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.”
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.
* * * * *
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.)
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.
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.
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.
* * * * *
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.
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.”
“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).
“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!
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.
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.
“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.
* * * * *
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.”