How ‘Murder, She Wrote’ kept the spotlight shining bright on classic films and their stars

Angela Lansbury is sitting across from Mildred Natwick and smiling.

“I’m amazed that you even recognized me. My goodness, you know, it’s been more than 30 years,” she says to Natwick who returns her smile.

There is a real affection between the two actresses that we can feel even though we’re watching them years later and through our television in a scene from “Murder in the Electric Cathedral,” an episode from the second season of “Murder, She Wrote.” While those words were scripted, the women just as easily could have been speaking to each other in real life since they had worked together nearly 30 years earlier in the delightful 1955 musical comedy “The Court Jester.”  

Angela Lansbury and Mildred Natwick, who worked together in the 1955 film “The Court Jester,” have a natural rapport in the episode “Murder in the Electric Cathedral.”

That little nod of recognition is one of the many ways Angela Lansbury’s long career was used to enrich her television series “Murder, She Wrote.” While millions tuned in weekly to be entertained by Cabot Cove’s most famous resident as she solved murders and mysteries, we got the bonus of a long and impressive list of guest stars that reads like a trip through film history.

Many of the stars were brought up through Hollywood’s studio system along with Lansbury or acted with her on Broadway and that’s one reason we see so many familiar faces and big names throughout the 264 episodes and four feature films that comprised “Murder, She Wrote.” (There were nearly 2,000 during the show’s run from 1984 to 1996.)

And that’s what makes “Murder, She Wrote” such a natural for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s spring blogathon, “Big Stars on the Small Screen.”

Here’s a look at some of the big stars who joined Angela Lansbury as a guest on her show, plus other ways “Murder, She Wrote” ingeniously celebrated the Golden Age of Hollywood.

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As the flirtatious real estate agent Eve Simpson, Julie Adams (“Creature from the Black Lagoon”) appeared in 10 episodes of “Murder, She Wrote,” more than other any actress outside of Angela Lansbury.

It started with “If It’s Thursday, It Must Be Beverly” (Season 4/Episode 7), one of the show’s most delightful episodes thanks to the actresses who play the gossipy customers in Loretta’s Beauty Shop who all, to their surprise, fell for a charming lothario. Along with Adams are Kathryn Grayson, Gloria DeHaven and Ruth Roman. The actresses would reunite in “The Sins of Castle Cove” (S5/E17) about a young author who writes a tell-all book with thinly disguised residents of Cabot Cove, and “Town Father” (S6/E11) where Mayor Sam Booth (Richard Paul) is accused of fathering five children! (That gets the town talking.)

Julie Adams guest starred in 10 episodes of “Murder, She Wrote” as the flirtatious real estate agent Eve Simpson. Here she’s delivering her famous salmon mousse to a hot prospect in the episode, “If It’s Thursday, It Must Be Beverly.”

Watch Adams in these 10 episodes: “If It’s Thursday, It Must Be Beverly” (S4/E7), “Benedict Arnold Slipped Here” (S4/E18), “The Sins of Castle Cove” (S5/E17), “Town Father” (S6/E11) , “A Body to Die For” (S7/E6), “Bite the Big Apple” (S8/E1), “The Witch’s Curse (S8/E12),  “Programmed for Murder” (S8/E18), “Final Curtain” (S9/E11) and “The Big Kill” (S9/E17).

Hurd Hatfield, Lansbury’s co-star in “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” was a beloved lifelong friend who introduced her to her husband Peter Shaw. He appeared in three episodes starting with “Death Takes a Curtain Call” (S1/E10) in which Hatfield asks Jessica to help two Soviet dancers defect. (It also co-starred Claude Akins in his recurring role as Ethan and William Conrad.) In “One Good Bid Deserves Another” (S2/E17), Hatfield plays an auctioneer in an episode with Jerry Orbach as Harry McGraw plus Edward Mulhare and Karen Black. And in “Night of the Tarantula” (S6/E7), he’s the owner of a neighboring plantation when Jessica visits a friend in Jamaica for his son’s 30th birthday.

Old MGM friends Angela Lansbury, left, June Allyson and Van Johnson smiled quite a bit in the “Murder, She Wrote” episode “Hit, Run and Homicide.”

At MGM, Lansbury and June Allyson were in “The Three Musketeers” (1948) and later starred with Van Johnson in the musical crime comedy “Remains to Be Seen” (1953). On the TV series, the trio reunited in “Hit, Run and Homicide” (S1/E8) with Johnson as an inventor whose devices were used in a hit and run murder (as the title suggests). Allyson is his supportive former co-worker he fails to notice until it’s almost too late.

Johnson returned for two other episodes: “Menace, Anyone” (S2/E20) and “Hannigan’s Wake” (S7/E4) which also starred Mala Powers, Guy Stockwell and Stephen Young.

An episode with a fun idea – a mystery involving poison pen letters – also had a great cast. “Sticks and Stones” (S2/E10) starred Marsha Hunt, Evelyn Keyes, Betsy Palmer, Joseph Campanella, John Astin and Denny Miller. The story is considered a take on “Miss Marple: the Moving Finger.”

And there are so many more … (I can’t stop myself.)

Look for Cyd Charisse as a former actress, Mel Ferrer as the hotel manager and Mary Wickes as a wealthy guest in “Widow, Weep for Me” (S2/E1) that finds Jessica posing as a rich widow at a Caribbean resort to investigate a friend’s death. This episode also marked the first appearance by Lansbury’s friend and Broadway (“Sweeney Todd”) co-star Len Cariou as Michael Hagarty, the MI6 agent who always gets Jessica embroiled in trouble.

