The Best of Murder, She Wrote
by Andrew Cobby
'Hey lady, take a hike!'
If you ever feel like committing murder, do yourself a favour and try and commit it outside of Jessica Fletcher's orbit. As the main character in Murder, She Wrote Jessica is a former school teacher who has taken up writing whodunnits after the death of her husband. She is very successful at this but it leaves her with plenty of time on her hands which she fills by interfering with, sorry, assisting, the police as they try to track down the latest murderer.
Created in 1984 by Richard Levinson, William Link and Peter S Fischer, Murder, She Wrote was a quality programme but this isn't surprising because Levinson and Link were also responsible for Columbo and Ellery Queen (I still miss Jim Hutton but that's another story).
The main strength of Murder, She Wrote is that it is completely unbelievable and, like all good things, it doesn't take itself too seriously. When Jessica approaches a suspect and asks if she can question him 'unofficially, of course' or when the benighted Sheriff Metzger says to Jessica, 'Hey, Mrs F, you wanna prove me wrong? Be my guest', short of the actors leering at the camera and winking, nothing more can be done to signal the ridiculousness of the whole confection. In real life, the suspect would reply 'Hey lady, take a hike!' (because Americans, you know, speak like that) and the sheriff would have locked her up for interference long ago, and probably thrown away the key.
The best episodes take place in Cabot Cove, a fishing hamlet on the Maine coast. They are my favourites mainly because of the supporting cast of William Windom, Tom Bosley and Ron Masak but also because it is difficult to dislike a place that has the chickadee as its state bird.
Angela Lansbury is marvellous as Jessica. She conveys just the right amount of nosiness and self-righteousness but also manages to come across as essentially decent. Lansbury has had a varied career. She appeared as Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack'd and she must surely have picked up some tips from such a formidable old lady. My first memory of Miss Lansbury was watching her in Samson and Delilah on a Saturday afternoon when I was a kid. Her baby face and exotic costumes did something to me that I was too young to recognise. Which reminds me, I wouldn't mind watching that film again, if only to see if Victor Mature's chest really is bigger than Hedy Lamarr's.
Tom Bosley played Sheriff Amos Tupper who, judging from Bosley's accent, I would suggest is supposed to originate somewhere in the deep South. I am not, and have never been, American but even I can hear that Bosley's accent is as suspect as those tartan pyjamas that Dr Hazlitt wears in Bite the Big Apple (and I'm not going to tell you who did it in this one but, if I were you, I'd keep my eye on the over-jovial policeman played by the great Eugene Roche). Dodgy accents aside, Bosley brought a folksy charm, honed by his appearances on Happy Days and Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, to the thankless role of the dim police officer waiting for Jessica to solve the crime for him. He left the series in 1988 to take on the title role in Father Dowling Investigates in which he played a priest tackling murderers, conmen and those who skip mass in the mean parishes of Chicago. He was ably assisted in this by the lovely Tracy Nelson, little Ricky Nelson's daughter, as Sister Steve.
When Bosley moved on he was replaced by Ron Masak as Sheriff Mort Metzger, newly arrived from the NYPD. I think he got the part because he had a slight resemblance to Tom Bosley, with a bit of Buddy Hackett thrown in, but I liked Masak. Not as whimsical as Bosley, he brought a harder edge to the role of the police chief. He had a more convincing accent as well. I have spotted Masak in an early episode, this time playing a notebook wielding police lootenant, and I'm glad that he made a good impression and was asked back on a regular basis.
The other regular in the Cabot Cove cast was William Windom as Dr Seth Hazlitt. He was the shoulder for Jessica to lean on, taking over from Claude Akins as handyman fisherman Captain Ethan Cragg who mysteriously disappeared sometime during the first season. Hazlitt was a bit of a busybody, constantly worrying about Jessica's welfare. A widower, you would have thought he was the ideal partner for Jessica but, perhaps wisely, this is never explored. It is a tribute to William Windom's acting skills that he could make a character like Dr Hazlitt, with all his faults, likeable. Like Ron Masak, Windom also appeared as a different character, a lawyer, in an early episode Funeral at Fifty-Mile which benefits from a great performance from Stella Stevens (mother of Andrew Stevens, who contributes a wonderful creepy turn in an early episode, Lovers and Other Killers) and a haunting, unexpected ending. Windom is a great actor. He appears in the first episode of Columbo as a pompous attorney who tries to have Columbo thrown off the case and his belt and braces performance as the opposing attorney in To Kill a Mockingbird is good enough to keep Gregory Peck on his toes.
One of the strengths of the programme is the big names it managed to attract as co-stars. Admittedly, as it is an American show, I am on less sure ground recognising some of the faces but it is always a pleasure to watch the likes of Chuck Connors, Doug McClure, Shirley Jones and Forrest Tucker ply their trade. It has also introduced me to actors such as Len Cariou and Ken Swofford, neither of whom I would have witnessed were it not for meddling Jessica. I used to love Chuck Connors in Branded when I was a kid. It had a memorable opening sequence of Connors being drummed out of the US Cavalry, having his buttons and epaulettes ripped off and his sword broken, for alleged cowardice. It had a great theme tune too about people thinking he had run away but, of course, he hadn't and spent the whole series proving it.
