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The Unsinkable Angela Lansbury : Television: After 10 years and more than 200 corpses, no one has been able to knock off 'Murder, She Wrote,' powered by you-know-who.

May 21, 1994|STEVE WEINSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They've electrocuted 'em, stabbed 'em, shot 'em, hanged, drowned, bow-and-arrowed and poisoned 'em, even clubbed 'em over the head with a frozen fish and then eaten the murder weapon for lunch.

But even after 10 years and more than 200 corpses, nothing has been able to murder "Murder, She Wrote."

This past season was supposed to be different. ABC tapped the greatest superhero of them all and two of the prettiest young stars on television to subdue it. NBC turned to none other than Steven Spielberg and a special-effects-packed underwater spectacular to give it a nice burial at sea. Fox threw one of the country's hottest comedians against it, hoping once and for all to slay it with laughs.

Even Angela Lansbury, the show's star and executive producer, who has enjoyed 50 years of nearly uninterrupted success in show business, was worried.

"I thought, boy, this is really some stiff competition," the show's 68-year-old centerpiece said in a recent interview on the set of her series. "I figured we had to be prepared to take our lumps and just hope we could survive."

Her fears turned out to be unfounded, almost ludicrous. For the 1993-94 season that ended last month, "Murder, She Wrote" finished as the ninth most popular series in television and the highest-rated drama in prime time. ABC's "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" finished 64th, Spielberg's "seaQuest DSV" on NBC came in 82nd, and Fox's "Martin," starring Martin Lawrence, was 85th.

"To my amazement, we were never threatened," Lansbury said. "And this is the second time Steven Spielberg has gone up against us"--he was executive producer of NBC's "Amazing Stories" back in 1985-86. "It may be his year, but I guess this isn't his time slot."

"Murder, She Wrote," which has always benefited from the lead-in of "60 Minutes"--the second highest-rated prime-time series again this season--did see its ratings slide a few years ago when Lansbury, wanting to work less, disappeared entirely from many episodes. ABC's "Funniest Home Videos" skyrocketed into the Top 10.

When Peter S. Fischer, who had guided the series as executive producer for the first seven years, decided to leave, Lansbury opted to take control. Ever since, almost miraculously--because usually once an old show starts to decline, it rarely turns itself around--the series has regained its dominance.

"There's really only one explanation for it and it's her," said Bruce Lansbury, the show's supervising producer, pointing across the room at his sister.

"It's Angie and her expression of Jessica Fletcher as a real human being, someone people trust and have confidence in, a mature woman who is up with the times," he continued. "The mystery is the fun part, the puzzle part, and for us it's the repetition of the familiar, which television really thrives on. You find a good joke and you play it every week. But really, much bigger than our format, it's the star."

Angela Lansbury, ever the gracious and modest host, blushes at such praise. She insists that "Murder, She Wrote" has become a Sunday night habit for millions of Americans simply because they love a good mystery.

But, really, how many mysteries can one woman solve?

After 10 years, both Bruce and Angela Lansbury concede it's tough to come up with fresh stories. It's not so much that they've run out of ways to kill people--Bruce Lansbury said he has a list in his office with all the possible variations. The trick is finding a new arena in which to dump the body.

Coming up with new settings, they agreed, is what makes it possible to go on. Just this season, Jessica Fletcher has unraveled mysteries within the worlds of art galleries, classical music, theater, pigeon racing, NASA, interactive video games, a museum of cultural history, psychiatry, mining, restaurants, a TV cooking show, horse racing, illegal gambling, celebrity magazines, deep-sea diving, vampires--yes, vampires--and she's happened upon homicides in Hong Kong, Amsterdam and Ireland.

After all the corpses Jessica has run into over the years, Lansbury thinks it's funny that the other characters don't run for their lives the minute she walks into their world.

"I guess they don't know what's coming," she said, "but that's what keeps it from getting boring for me after all these years. Every eight days I get to work with an entirely new group of actors in a new setting. It's not like I'm stuck in the same old place day after day, even if I do have to find a corpse everywhere I go."

Once the star approves of the setting for a story, her brother and his writers go to work with their formula. Jessica always spots a telling clue--often one as obscure as ashes from a cigar or a missing button on a jacket--that no one else in the story sees. Then, the writers will throw in some misdirection, providing motives and evidence that seem to implicate someone else. Then, always, they write a "gotcha" scene in which Jessica confronts the real killer and explains to him or her and the audience how she figured it all out.

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