In the episode “The Last Flight of the Dixie Damsel,” Angela Lansbury, left, and noir star Jane Greer play former roommates who are reunited when a decades-old murder implicates the late husband of Jessica Fletcher.

Jane Greer and Michael Ansara are in “The Last Flight of the Dixie Damsel” (S5/E7) along with Martin Milner, Richard Roundtree and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. plus an uncredited Dale Robertson who didn’t like that the credits were done alphabetically on the series and wanted his name removed. (We still know who you are Mr. “Tales of Wells Fargo.”)

See Dorothy Lamour and former child star Patty McCormack in “No Accounting for Murder” (S3/E19) where Jessica helps nephew Grady who is suspected in the murder of his boss. Eleanor Parker is a leading being tormented before the opening of her new play in “Stage Struck” (S3/E10), an episode that also starred Edward Mulhare and Dan O’Herlihy.

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There are many more names (Diane Baker, Nina Foch, Rod Taylor, Milton Berle, Laraine Day, Tom Ewell, Anne Francis, Farley Granger, Howard Keel, Janet Leigh, etc. ) but let’s take a break and look at other ways the series honored classic films through memories, homages, tributes and yes, more guest stars.

Keep alert during “Murder, She Wrote” for such unique touches as the youthful photograph of actresses Angela Lansbury and Ann Blyth on the table. It’s in “Reflections of the Mind,” which stars Blyth as a woman who thinks she’s being tormented by her dead husband.

It was done in small ways like in the vintage photos used on the set. Watch the opening credits of the suspenseful “Reflections of the Mind” (S2/E6) for the photo of a very young Lansbury and Ann Blyth on a table.

It happened in songs when Lansbury, playing Jessica’s look-alike British cousin Emma, sings numbers she first performed on film: In “Sing a Song of Murder” (S2/E5), the song is “Good-Bye, Little Yellow Bird” from “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945). For “It Runs in the Family” (S4/E6), the character of Emma sings “How’d You Like to Spoon With Me” from the 1946 movie “Till the Clouds Roll By.”

There are subtle nods to specific movies, too. “Death ‘N Denial” (S11/E13) is a fun reference to the title of Lansbury’s 1978 film ”Death on the Nile.” Her character’s name in that film was Salome Otterbourne; the Egyptologist in the TV episode is Sally Otterburn. Bonus: The episode also stars Turhan Bey from “The Mummy’s Tomb,” “Arabian Nights” “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieve” and “Sudan.”

Mickey Rooney guest starred in the Season 10 episode “Bloodlines” on “Murder, She Wrote.” Angela Lansbury and Rooney starred in the 1944 film “National Velvet.”

“Bloodlines” (S10/E6), set around the world of horses and horse racing, co-stars Mickey Rooney and Tippi Hendren in its tale of murder and fraud. Rooney plays a horse trainer in the episode, as he did in the 1944 film “National Velvet” which also starred Lansbury as the older sister of Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor).

Then there were entire episodes inspired by a classic film.

“Sorry Wrong Number” came through loud and clear in “Crossed Up” (S3/E13). Jessica is stuck in bed with a sore back during a hurricane when a faulty connection “crosses up” the phone line and she overhears a murder plan. Of course, she’s not believed even when a body is found, so she enlists the help of nephew Grady (Michael Horton).

Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) approaches the infamous “Psycho” house on the lot at Universal Studios in the “Murder, She Wrote” episode “Incident in Lot 7.”

“Incident in Lot 7” (S8/E13) is all about “Psycho” and it is so much fun, especially for Hitchcock fans. The episode starts with a lively instrumental version of “Hooray for Hollywood” playing over the opening credits. As Jessica’s limo pulls into Universal Studios where they plan to adapt her newest book into a film, the music skillfully morphs into the theme from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (“Funeral March of the Marionette” by Charles Gounod). You know this is going to be great and it is Jessica becomes entangled in a murder that takes place in the original “Psycho” house on the studio lot.

The episode skillfully uses imagery and sound from “Psycho” including the famous Bates Motel sign, the shower curtain, the drain with water swirling around it just as it famously did in the Hitchcock film and those screeching violins!

Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) starts to ascend the stairs inside the “Psycho” house, unintentionally re-enacting one of the film’s most famous – and deadly scenes – in the “Murder, She Wrote” episode “Incident in Lot 7.”

We’ll even watch the scene – as Jessica does – of private investigator Arbogast (Martin Balsalm) climbing the stairs inside the house as a door slowly opens at the top of the landing. (Poor Arbogast.) Then the scene plays out again this time with brave Jessica walking up the same stairs while the same door opens. (Run!)

My favorite “Murder, She Wrote” episode inspired by a classic film is the ingenious “The Days Dwindle Down” (S3/E21) which acts as a sequel – yes a sequel – to the 1949 detective film “Strange Bargain” starring Jeffrey Lynn, Martha Scott and Harry Morgan. The film’s tidy end was tweaked so that the story could continue here as Jessica works to clear the name of a man released from jail after 30 years for a murder he swears he didn’t commit.

Jeffrey Lynn and Martha Scott reprised their roles from the 1949 film “Strange Bargain,” left, in the well-done “Murder, She Wrote” episode “The Days Dwindle Down” that acted as a sequel to the film.

Here’s the most excellent part: the episode reunites actors Lynn, Scott and Morgan and uses clips from the original movie. And it keeps on giving with appearances by Gloria Stuart, June Havoc and Richard Beymer.

I previously wrote at length about this episode in the 7th annual “Favourite TV Episode” blogathon hosted by Terence Towles Canote from his blog, “A Shroud of Thoughts,” so I won’t duplicate that article, but I can’t help but share tidbits from this clever episode with other classic movie fans.

