Over 10 billion viewers (mostly the over 50 crowd) watched 'Murder, She Wrote' during the 12 seasons the show originally went on air (1984-1996). "I made up my mind when I was 58 that I better think seriously about getting into television. This was going to be my annuity," Angela Lansbury admitted. Between 1985 and 1994, 'Murder, She Wrote' was the highest-rated drama on television.
"People my age and older say thank you for depicting a woman of our generation in a way that is up, that is forward-looking, that is not age-conscious, but simply has her take her place in life with all of the sense of responsibility and fun and energy that she can muster," Angela added. In its last season (1995-96), CBS moved 'Murder, She Wrote' from Sunday after '60 Minutes' to Thursday against 'Friends' because "ad rates for the hour were about a third less than its Sunday night competitor 'Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman'."
Of the success of 'Murder, She Wrote', Peter S. Fischer elaborated, "I think there are a lot of reasons. One of them is that America loves Angela Lansbury. The Sunday time slot has a lot to do with it. We get a lot of our audience from '60 Minutes'. Theoretically, the people who watch '60 Minutes' are the kind who watch mysteries. They don't normally watch TV. It's a show about an older woman. There's no action, no sex. Our audience has learned to stay on to solve the puzzle. They were intimidated at first but they have learned that all the clues are in plain sight. Many of our audience sit around the living room and try to outguess each other."
In 1984 Jessica Fletcher, a one-time substitute teacher had just published her first mystery novel as well as solved her first case. By 1988, "her world has opened up tremendously." Angela Lansbury told Associated Press, "The big change is that she has become very successful as a writer. She has become a celebrity. She has become more urbane and sophisticated, although she has not lost that small-town feeling. She has become a champion of middle-aged women and women struggling to maintain their position in life, even though they're alone."
Angela Lansbury maintained, "It doesn't represent in any way a stretch, as we call it, to play Jessica Fletcher but to play Jessica, a role that has such enormous, universal appeal – that was an accomplishment I never expected in my entire life. I thought 'Murder, She Wrote' would last maybe a year or two, and that would have been fine. But it seems to have become an institution."
Angela believed 'Murder, She Wrote' was popular because "it says that problems can be solved, mysteries can be unravelled. That life's anarchy can be straightened out. To make an episode work, you have to have an interesting yarn and present the audience with a set of clues and with suspects, showing how they might or might not be suspicious. I really don't want Jessica just walking through these scripts. I don't want her to be a question-and-answer machine.
"You have to introduce elements putting her in danger. I want a little challenge for me. I know there are women who are my age, some widows, some who have never married, who relish the fact that I'm there with this character, who really love the fact that Jessica gets out there and messes in with life. I think it's wonderful to be able to represent that, even to the smallest degree, on television."
The role of Jessica Fletcher was first offered to Jean Stapleton who decided to turn down the part. Speaking to the 'Los Angeles Times' in 1985, Angela Lansbury confessed she "didn't honestly expect the show to take off in the amazing way that it has ... On the one hand, I love the success and am enjoying that tremendously. On the other, I resist this takeover that it represents of my life … You're caught in a trap – that's what I'm not sure about. It's awfully hard to walk away from success, isn't it?
"I liked what I visualized her to be when I read the script. There was something about her quality that I felt I could adapt myself to very easily, and very comfortably, and hopefully she could be an attractive person even though I was playing a middle-aged widow. I felt she was courageous and full of excitement and energy about life and people. This attracted me to her because that's my feeling about life and people. I don't have any feeling of being any age, and my enthusiasm for living and the prospect for the future never diminishes."
Peter S. Fischer came up with the idea of Jessica Fletcher being younger than Miss Marple. Angela Lansbury continued, "He played up the fact that physically, Jessica was a very active woman – she rode bicycle, she jogged, she looked after herself. She did not drive a car. I don't quite know why. As it turned out, it was a very good thing she didn't because it precludes, in a sense, the need for car chases.
