to be rewritten at the last minute, which can hardly be considered by-the-book show running! Originally, season five was set to finish with Fletcher closing the crime book she was writing and winking at the camera from the cozy living room of her house.
When the series was amended, this sequence was taken out, along with any other references to the finale being a permanent end to the series. It also marked the transition into a new phase of the series where Lansbury felt less overworked, as she sometimes only had to be available to bookend certain episodes which focused on other characters instead.
14. The show takes place in the same universe as Magnum, P.I.
Murder, She Wrote isn’t a part of some sprawling connected universe, but it does have a high-profile crossover under its belt. Specifically, Jessica Fletcher appeared in an episode of Magnum, P.I., another CBS crime drama, starring Tom Selleck, that ran from 1980 to 1988. Jessica appears in an episode of the hit series alongside Selleck’s character Thomas Sullivan Magnum III, helping him to solve a case whilst she is in Miami.
The crossover was a strategic move on the part of CBS, who believed that the appearance of Fletcher could boost Magnum, P.I.’s flagging ratings. The ploy worked, as Magnum, P.I.’s ratings did indeed fare better for the rest of the season, mostly thanks to the appearance of Cabot Cove’s favourite novelist. However, the ratings soon dropped off again, and Magnum, P.I. was unfortunately cancelled by CBS not long after.
13. It was Lansbury’s idea to relocate Jessica to New York City after a seventh season ratings slump
Despite Murder, She Wrote’s reputation as a series that was beloved from beginning to end, there were points where its popularity did begin to dip. Specifically, by the seventh season it seemed like interest in the formula was on the decline, with ratings lower than they had been the previous season. Thankfully, Lansbury took it upon herself to make sure that the series would not stagnate and took over as a new executive producer.
She made several big changes to the setting and to the character of Jessica Fletcher, with one of the biggest two being moving her to a new house in New York. As well as relocating Jessica Fletcher from the quiet Cabot Cove to the bustling New York City, Lansbury also allowed the character to become more fashionable and more in touch with the youth. The big city, snappy dresser and more ‘in touch with the kids’ version of Fletcher was an instant hit, and revitalised interest in the series as planned.
12. It’s one of the longest-running primetime dramas ever
Even now, many decades after it has finished running, Murder, She Wrote is one of the longest-running scripted primetime drama series the US has ever known. With 22 seasons and a start date of 1999, the current first-place titleholder of longest-running television show is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – but Murder, She Wrote is not far behind. Murder, She Wrote had 264 episodes across its 12-season run, as well as four TV movies.
Not only that, but Angela Lansbury really does carry the drama, since she appears in 263 of those episodes, and all four movies. That means that Jessica Fletcher appears in 200 more episodes than the next most recurring Murder, She Wrote part. For those who are curious, the next most popular character is Fletcher’s friend Dr. Seth Hazlitt, who appears in over 50 episodes.
11. The murder rate in Cabot Cove would be one of the highest in the world
Cabot Cove is established to be a small coastal town in Maine, which makes it seem like the perfect nook for a former teacher like Jessica Fletcher to retire to. However, far from being the quiet and idyllic place you would expect from the opening titles, it turns out Cabot Cove is one of the worst places in the world to live. The reason why is quite simple: compared to everywhere else on the planet by available statistics, Cabot Cove’s crime rate is out of control!
The tiny town has a huge amount of murders proportional to its population size, making it the last place anyone should want to move. According to the BBC, Cabot Cove had roughly 5.3 murders every year, making the murder rate for the town of 3,560 people about 1,490 murders per million people. In case you were wondering, that makes the murder rate about 60% higher than Honduras, a country where a violent death occurs almost once an hour.
10. You can buy Murder, She Wrote books written by ‘Jessica Fletcher’
The whole premise of Murder, She Wrote is that Jessica Fletcher is a retired teacher and a current crime writer who has accidentally stumbled into solving real crimes. However, despite her background as a writer being the whole reason that she can solve case after case, we don’t actually get to see a whole lot of Fletcher’s books. Sure, a number of characters reference their favourites throughout the show, and we often see Fletcher sitting at her typewriter.
However, we don’t get to hear a lot of her work, which is why it is so cool that you can now buy the collected works of Jessica Fletcher in full. There are over 50 of Jessica Fletcher’s books available to buy right now, even if the titles may not match the books that we see throughout the show. Though the spines all say Jessica Fletcher, in truth over three different ghostwriters have lent their words to the series, with more to come in 2021.
9. The series is full of pre-fame celebrity cameos
Something that several long-running American TV shows have in common is that they often feature actors in small roles who would later go on to huge success. Just like ER or Law and Order, several small or featured roles in Murder, She Wrote went to actors who weren’t yet superstars, but would go on to be. Most well-known is probably future Friend Courteney Cox, who appears in the bizarre, circus-themed two-parter, Death Stalks the Big Top.
Cox plays Fletcher’s niece, who receives a present from the father she thought was dead on the eve of her wedding. Cox appeared in the show a year before receiving her first recurring TV role, and eight years before her breakthrough role on Friends. Another famous actor to appear in the series is George Clooney, who actually spent much of the 80s guest-starring in different television shows. In Murder, She Wrote, Clooney plays the son of a stand-up comic who is in love with the daughter of a rival stand-up comic, in what may be a much pettier version of Romeo and Juliet.
8. One fan theory states that Fletcher is a serial killer
There’s no denying that when it comes to shows about murder mysteries and crime dramas, Murder, She Wrote is on the zanier end of the spectrum. Nothing is shot in grisly detail, the killer tends to derive from a wacky archetype, and the set-ups for the murders are often over-the-top and unbelievable. An explanation for this light-hearted approach is that the show’s target audience was mostly older women, who would be more engaged by a fluffier approach to the murder mystery, rather than cold-hearted killers. However, many fans have actually offered a different explanation: that Jessica Fletcher has been behind the murders the whole time.