[Read my original story: When “Murder She Wrote” brilliantly became a sequel to a 1949 film]

It was the idea of Executive Producer Peter Fisher who was exploring new ways to tell a story and thought about building an episode around a classic movie that would also star some of the original cast. That last part would be difficult given the passage of years.

Martha Scott, center, and Jeffrey Lynn reprise their roles from the 1949 film “Strange Bargain” for the “Murder, She Wrote” episode “The Days Dwindle Down” with Angela Lansbury. Note the vintage photo of Lynn in the background.

“If only I could find an old movie where everyone was still around, then we could solve the case 30 years later,” he said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times.

After a year of searching, he found “Strange Bargain” and the episode, respectfully written by William Gerson, is fantastic. It even uses film clips from the original movie to augment the story. You can enjoy the “Murder, She Wrote” episode without seeing the film, but if you can watch both I highly recommend it.

And, if after reading all of these wonderful names and ideas, you decide you only have time to watch one episode, I would suggest “The Days Dwindle Down” because of its reverence for classic Hollywood and its stars.

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You can find links to all of the wonderful entries in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s spring blogathon by clicking on this link to read more about “Big Stars on the Small Screen.”

Why the scary ‘Little Girl Lost’ from ‘The Twilight Zone’ remains a favorite TV episode

“Favorite” is a word that’s often accompanied by a smile because it’s something that makes you happy.

As in, what’s your favorite ice cream?

Your favorite band?

Favorite movie?

We smile so much about our favorites that “smile” should be part of the definition, as in:

fa·vor·ite: Something that makes us smile.

Yet my choice for the 9th annual “Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon,” hosted by Shroud of Thoughts, is a TV episode that I love but doesn’t quite make me smile – at least in the happy, traditional sense of the word.

“Little Girl Lost,” the 91st episode of “The Twilight Zone,” has fascinated and terrified from the first time I saw it. Even rewatching it recently, the episode still freaked me out. (I guarantee you that “freak you out” is not part of the definition of “favorite.”) But the episode also makes me think and remains a favorite.

“Little Girl Lost” premiered on March 16, 1962 as the final episode (#26) of Season 3. I’m not sure how old I was when I first saw it, but I wasn’t older than 10, and could have been closer in age to Tina, the little girl lost of the episode’s title who was only 6.

Sure, that’s too young for “someone” (“me”) with an overactive imagination to watch a story where a little girl goes missing after she accidentally steps into another dimension. And yes, you read that right. In “Little Girl Lost,” sweet little Tina falls out of her bed, rolls underneath it and right into the fourth dimension. How do we know? The physicist who conveniently lives next door tells us so. And it’s all so believable.

Mac the dog tries to lead little Tina out of the fourth dimension in “Little Girl Lost.”

Here’s the episode’s plot, starting with Rod Serling’s original intro.

Missing: one frightened little girl. Name: Bettina Miller. Description: six years of age, average height and build, light brown hair, quite pretty. Last seen being tucked in bed by her mother a few hours ago. Last heard: ‘ay, there’s the rub,’ as Hamlet put it. For Bettina Miller can be heard quite clearly, despite the rather curious fact that she can’t be seen at all. Present location? Let’s say for the moment… in the Twilight Zone.

The episode opens with Chris and Ruth Miller waking to cries of “mommy” from their daughter, Tina (played by Tracy Stafford). They aren’t alarmed – yet. In fact Chris the dad  (Robert Sampson) takes the time to slowly put on his slippers despite the growing cries of his daughter.

Even when he can’t find Tina in the bedroom, it still takes him a few minutes before he starts to worry.

“What’d ya fall out of his bed?” he asks with a nervous laugh as he peers underneath the bed and gropes around the carpet for his daughter. Then he moves to the closet with similar results – she’s just not there.

Parents (Sarah Marshall and Robert Sampson) can’t find their daughter under the bed despite hearing her cries in “Little Girl Lost.”

Ruth the mom (played by Sarah Marshall) panics right away and makes a fuss as cute little dog Mack is barking up a storm outside and trying to get in. He senses the trouble but the adults aren’t paying attention. When Mack is finally let in the house, he runs fearlessly into the portal after Tina. (As physicist neighbor Bill will say later, “Animals are sharper about these things than humans.”)

Physicist neighbor Bill (played by Charles Aidman with a solid mix of composure and smarts) has been called over by a desperate Chris to help. Bill calmly explores the house and quickly deduces what has happened: Tina has fallen through an opening to another dimension.

Bill (Charles Aidman, right) calculates the location of a portal to another dimension where he thinks a child has fallen through as her parents (Sarah Marshall and Robert Sampson) look on.

“I’m no expert in this,” he tells the parents before going on about junctures between dimensions and gap openings that all sounds plausible to the untrained ear of say, a 10-year-old girl watching this at home who will soon develop her own phobia of falling into another dimension. (Hey, it could happen.)

Things get intense during the short 25-minute episode. Tina’s voice goes in and out and they fear she’ll be lost forever. Mack the dog’s barking indicates he hasn’t found Tina. And desperate dad gets way too close to the invisible portal in the wall and falls halfway into the strange world while screaming for Tina to find him.

Bill the neighbor physicist is clearly getting more agitated with every passing second and that ramps up the tension. Only later do we learn what was setting him off and without spoiling too much, let’s say that we are not dealing with a stable entrance to another dimension. Just thinking about it now is “freaking me out” (there’s that phrase again).

The fourth dimension is all strange angles, lights and fog in “Little Girl Lost” as dad (Robert Sampson) tries to grab his daughter and dog who are out of reach – and out of time.