"We have enough of them – there are enough shows that do very, very exciting car chases. Otherwise, we'd all end up in the underground garages of Los Angeles along with everybody else. We're not 'Hill Street Blues' or 'Miami (Vice)', we're not any of those things. We're simply mystery stories concerning the mystery of murder. It's unraveling, gathering all the clues and personalities involved in murder."
In the 1986-87 TV season, CBS came up with the idea of a crossover between 'Magnum, p.i.' and 'Murder, She Wrote'. Michael Eisenberg of CBS told 'Newsday', "'Magnum' has more viewers who are male, teens and children, while 55% of 'Murder, She Wrote's' audience is women. This could bring more women to 'Magnum'. If this works, you'll see more such crossovers."
Robert Swanson of 'Murder, She Wrote' and Jay Huguely of 'Magnum, p.i.' "worked very closely together. Obviously, the tough part for Jay Huguely was to put together the first part, the 'Magnum' episode, so it looked like a 'Magnum' and, at the same time, to bring in Angela as Jessica so that she looked good. I had the easier job. I had to make sure with the 'Murder' episode that we had four or five characters, as always one of whom would turn out to be the murderer, while doing justice to Tom Selleck as Magnum."
Jay Huguely mentioned, "All along, adjustments were being made to suit the two lead characters. 'Magnum' is pretty much straight action-adventure regularly, with a big climax. In this case, because of Jessica Fletcher, our show had to be somewhat more complex and cerebral even with all the action." 'Newsday' reported, "When their scripts were finished, Swanson and Huguely found they still had more to do. Since the shows won't be sold together when they're sold into syndication as reruns, each hour episode had to be complete in and of itself." B. Donald Grant of CBS told 'Knight-Ridder Newspapers', "The key to these things is to create a certain amount of linkage between these shows in the minds of the viewers."
The creators of 'Murder, She Wrote' previously created 'Columbo'. Peter S. Fischer insisted, "Ms. Lansbury has every bit as much brainpower as Peter Falk had in 'Columbo' but 'Murder, She Wrote' is an 'open' mystery, a genuine whodunit. On 'Columbo', the viewer always knew the identity of the killer at the very beginning of the show. In 'Murder, She Wrote', everybody's in the dark and we all play our own guessing games along with Ms. Lansbury as the story unravels."
Of Jessica Fletcher being the lead character, Peter S. Fischer informed, "It was really accidental. We (Richard Levinson, William Link and Peter S. Fischer) had no intention of coming up with a female character, but we had no problem with it, either. After a number of meetings with CBS, the network suggested Ms. Lansbury. Our only worry was that she might not want to move from New York to Los Angeles. But she was enthusiastic.
"So we now (in 1984) have a perfect marriage of character and concept. It all sort of fell together. I think it's important to note that Ms. Lansbury, as Jessica Fletcher, is our only regular cast member. It's all on her shoulders, unlike the old 'Police Woman' series where Angie Dickinson always had Earl Holliman around to pull her oysters out of the fire. With Ms. Lansbury, it's all her; she solves the crime by herself."
Speaking to 'The Times' in November 1984, Angela Lansbury enthused, "It's always nice to do something that's good – and then to have it turn out to be popular is a real bonus. We're enormously encouraged by the ratings, and I'm personally thrilled, as you can see. It's a program in which a woman plays a responsible role and is a responsible, nice kind of person. And let's be honest – my character, Jessica Fletcher, is a woman of a certain age who's allowed to flourish, and that is kind of a first. I'm extremely proud of that.
"Of course, I have to admit that this movement toward 'real women' on TV owes a lot to 'Cagney & Lacey'. That show opened the doors for us. And I also have to pay tribute to Angie Dickinson and her 'Police Woman' series. But those women – Cagney and Lacey and Angie Dickinson – are younger women than me. I feel this is the year (1984) when the older woman is getting to make her mark, and that is exciting for me." Harvey Shephard of CBS noted, "There are so many working women today (in 1984). They are working in a world that used to be dominated by men. They have their own ambitions. They're striving for success, and they can identify with the women in these programs (such as 'Cagney & Lacey' and 'Kate & Allie')."