This popular fan theory states that Fletcher may have become so obsessed with murder mysteries that writing them is no longer enough for her, and so she has become the killer herself, framing everyone around her by weaving clever stories. Why else would the murders follow her everywhere, even when she’s trying to hang out with family or doing book events in other cities? Makes you think.
7. Doris Day almost starred in a couple of episodes but producers balked at her extravagant demands
We’ve already discussed how Doris Day was one of many actresses casting directors approached to play Jessica Fletcher. Part of the reason she was asked to take the role was that Peter S. Fischer, a producer on the show, idolised Doris Day and considered her to be one of the best American actresses of all time. It was therefore no surprise when later on the same producer asked Day through a mutual friend if she would like to come out of retirement in order to guest star in a couple of episodes of Murder, She Wrote.
Surprisingly, the actress agreed to appear in the show, as long as it took less than two weeks for her to shoot her entire part. Unfortunately, the episodes set to feature Day were never actually shot, thanks to producers being unable to agree to one of her demands. Specifically, Day wanted her son to have a producer credit for the episodes she appeared in and, crucially, she wanted her son to be paid. The producers working on the show agreed that this was a demand too far, and so Day never appeared.
6. The show features several of Lansbury’s theatre pals
Lansbury gaining an executive producer credit on Murder, She Wrote allowed her to change up more than just Jessica Fletcher’s wardrobe. It also meant she had more control over who was cast in the show, meaning she could reach out to many of her former theatre colleagues. Many parts went to people that Lansbury had previously worked with during her theatre days, with the most famous example being Len Cariou. Cariou starred opposite Lansbury in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of oneFleet Street, playing Sweeney Todd, a killer if there ever was one, to her Mrs Lovett.
In Murder, She Wrote, Cariou played Michael Hagarty, an international man of mystery who is heavily implied to be a current or former MI-6 spy. Hagarty constantly involves Fletcher in mysteries that involve international drama or intrigue, making his arrival a sure sign of an exciting episode to come.
5. Angela Lansbury was only being offered maid and older relative roles before the series came along
When Murder, She Wrote debuted in September of 1984, Angela Lansbury was already 58 years old. Needless to say, part of the reason the series was so successful was that it was unusual to see an older woman be such an active protagonist, or even a protagonist at all. Lansbury had been looking to get into TV for a while before she was offered the part of Jessica Fletcher, but she had not yet committed to appearing regularly on any programme.
Part of the reason for her hesitancy was that she felt she was not being offered roles suited to her calibre. Instead, the veteran actor was constantly being offered parts that consisted of her playing the maid or an older relative of the protagonist. Murder, She Wrote offered Lansbury the first role she felt was worthy of her talent, which explains why she stuck with the show for so long.
4. The series finale is one big jab at CBS
Though Murder, She Wrote had been a surefire hit for CBS for a long time, by 1996 the writing was on the wall. It was clear that the network was beginning to deprioritise and phase out the show when they changed its timeslot. Network executives moved the show in order to force it to compete with other, more popular shows such as Friends. This did not escape the notice of Angela Lansbury and the other producers, who decided that their last episode should be a jab at the network’s lack of loyalty.
The last episode of Murder, She Wrote was called Death by Demographics, and focused on a series of murders at a radio station in San Francisco. The conflict revolved around the radio executives changing their line-up to more accurately reflect the tastes of their younger listeners…. sound familiar?
3. Jessica probably can’t drive
As a murder mystery novelist and amateur detective, Fletcher is shown to have a lot of skills throughout Murder, She Wrote. She is shown to be adept at talking herself out of trouble, quickly disguising herself to avoid getting caught, and even finding obscure clues and loopholes in legal documents. With that said, there are also several skills that Jessica does not seem to have, such as the ability to stay out of trouble.
She’s also constantly seen riding bikes or trains, or taking taxis, leading some to theorise that she cannot drive a car. It makes sense that Fletcher would be unable to drive, as it doesn’t seem necessary to do so in the tiny Maine coastal town in which she resides. Jessica has lived in the town of Cabot Cove for her whole life, so she’d never have needed to own a car, which probably became a problem when she moved to New York in later seasons.
2. Jessica’s maiden name pays homage to Lansbury’s mother
Though Angela Lansbury began as just the lead actor on Murder, She Wrote, as the show progressed she was granted more and more creative control. By the series’ conclusion, the show’s star had been granted full-blown executive producer status, giving her total control over her role. As well as making major decisions about where Fletcher would live, how she’d dress and who she’d interact with, Lansbury also added more personal touches.
Specifically, it was revealed that Jessica’s maiden name was Macgill, which was Lansbury’s way of paying tribute to her family. This little detail was taken from Angela Lansbury’s real-life mother Moyna Macgill, a successful stage, film and television actress. Macgill was the reason that Lansbury moved to America at a young age, which enabled her own Hollywood film career and led to her becoming a star in her own right.
1. Lansbury was opposed to a reboot, calling an older Fletcher “a downer”
Angela Lansbury sadly passed away in October 2022 at the age of 96, only a few days before her 97th birthday. Incredibly, Lansbury was still active as an actor until her death, which meant that hopes for more Murder, She Wrote were never truly quelled. The show’s contemporary, Magnum, P.I. was rebooted in 2018, and so-called ‘true crime’ projects have abounded in recent years.
However, even before Lansbury’s death firmly closed the door on a return as Jessica Fletcher, she’d long since played down the chances of a revamp. “I think it would be a downer,” she said in a 2015 interview. “In some way, we’d have to show her as a much older woman.”