By the end of the episode, when we should be feeling relief, the questions left unanswered also leave us unsettled.

Here is Rod Serling’s Outro for the episode: The other half where? The fourth dimension? The fifth? Perhaps. They never found the answer. Despite a battery of research physicists equipped with every device known to man, electronic and otherwise, no result was ever achieved, except perhaps a little more respect for and uncertainty about the mechanisms of the Twilight Zone.

Oh, Rod Serling didn’t need to tell me – as a kid or adult – to respect the possibility that other dimensions existed. I respected the idea so much that I read books with true stories of people from around the world who survived brushes with portals to another world. There were plenty of stories and yes, I believed them ALL!!!.

Neighbor Bill (Charles Aidman) reaches through a portal to another dimension as Ruth and Chris (Sarah Marshall and Robert Sampson) look on in terror in “Little Girl Lost.”

So stumbling into another dimension remains on my list of ridiculous phobias I gained from watching TV or film. Also on that “realistic” list: being mauled to death by a bear or tiger, suffocating in quicksand and burned alive by lava.

Here’s another creepy fact about “Little Girl Lost.” It was written by the great Richard Matheson after an incident where he couldn’t find his own daughter in her bedroom. Here is how Matheson shared the story in author Marc Scott Zicree’s indispensable “Twilight Zone Companion.”

“That was based on an occurrence that happened to our daughter. She didn’t go into the fourth dimension, but she cried one night and I went to where she was and couldn’t find her anywhere. I couldn’t find her on the bed, I couldn’t find her on the ground. She had fallen off and rolled all the way under the bed against the wall. At first, even when I felt under the bed, I couldn’t reach her. It was bizarre and that’s where I got the idea.”

To keep authenticity for his story, Matheson even named the TV characters after his real wife and daughter. (I wonder what they thought after watching it!). He wrote the original short story in 1953 and it appears in his collection “The Shores of Space” (1957).

‘Little Girl Lost’ and ‘Poltergeist’

Another reason why “Little Girl Lost” is one of my favorites is its influence on one of my favorite films, “Poltergeist” (1982) – and yes, “Poltergeist” does freak me out, too. If you’ve seen both you would have noticed the similarities that are worth a story on their own. But here’s the ToniNotes version of the “Poltergeist” plot.

After a few odd events in their new home in a fancy subdivision, parents wake to the sounds of their children screaming during a thunderstorm. Their son has been pulled outside by a tree limb that has crashed into the house. They rescue him, but can’t find their little girl. Then they hear her calling from somewhere “inside” the house. The rest of the film is their search for their own little girl lost, while battling malevolent spirits.

So we have a little girl, trapped somewhere “inside” of her house, crying for her parents who can’t see her. You’ll notice some similar shots (overhead views of the family looking upward toward the child’s cries) and you’ll hear lines that could have been copied and pasted from “Little Girl Lost.” For example the name of the dog Mac is replaced with the word “light” as in repeated references of “Go with Mac, baby” becomes “Go into the light baby” in “Poltergeist.”

Does this mean I think a monster is going to come out of my closet and steal me? Can a hole open to another dimension? Of course it can. Just watch “Little Girl Lost” and you’ll believe.

The blogathon

The 9th annual “Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon” is hosted by Terence Towles Canote on his blog Shroud of Thoughts. You’ll find links here to more posts where people write about their favorite TV episodes.

In a previous “Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon,” I wrote about an ingenious episode of “Murder, She Wrote” that acted as a sequel to the 1949 detective film, “Strange Bargain.” This is a favorite episode that truly does make me smile. Here is the link to that story.

In praise of Roger Corman’s glorious ‘Sharktopus’

They had me at “Sharktopus.”

It wasn’t going to matter if the film was good or bad or laughable. With a name like that, I was in. All in.

After years of horror movies that were shrouded in the mystery of bland titles like “It,” “They” or “Them,” here was a film with a bold commitment to itself that was as clear as its name: “Sharktopus.”

The title was screaming that this was going to be a movie devoted entirely to jumping the shark with its outlandish idea of a creature that was part shark, part octopus.

To learn that the 2010 film was produced by the great Roger Corman only added to the anticipation and ultimate enjoyment. Like the movie’s title, you know what you are getting with Corman. There will be B-movie special effects, a basic plot with crazy ideas, babes in bikinis, blood and a lot of fun.

I am obsessed with “Sharktopus” and that’s why I chose it as my film to feature as part of Corman-Verse, the Roger Corman celebratory blogathon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews.

Yes, “Sharktopus” is a stretch. Even Corman – the man behind the films “She Gods of Shark Reef,” “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “The Wasp Woman” (twice) and “Carnosaur” – thought it was ridiculous.

So when he was initially approached to make “Sharktopus,” he turned it down. To understand why, let’s go back to the start of his partnership with the network that was then known as Sci-Fi Channel. (In 2009, it rebranded under its current name Syfy – same pronunciation, different spelling.)

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From 2004 to 2015, Corman produced a series of films for the network that all had self-explanatory titles starting with “Dinocroc” about a – well, you already guessed.

After the success of “Dinocroc,” Corman understandably wanted to produce a sequel simply called “Dinocroc 2.” But at that point, sequels weren’t working for Sci-Fi and the network said no. (Things have since changed with the network, hence movies like “Sharknado 5: Global Swarming.”)

Undeterred, Corman made “Dinocroc 2” on his own under the title “Supergator” (2007). Sci-Fi quickly realized the error of its ways and Corman produced the sequels “Dinoshark” and “Dinocroc vs. Supergator,” both made in 2010, for the network.

