by Deborah Harter Williams
In the pantheon of great TV mystery series Murder She Wrote stands out. The longest running mystery show on television until surpassed by Law & Order, it scored in the top-fifteen of all shows for eleven of its’ twelve seasons and is still beloved in reruns around the world.
After the series ended there were four TV movies, multiple spin-off books and a PC game. Another game is due next month and Murder, She Wrote: The Fine Art of Murder, by Donald Bain just received a Lovey Award at the Love Is Murder Conference in Chicago. Jessica lives on while Angela Lansbury has returned to Broadway (2007 Deuce, 2009 Blithe Spirit, 2010 A Little Night Music). After all she was only 58 when she became J.B. Fletcher.
You often hear, “Why don’t they do another Murder She Wrote?” or “Why don’t they bring back Murder She Wrote?” Some say that was the intent with Castle, which is sometimes referred to as Murder, He Wrote. The great crime is that MSW was canceled while being the eighth-most watched program on television. The CBS reason for ending the show: its audience “skewed too old.” Perhaps to prove that point they temporarily moved the show to compete with Friends on Thursday night. Predictably the ratings dropped.
Murder is sometimes the best revenge. Later that season in the episode Murder Among Friends Jessica investigated the death of a twenty-something actor on a popular comedy. The final episode, Death By Demographics involved the murder of a radio broadcast executive who was changing formats to attract a younger audience.
Thomas B. Sawyer was an MSW writer from the beginning. He had grown up in Chicago and moved to New York to pursue his ambition to do a syndicated story comic strip, ala Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon. He worked with Stan Lee, ghosted such strips as Flash Gordon and The Heart of Juliet Jones, then realized that “it was a terrible way to make a living.” So he went to film school, shot commercials, studied with Lee Strasberg and moved to California, ready for his new career as a director.
While putting together a low-budget feature to use as a calling card, Sawyer lost his writer and had to write the script himself. The film was seen by a producer who suggested he try writing for TV, and gave him a chance to pitch an idea. Even then he knew the power of having a one-sentence log line to hook an audience: “gang comedy at a tacky used car lot in the valley” got him in the door and suddenly he was a writer.
Some say MSW creators Richard Levinson and William Link were reacting to the failure of their Ellery Queen series when they decided to try another amateur sleuth mystery writer–this time a woman. Jean Stapleton turned down the part and Lansbury was in place when Sawyer met co-creator/producer Peter Fischer. With only a few mystery scriptwriting credits (Quincy, Mike Hammer) he spurned the Agatha Christie model (third act parlor confrontations with all the suspects) and offered the Maltese Falcon as his template for a good mystery story–a McGuffin plus intriguing interplay among characters with conflicting agendas.
The challenge was to create drama with no violence, no gore, and no crazy people. Sawyer says the show had three plot motives: money, sex or power plus the non-motive of the ‘victim-by-mistake.’ These were rotated, as was the means of murder (knife, poison, gun, blunt instrument, etc.).
He attributes the quality and longevity of the show to Lansbury’s talent. Even when other actors were running lines “she was always present and reacting.” And while she didn’t bring a lot of strong emotion to her character, she could play “irate and pissed off better than anyone.” Sawyer said he could always get a dramatic high point in a scene if he had a character refuse to take Jessica’s advice, or be dismissive toward her. She would “get her back up” and raise the whole level of the interchange.
His favorite MSW episode could be summarized as “Martin and Lewis Meets Romeo and Juliet.” Steve Lawrence and Buddy Hackett guest starred as estranged performing partners forced together by the marriage of their children. Lawrence’s son was played by George Clooney.
Sawyer is now the author of two novels (The Sixteenth Man, and No Place to Run) and teaches an online writing course (www.thomasbsawyer.com). He still has his souvenir mug reading: “Cabot Cove–Murder Capital of the World. If you lived here you’d be dead now.”
If you love mysteries, why not check out Left Coast Crime: Mystery Conference in Sacramento, March 29-April 1, 2012. Registration is only $225 & day passes can be purchased for $75 for Friday and Saturday panel sessions. Registration information can be found at the conventionwebsite, or by sending an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.