The selling of `Murder, She Wrote'

MURDER, SHE WROTE' is the show that never should have been sold ... but was. Never should have been made ... but was. Never should have succeeded ... but did. In those days (and even now), conventional wisdom at the three major networks dictated that a gentle show without action, sex, or ``meaningful'' topicality, and with a leading lady approaching the age of 60, was doomed to failure before it began. Furthermore, although I didn't know it at the time, the series was being considered for a time slot that had been a disaster for CBS for several years. At 8 o'clock in the evening on Sundays it would be going up against two established hits on the competing networks. A hit? We'd be fortunate to survive six weeks.

So much for conventional wisdom.

In retrospect, it seems to me that ``Murder, She Wrote'' was less a lucky accident than an approach and a concept whose time had come. That is not to say that providence wasn't a part of it. It was. A very big part.

In late 1983, CBS had let it be known to Universal Television that it might be interested in a new murder mystery produced under the auspices of Dick Levinson, Bill Link, and me. We had worked together previously on the short-lived but generally well-received ``Ellery Queen,'' and though whodunits had never succeeded well on national television (with the exception of ``Perry Mason''), CBS was willing to gamble if it liked what it heard. Before our first meeting with CBS, we had tried for a couple of years to sell NBC a format that involved a retired magician who solved crimes with the aid of illusion and legerdemain. Twice we came very close to closing the deal, but twice NBC backed away over creative differences over approach and the casting of the lead. We saw our protagonist as a suave, dashing gentleman of 50-plus. In TV parlance of the time, ``50-plus'' was an anathema to development executives, who looked on anyone who had reached 40 as over the hill. Youth had to be served, even though statistics indicated that the national TV audience was growing grayer year by year. NBC thought perhaps our ``retired'' magician should have been in his mid-30s, though how we were to justify his retirement at such an early age was a mystery that even we couldn't solve. Since the CBS people didn't seem to have a problem with a mature protagonist, we felt our magic mystery might be just the thing for them.

Well, CBS liked it. Sort of. But what it really wanted, the officials said, was a female lead. Our spirits sank. Here was a challenge worthy of a Hercules. An older female protagonist in a nonaction, nonviolent, talky mystery that would require its audience to actually pay attention to what was going on? Only the seriously deranged would embark on such a perilous course. The launching of a weekly series involves long, hard hours of planning, writing, and the only thing that keeps you plugging away is the possibility that at the end of this gauntlet will emerge a successful show in which you might take some pride. The operative word here is successful. The three of us were not interested in developing a noble failure, and the commercial prospects for a show that met the network's requirements seemed dim indeed. NONETHELESS we gave it some thought. The previous weekend CBS had aired one of their Agatha Christie ``Miss Marple'' movies against the then-formidable ``Love Boat.'' Though it lost in the ratings, its numbers were respectable. It occurred to us that perhaps an Americanized whodunit about a lady mystery writer (using Miss Christie as the prototype, not Miss Marple) might find some currency at the network. We also felt that if we populated the show with numerous guest stars (as we had on ``Ellery Queen''), we might compete successfully with ``Love Boat'' at its own game. ``Love Boat'' had been on the air for six or seven seasons and was getting tired, but the audience had always responded to the glitzy format and the fun of seeing familiar Hollywood faces. Why not go head to head with an equally glitzy (though different) format, using the same star format?

Harvey Shephard of CBS responded immediately and enthusiastically and within a week or two, Jessica Fletcher, genteel lady novelist of Cabot Cove, Maine, was born. It was December of 1983. As usual, the network needed a pilot script immediately. If it liked it (and if we could cast it properly), it would give us a further commitment to film. All of this had to be accomplished before early May of 1984, when CBS would decide which projects would be committed for the following television season.

For several days the three of us brainstormed a plot for the initial two-hour movie that we hoped would launch the series and then I went off to write the script. (This was a working arrangement Mr. Link and Mr. Levinson and I had used on several previous projects. They were no longer involved in episodic television and if the show were to sell, it would be my responsibility to oversee it.)

Between rewrites we wrestled with the thorny issue of casting. Whom could we get to play the all-important role of Jessica Fletcher? It had to be someone with charm, style, wit, warmth, enormous talent, and a familiar face to TV audiences. Our first and (for a time) only inspiration was Jean Stapleton, who had enjoyed a successful decade as Edith Bunker on ``All in the Family.'' We met with Miss Stapleton over lunch and she expressed guarded interest in the project, provided she liked the material and provided it did not conflict with other projects she had in the works. It was an amicable luncheon, and Miss Stapleton was charming though basically noncommittal.

By the time we delivered the script to CBS, Stapleton was having second thoughts and ultimately, she decided against involving herself. It was, of course, a great disappointment to us. Her tentative participation had given the project impetus; her withdrawal threatened to stop it dead. In Hollywood, the key to success is often the ``heat'' you can generate. A star of Stapleton's magnitude gives it to you, but a cold shoulder can turn everything glacial. As proud as we were of the script we had wrought, we were convinced the project would now be shelved.

We couldn't have been more wrong. Harvey Shephard loved the project and he loved the script and he told us bluntly - find another actress. Easier said than done. There were few if any actresses who we felt could carry this show, and those we might consider had never shown any interest in subjecting themselves to the grind of a weekly television series.

Earlier I mentioned providence. Here's where it came into play. At that precise moment, Angela Lansbury - the movie star and queen of Broadway, with four Tonys to her name - discreetly let it be known that she might be interested in doing television if the right project came along. We didn't come along. We were already there. Two ships met in the night and did not pass.

After a short meeting in which Levinson, Link, and I fell madly in love with our new star, CBS committed several million dollars and within a matter of weeks, we were on a sound stage shooting the first scene of ``The Murder of Sherlock Holmes,'' the two-hour TV movie that served as the pilot for the series. By now, it was already April and we realized there was no way we could have the picture finished, edited, and musically scored in time for CBS to make a decision whether to include us on its fall schedule. We could have chosen to shoot a ``presentation,'' which is a short 15- to 20-minute compilation of selected scenes, but there was no way to do this economically and still use the big-name guest stars who would appear in the finished film. We were convinced that these star-names would be vital to the success of the show. AT this point we came up with what we thought was an ingenious solution. We cast the show with such luminaries as Brian Keith, Arthur Hill, Ned Beatty, Anne Francis, and Bert Convy and then arranged the schedule so certain key scenes would be shot first. We then wrote a short script that featured Angela (as Jessica) in the kitchen of her Cabot Cove house talking directly to the camera. This narrative was combined with selected scenes to bridge the plot, up until the discovery of the dead body. It also allowed us to show off Jessica's character in the best possible light without having to stumble through an excess of plot.

It worked beyond our wildest expectations. The 25-minute presentation was shown simultaneously to the CBS affiliates and to the advertising community, and their reaction was almost unanimously favorable. Even CBS was surprised by the enthusiasm. Buoyed by this outpouring of support, the network ordered 13 episodes to start airing the following September.

The rest, as they say, is history.

As for that concept that featured a retired magician, NBC suddenly realized that a show with a ``mature'' lead might indeed have a chance, and they bought it for the following season. ``Blacke's Magic,'' starring Hal Linden (50-plus) and Harry Morgan (70-plus), was not blessed with the same magic that favored ``Murder, She Wrote.'' Nonetheless, we had fun doing it, and perhaps in a different time period it might have proved more successful than it did.

Peter S. Fischer is the co-creator and executive producer of ``Murder, She Wrote.''

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