He was then offered “Sharktopus,” but declined. He had his standards and was “not enthusiastic about that title,” as he shared later in multiple interviews to promote “Sharktopus.”

Now you’re probably asking the same question I did after learning this information: Why would Corman make films named “Dinocroc” and “Dinoshark,” but draw the line at “Sharktopus”?

Let Corman explain.

Roger Corman hesitated to make “Sharktopus,” but eventually produced it and appeared in a cameo on the beach.

“My theory is, you can go up to a certain level of insanity, and the audience is with you,” Corman told writer Clark Collis in a 2010 interview for Entertainment Weekly. “And ‘Dinocroc’ and ‘Dinoshark’ are within that level. But in my opinion, ‘Sharktopus’ goes beyond that feeling, and the audience turns and says, ‘Who wants to see this?’ ”

Well, I wanted to see it – and clearly so did plenty of others judging by the popularity of “Sharktopus” and its sequels.

Beyond Festus: The career of Ken Curtis

For more than a decade, actor Ken Curtis played Festus Haggen, the loyal sidekick to Marshal Matt Dillion (star James Arness) on the long-running television series “Gunsmoke.”

Curtis fully inhabited the role of the perennially disheveled and unshaven Festus, a man with a unique hillbilly accent who could be curmudgeonly and comical at the same time.

Festus remains a memorable character in TV history today, nearly 50 years after the show ended, to the point that even people who aren’t fans of Westerns – like me – know Festus. The actor behind the character is a different story.

Like many character actors, Ken Curtis is one of those familiar faces whose names may not be well known, but whose presence is an integral part of the fabric of film and television.

That’s why he is my choice for the 10th annual “What a Character Blogathon” hosted by Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and @Irishjayhawk66, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and @Paula_Guthat, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and and @CitizenScreen.

Who was the man behind Festus?

Two years ago, I couldn’t have told you the name of the actor playing Festus. That changed after spending months of Sunday afternoons recently watching “Gunsmoke,” Westerns and John Wayne films in general with my dad.

A clean-shaven and quite handsome Ken Curtis is pictured alongside John Wayne in “The Wings of Eagles,” one of seven movies they appeared in together.

The thin face of Curtis, nearly masked under a heavy layer of whiskers as Festus, was becoming familiar enough to notice in films like “The Searchers,” “The Wings of Eagles” and “Conagher,” leading to the question: “Hey dad, is that Festus?” (That’s a real quote – I said “Festus.”)

“It kinda looks like him, but doesn’t sound like him,” I naively said, believing Ken Curtis really talked with that heavy Southern accent. (He was born in Colorado.)

Sure enough, it was Curtis. Now I’m seeing his familiar face more often, even in unexpected places like the 1959 B-horror movie “The Killer Shrews.”

A scary October: TCM’s schedule of classic horror films

The annual month-long Halloween horror film celebration hosted by Turner Classic Movies has returned with a packed schedule from Karloff to Kong, mad scientists to Satanists, and plenty of films starring guys named Lee, Cushing and Price. Multiple days have themes including the poetic horror of Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton (Oct. 4), Hammer films (Oct. 21) and killer animals (Oct. 26).

Here is the schedule of horror films airing on TCM in October 2021 with descriptions.

Friday, Oct. 1

6 a.m.: “King Kong” (1933). The original beauty and beast story.

8 a.m. “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932). Joel McCrea, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong are targeted by a big-game hunter who preys on humans. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack.

9:15 a.m. “The Vampire Bat” (1933). A village is terrorized with thoughts of vampires when bodies show up drained of blood in this film with frequent co-stars Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill.

12:45 p.m. “White Zombie” (1932). Bela Lugosi is a witch doctor who menaces a newlywed in what is considered the first zombie film.

How to get Turner Classic Movies in time to watch the film festival

It’s almost time for the TCM Classic Film Festival and you’re a bit out of sorts because you don’t have Turner Classic Movies to watch the festival at home. Maybe you just moved, switched services or cut the cord: the bottom line is that you need to watch TCM fast!

Relax – you’ve got options and they are quicker and easier than you think.

First off: you can’t get TCM for free. Sorry. Nor is there a standalone app you can buy. The Watch TCM app is linked to paid accounts with a cable provider or streaming service that provides TCM.

Basically here are your choices to watch TCM:

  • An account with either a cable or satellite provider.
  • A Live TV streaming service.

What’s the difference? A cable or satellite provider – think Spectrum, Comcast, X-Finity, DirecTV or Dish – is the traditional way to watch live television through a cable box or satellite dish. You can find TCM on most of these services, although it often comes on a higher tier at a higher price.

A Live TV streaming service is an app that lets you watch live television like you would with cable. It is not, however the same as an on-demand streaming service such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or Apple TV+ where you pick what you want to watch from a library without the option for live TV. (This is where it should be noted that additional programming for the TCM Classic Film Festival will also be available to watch on the streaming service HBO Max, although you won’t be able to watch TCM live.)

The bonus: you don’t need to rent equipment. Instead, you most likely already have everything you need to get started: an internet connection plus a Smart TV or a device like Roku, Amazon Firestick or Apple TV. If you can use Netflix, you can use this.

Live TV streaming services that offer TCM include AT&T TV, Sling TV, Hulu with Live TV and Youtube TV. Full channel lineups, packages and prices are on all of their websites. As soon as you sign up online, you have service. Service is month-to-month so if you don’t like it, you can switch to another without penalty. If local channels are important to you, be sure to see what these services offer in your area.



If you have cable or a dish but don’t get TCM, call to see if you can get it on another package. Most providers let you change tiers without an extra fee and they can do it on the phone for instant TCM. If you want to get cable or satellite, do an internet search to see what is available in your area. I won’t list prices because services and packages vary greatly depending on where you live and if you package TV with other services.