A memorable episode of Murder, She Wrote featured the man who just missed becoming a superstar in the 1970s, Michael Sarrazin. After They Shoot Horses, Don't They? he looked a cert to be jostling with Robert Redford and Paul Newman for the big roles. Who knows why one actor becomes a superstar while another, equally good, is reduced to supporting parts in TV shows ? In Sarrazin's case, I suspect it was down to bad career choices. The BBC used to regularly show The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, made by Sarrazin sometime in the late 1970s, and it got worse with every showing. Never mind, for our purposes, he co-starred with Lansbury in an episode called Murder, Plain and Simple. Set in Amish country, Sarrazin, still recognisable behind a wayward and unconvincing beard, played a hypocritical and adulterous church elder who regularly showed young Amish maidens the error of his ways. He ended up on intimate terms with the wrong end of a pitchfork and it was up to Jessica to sort it all out and prove that his killer was one of the maidens he had abused. This episode was also noticeable for one of the last screen appearances of grizzled Western veteran John Ireland, as the dim local sheriff. Sarrazin plays a more sympathetic role in an earlier episode, Joshua Peabody Slept Here...Possibly.
In another episode, Snow White, Blood Red, solid TV actor Barry Newman murdered several members of the US ski team with a crossbow, aided and abetted by Cora Beth Godsey (née Walton), wife of store owner Ike Godsey in The Waltons. The Radio Times doesn't record what Ike thought of this development but I'll wager he was so shocked that he even forgot to overcharge young Jason Walton for his sheet music. Some of Murder, She Wrote's plots were so far-fetched that you couldn't make them up, except that somebody did and was no doubt handsomely paid for doing so. Neil Patrick Harris, Doogie Howser himself, even turned up once as a delivery boy who witnessed a murder and then suffered the ignominy of the police not believing him. Thankfully Jessica did and, unless my memory has deluded me, the killer turned out to be the cop who had given the young lad the brush off. I don't think the writers could have been bothered to think up an original plot for this one as the 'cop as murderer' motif has appeared more than once in Murder, She Wrote and every other cop show you would care to name. You can't blame them really because, with over 200 episodes to write, it's inevitable that a never mind the quality, feel the width frame of mind would set in from time to time.
After about four years in Cabot Cove, the writers probably decided that they had driven down all avenues for murder in a small town and moved Jessica to New York City. They gave her an apartment and found her a job teaching creative writing and criminology in a college. In one memorable New York episode Jessica was embroiled in the search for the Queen of Tara Tiara which, as any student of Danny Kaye will tell you, is in the vessel with the pestle near the chalice from the palace. This instalment was memorable because it was directed by David Hemmings, who also appeared in an episode as an untrustworthy policeman caught up in a smuggling plot in an aeroplane over the Atlantic, and because it featured a couple of female detectives called Chadwick and Stacey, a not so knowing pastiche of Cagney and Lacey. I have no idea what was going on with those two but it struck a rare jarring note. Thankfully, the producers decided not to go the whole hog and have Jessica mingle with a bald detective called Wojak. While Jessica was in the big apple, the Amos Tupper/Mort Metzger role was played by the admirable Herb Edelman as Lt Artie Gelber. Edelman is great as the ex-husband of Bea Arthur's character in The Golden Girls and I also remember him, from my early viewing days, as the grown up half of Big John, Little John. He is one of those instantly recognisable and dependable actors who liven up dull shows and make TV viewing such a splendid pastime.
After the New York episodes, Jessica travelled all over the United States, visiting acquaintances and, well, you know the rest. I was going to write the great word 'contiguous' before 'United States' in the previous sentence but Jessica did put in an appearance in Hawaii, in the unbelievable crossover episodes with Magnum PI. I don't recall her ever visiting Alaska but I may be wrong about this.
The episodes outside of Cabot Cove are, in my opinion, the least satisfactory in the whole canon. It is easier to suspend disbelief for a murder in a small sleepy coastal town in Maine than it is for a murder in a big city. Jessica tends to be cast adrift in these episodes with only old friends who, crucially, the viewer has never seen before, for company. Without the ever reliable Amos, Mort or Seth offering support, there is not much warmth or consistency to these episodes. There are some episodes too when Jessica is clearly in danger of missing a deadline and, after a short piece to camera at the start, she hands over to her nephew Grady or another one of her good friends, usually Dennis Stanton or Harry McGraw, to do a bit of crime fighting by proxy. Old smoothie Dennis Stanton, played by Australian actor Keith Michell, was a reformed jewel thief who became an insurance investigator. McGraw, played by New Yorker Jerry Orbach, was a private investigator who proved so popular that he got his own spin-off, The Law and Harry McGraw, which was shown on ITV late at night. I have nothing against these two fine actors but my enjoyment of them is hampered by the fact that they are not Angela Lansbury.
Murder, She Wrote is a great title for the show. It succinctly sums up Jessica Fletcher, writer and sleuth - Agatha Christie and Miss Marple - rolled into one. Some of the episodes have great titles too – Broadway Malady, JB as in Jailbird and, my favourite, The Petrified Florist. I'd like to say that I don't know why Murder, She Wrote ended but even Sheriffs Tupper and Metzger could work that one out. When the show ended in 1996, Angela Lansbury would have been in her early 70s and I would imagine that Lansbury's age and the need for a younger, more affluent audience would have had something to do with it. A programme like this couldn't be made now but if it was, it would feature a much younger writer, probably called something dreadful like Paige Turner, specialising in potboilers in which the heroine ends up in bed with the murderer or, worse, turns out to be the murderer. The comma and past tense would be dispensed with as they are far too difficult to understand and the grisly end product would be called Murder She Writed.
If you ever get the chance to watch an episode of Murder, She Wrote, and there is no excuse not to as it can be found most days on one of the various incarnations of ITV, please do. Any episode is worth watching but if it's one from the Cabot Cove years, so much the better. You won't regret it.
Pointless I know, but as un hommage to Jessica Fletcher I intended to end this piece with a freeze frame of me smiling winsomely into the middle distance. I was managing quite nicely as well until my wife, assuming I had gone into some sort of trance, wrestled the remote from my grasp and threw it at me.
Andrew Cobby 2016 for Television Heaven