This may be the easiest way to get TCM. Here are four available services.

Sling TV is the least expensive service that offers TCM. First you have to purchase one of Sling’s two basic packages: Orange Sling (recommended for sports/entertainment) or Blue (entertainment/news). Each is $35 regularly. This is important: To get TCM, you’ll need to add the “Hollywood Extra” package for $6 a month. (It has eight channels including SundanceTV, Reelz, StartTV, GRIT, Cinemoi.) The total cost, then, for Sling Blue and “Hollywood Extra” would be $41 with 50 hours of free DVR storage. Look for free trials and discounts. (If you’re lucky, you may still be able to get the $10 for the first month special.) Sling almost always offers free gifts by prepaying for two or more months such as getting a free TV antenna.

AT&T TV is the new live TV streaming service from AT&T (it replaces ATT U-Verse). TCM is available on all three packages starting with the “Entertainment” package that comes with more than 65 channels and 20 hours of free Cloud DVR service to record that late-night programming. Cost starts at $69.99 a month.

Hulu + Live TV. Packages start at $64.99 with TCM and 50 hours of free Cloud DVR storage. Current offer is a free one-week trial. Be sure to look at this live streaming option, not the regular Hulu streaming service.

YouTube TV. Packages start at $64.99 with TCM and come with unlimited DVR storage.

All of these options are constantly changing but this will give you a start. I’m not a tech expert, but I’ve done a lot of research looking for options for myself. I hope this is helpful.


The TCM Classic Film Festival starts at 8 p.m. May 6 on both TCM and HBO Max.

For the full schedule of live festival programming on TCM, visit

For the full list of on-demand festival programming on HBO Max, visit

For the regular TCM website, visit

When ‘Murder, She Wrote’ brilliantly became a sequel to a 1949 film

Television sleuth Jessica Fletcher solved a remarkable number of mysteries throughout the 12-year run of “Murder, She Wrote.”

During the 264 episodes and four movies, the mystery writer – eternally personified by the legendary Angela Lansbury – dealt with greed, infidelity, theft, poisonings, curses, voodoo and ghosts during hundreds of investigations.

Yet I find the most impressive case was in the inventive “The Days Dwindle Down” (Season 3, Episode 21) in which Jessica is asked to solve a decades-old murder that comes with a unique twist. The episode is a “sequel” to the real 1949 detective film “Strange Bargain.”

That ingenious idea of basing an episode off a classic film makes “The Days Dwindle Down” worthy to be in the 7th annual “Favourite TV Episode” blogathon hosted by Terence Towles Canote from his blog, “A Shroud of Thoughts.”

Let’s break it down into three important parts: how the idea came to be, the film and how it all came together on “Murder, She Wrote.”


Although “Murder, She Wrote” was only in its third season at the time, the producers were already looking for “a new way to tell a story,” according to a 1987 interview with Executive Producer Peter Fischer in the Los Angeles Times. The show had also gained a reputation for its notable collection of guest stars from the classic film era, thanks to their relationships with star Angela Lansbury.

Those two factors – new storytelling and classic Hollywood – combined to give Fischer an idea. “If only I could find an old movie where everyone was still around, then we could solve the case 30 years later,” he said in the article.

Fischer started by sifting through hundreds of films. He needed a mystery that Jessica Fletcher could solve plus living cast members from the film who would be willing to reprise their roles year later. It was a time-consuming task that would take nearly a year until Fischer found “Strange Bargain.”

The film had a tidy conclusion that would have to be ignored so Jessica would have a mystery to solve, but everything else was there including the three main stars – Martha Scott, Jeffrey Lynn and Harry Morgan.

Jeffrey Lynn, left, Martha Scott and Harry Morgan in the film “Strange Bargain.”

From there, a few characters were added or had their storylines extended to provide more details for Jessica. Original film clips and new black and white footage told the original story in flashbacks and did it so well that you don’t need to watch the movie to understand the episode. Still, I recommend seeing “Strange Bargain” simply because it’s an easy to watch film and you’ll be more invested in the Wilson family, the main protagonists.


“Strange Bargain” certainly lives up to its title. In fact, the plot borders on being so ludicrous – a despondent man will pay an employee to make his suicide look like a murder – that it almost overshadows the fact that the film is a solid mystery yarn.

Sam Wilson (played by Jeffrey Lynn) is a loving father and husband who is having trouble making ends meet in his job as an assistant bookkeeper. When he asks his boss, Malcolm Jarvis (Richard Gaines), for a raise, he’s shocked to learn he’s being fired after 12 years.

Not only is the firm in bad shape, the once wealthy Jarvis is broke. As an indication of Sam’s character, he addresses his boss as “sir “and tries to comfort him (“The firm will come back, Mr. Jarvis”), despite his own plight.

As it turns out, the job loss isn’t the worst of it.

Sam (Jeffrey Lynn), left, is asked by his boss Malcolm Jarvis (Richard Gaines) to join him in a “Strange Bargain” in the 1949 film.

The desperate Jarvis has concocted the strange bargain of the title. He has taken out extra life insurance and plans to kill himself to help his wife and son financially. Since a suicide nullifies the insurance payout, Jarvis asks Sam to make it look like a robbery; in return, Jarvis will pay him his last $10,000. Sam is horrified and steadfastly refuses while pleading with Jarvis not to kill himself.

But Jarvis moves forward with his plan. Sam tries to stop him but he’s too late. Jarvis is dead and a note addressed to Sam, plus the money and the gun are nearby. Rattled and confused, Sam takes the gun and leaves, then decides to shoot two bullets through the window as Jarvis had asked him to do.

Sam Wilson destroyed this note left by Malcolm Jarvis that would have cleared him of wrongdoing in “Strange Bargain.”

Back home, Sam finds blood on his hands, hat and the steering wheel and desperately tries to wash it off. He also burns the note from Jarvis – in retrospect, the only proof that he isn’t a murderer.

Once the dogged Lt. Richard Webb (Harry Morgan) starts his investigation and makes it known that something isn’t right, the film shifts into a taut thriller of whether the likable Sam will take the fall for a murder he didn’t commit.

The Wilsons (played by Martha Scott and Jeffrey Lynn) offer their condolences to young Sydney (Raymond Roe) over the death of his father in “Strange Bargain.” In the “Murder, She Wrote” episode, the adult Sydney is played by Richard Beymer.

The script by Lillie Hayward is cunning in how it unnerves Sam by forcing him to return to the scene of the death and having others – including his wife and son – talk incessantly about the investigation. They do it so often, it almost works as a comedy, except the viewer can see the toll it’s taking on Sam.

“They won’t leave a stone unturned until they find that murderer,” his wife, Georgia (Martha Scott), tells him. “Lt. Webb always gets his man,” says his idolizing son.

The film’s ending is a solid surprise and works well, but since J.B. Fletcher needed a mystery to solve, you’ll have to put the movie’s last few minutes in the back of your mind before watching its sequel on “Murder, She Wrote.”


In “The Days Dwindle Down,” Jessica is being wooed by yet another Hollywood hotshot. He’s not there to discuss her latest novel “The Stain on the Stairs,” no, this guy sees dollar signs in the stack of newspaper clippings he’s collected about Jessica’s detective skills with headlines like “Writer rights wrong.”

“This real-life sleuth action will play like a Beatles’ reunion,” he tells “Jessie.” 

His big money-making idea is a new talk show starring Jessica and the victims of the murders she has solved. After explaining the difficulty in booking the victims to him (ahem), Jessica also says she doesn’t want to profit off the misfortunes of others.

The conversation is overheard by a sad-looking hotel employee who later visits Jessica. She is Georgia, Sam’s wife (again played by Martha Scott), who pleads with Jessica to her clear her husband’s name. Sam has just been released from jail after serving a 30-year sentence for a murder she swears he didn’t commit, but he’s a shell of himself. “He was broken, just broken. He sits there and broods and waits to die,” Georgia says. “I don’t want vengeance, or money or publicity. All I want is us, in whatever time we left, to have a life together.”

Her words echo the refrain of “September Song,” the often recorded American standard (think Frank Sinatra) where the episode gets its title: “Oh, the days dwindle down/To a precious few/September, November. And these few precious days/I’ll spend with you.”

Georgia (Martha Scott, center) brings Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) to meet her husband Sam (Jeffrey Lynn) who has been released after serving 30 years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit. Note the vintage black and white photo of Lynn on the table in the background.

When Georgia pleads “Please, Mrs. Fletcher,” we know where this is going: Jessica never turns down a “Please, Mrs. Fletcher.”

(During this scene watch actress Angela Lansbury whose eyes water up during Martha Scott’s performance in what feels like a real reaction, not part of the script.)

Deeply touched by Georgia’s unwavering belief in Sam, Jessica agrees to speak to him. As he tells his story, she quickly finds holes in the case. Why would the police believe the killer shot bullets from outside the home after he killed Jarvis, thereby drawing unnecessary attention to himself? Why didn’t the police find the gun? And what about the missing police files?

Sam and Georgia’s son, Rod (Art Hindle), became a police officer in hopes of clearing his father and has collected an impressive amount of information that he gives to Jessica. There’s enough to convince her that things don’t add up.

Plus Jessica asks the question: What if it wasn’t a suicide, what if Jarvis was murdered?

Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury), left, tracks down Miss Vantay (played in the episode by June Havoc) who is ready to dish the gossip.

Jessica and Rod work together and find new suspects. There’s the son, Sydney Jarvis (Richard Beymer), who lies about his mother being dead. Jarvis’ secretary Miss Vantay (played here by June Havoc) who loves to gossip but is clearly hiding something. The new character of Dorothy Hearne Davis (Susan Strasberg), who runs the company now, isn’t telling the truth about her late grandfather, one of the original suspects.

Then there’s the person who takes a shot at Jessica, using the same gun that killed Jarvis. How is that possible if Sam threw the gun in the ocean? Jessica figures it out.

As secrets are spilled, it’s sadly revealed that people had information that could have kept Sam out of jail.

Even as an adult, Sydney (Richard Beymer) is still caught between his parents Edna and Malcolm Jarvis, as cleverly depicted in this scene from “Murder, She Wrote.”

There are many reasons why this episode works on its own and as a sequel to the film. Much of that credit goes to writer William Gerson whose clever work adds mystery by taking us deeper into minor characters and elaborates on moments in the film that were red herrings or never fully explained. As an example, Miss Vantay (played by Betty Underwood in the film) is only shown briefly, but she clearly had it out for Sam. “I don’t know what makes me more nervous, seeing the boss or getting by his secretary,” Sam tells Jessica, making the viewer wonder what was her true role.

The use of phrases that would have been popular in the 1940s is delightful and adds to the time capsule feel of the episode such as when Lt. Webb says he thought Miss Vantay was “playing bed sheet bingo with the boss.”

I appreciate the respect shown in the episode for the original film as it adds new elements but still effectively ties both works together. “The Years Dwindle Down” is not only one of the most entertaining episodes of “Murder, She Wrote,” it is one of the cleverest episodes of television you’ll ever see.

Debbie Zip, pictured with Art Hindle, appears in the 1987 “Murder, She Wrote” episode “The Days Dwindle Down.” The following year, Zipp would start her recurring role as Donna Mayberry.


  • Eagle-eyed “Murder, She Wrote” fans will recognize Debbie Zipp as Rod’s pregnant wife. In Season 4, she started her recurring role on the series as Donna Mayberry, the girlfriend and future wife Grady Fletcher (Michael Horton), Jessica’s nephew. Zipp and Grady are married in real life.
  • That’s Gloria Stuart taking over the role of Edna Jarvis, the wife of the dead Mr. Jarvis, for the TV show. In the film, Edna was played by Katherine Emery.

‘Pet Set’ is an irresistible mix of Betty White, animals and celebrities

Betty White is kneeling on the ground next to a 550-pound lion named Zamba. She’s brushing his mane, fluffing it up and teasing the top. When he rolls over, she continues brushing, then rubbing his belly with a big smile on her face.

It was mesmerizing to watch this 50-year-old footage from “Betty White’s Pet Set,” as the petite Betty and the enormous Zamba played together. It wasn’t the only time Betty would get close to a dangerous animal on the show – she also sat with a 250-pound leopard, let a Bengal tiger lick her face and was overrun by puppies.

Betty’s lifelong love of animals gives her a natural ease that’s evident on the show, now available in a new 50th anniversary DVD set from MPI Video, where she interacted with seemingly the entire animal kingdom.

Debuting in 1971, the 39-episode series had been unseen for decades leading it to be called the “lost Betty White series.” Consider this DVD set, then, a treasure found.

It’s not only a great series for those who love Betty and animals, but also for fans of classic television and movies since it has an impressive guest list of such stars as Doris Day, Mary Tyler Moore (Moore and her poodles are pictured at the top of this story), Rod Serling, Johnny Mathis, Donald O’Connor, Burt Reynolds, Vincent Price and Jimmy and Gloria Stewart. (The guest for each episode is clearly labeled in the packaging and in the DVD menu, allowing you to pick episodes with your favorite celebrities if you like.)

“If I haven’t told you already, I will now. ‘The Pet Set’ is one of my favorite shows. I’m thrilled it’s going to be seen again after all these years,” Betty said in a release about this new home video of the series she created and produced with her husband Allen Ludden.

Each 22-minute episode has a celebrity guest and their pet plus related segments with animals both on and off the set. While there are the expected adorable animal babies, you’ll also meet elephants, snakes, vultures, anteaters and more.

And this isn’t a show where the expert is the only one handling the animals, Betty is right there holding them, putting her arm out for a bird to sit on, rubbing them in their sweet spot. Guests can pet and hold the animals to their comfort level, which also provides moments of unintentional laughter.

Many of the animals come from regular guest Ralph Helfer (who gives off a Robert Foxworth vibe), the founder of Africa U.S.A. who worked with and trained many animals (Gentle Ben, Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion) from television and movies (“Daktari,” “Bonanza”).

Giving overdue credit to character actor Richard Deacon

Uncredited. What a perfect word to succinctly sum up the career of character actor Richard Deacon.

Not only is his impressively extensive resume filled with “uncredited” roles, Deacon also never received the credit due from his long body of work that included roles on some of the best-loved classic TV series including the iconic “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

Although he had a lengthy career, Richard Deacon is best known as part of the great cast in “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” It starred, from left, Morey Amsterdam, Deacon, Dick Van Dyke, Rose Marie and Mary Tyler Moore.

Instead, he’s typecast in our memories as a striking visual: tall (6-1), bald, bespectacled. Yet even when he’s in the background in one of those uncredited roles, Richard Deacon stands out.

Deacon deserves our respect and attention and that’s why I chose to write about him for the 9th annual “What a Character” blogathon hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club. You can read all of the other entries by going to those blo

Deacon’s first film role was as an MP in the sci-fi yarn “Invaders from Mars.” That was 1953 and over the next seven years he would be in at least 40 movies of various genres (and on as many TV shows). Most roles were “uncredited” so you won’t find him in the credits, and often his character is referred to generically like desk clerk, salesman, hotel manager, pawn broker, banker.

Let’s think about those just those seven years to get a full appreciation for Deacon and his remarkable perseverance. He must have had a strong lack of ego and, I would bet, a deep passion for his craft to work so hard, for so long without being labeled “a star.”

A handy guide to nearly 100 horror films airing on TCM in October

It’s our time, horror movie fans.

Once again, Turner Classic Movies has curated a made-to-order fright fest with a schedule of nearly 100 horror films throughout October.

Friday evenings are devoted exclusively to scary movies starting Oct. 2 when horror author David J. Skal, whose new book with TCM is “Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond,” introduces four films starting at 8 p.m.

Those four movies and many others in the book will be shown on TCM in October including “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” “Them!” and “The Wolf Man.”

TCM’s Star of the Month (#sotm) is horror great Peter Cushing, whose films will be featured in prime-time every Monday night in October. Though the first two weeks (Oct. 5 and 12) focus on Cushing’s early roles and non-horror work, Oct. 19 is devoted to his Hammer films  – including three Frankenstein movies – and Oct. 26 is all horror including two Dracula films.

Oct. 14 is Tod Browning Day with seven of his films programmed including three with Lon Chaney. The month culminates in around-the-clock horror films on Oct. 30 and 31.

Here is the list of films to help you plan your viewing and DVR schedule. Continue reading “A handy guide to nearly 100 horror films airing on TCM in October”