My sister would be upset with me if I didn’t begin this column with Jessica Fletcher, one of her favorite TV characters.
Jessica Fletcher is the widowed English teacher who became a mystery novelist and an amateur sleuth with a fine memory for detail that often solves crimes to the chagrin of professional police officers, but some of whom actually embrace her help.
Angela Lansbury, a film actress whose career began during World War II, was almost 60 when she agreed to play the role in 1984.
The producers were able to parlay their “mystery writer/amateur detective” premise into a 12-year hit for the CBS network. It also made Lansbury, known previously for her motion picture and Broadway stage work, a household name for millions of television viewers. Among the most successful and longest-running television shows in history, it averaged more than 30 million viewers per week in its prime – sometimes hitting above 40 million viewers – and was a staple of the CBS Sunday night lineup for a decade. In syndication, the series is still highly successful throughout the world.
For her work on “Murder, She Wrote”, Lansbury was nominated for ten Golden Globe Awards and 12 Emmy Awards, winning four Golden Globes. She holds the record for the most Golden Globe nominations and wins for Best Actress in a television drama series and the most Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series. The series received three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series. It was nominated for a Golden Globe in the same category six times and won twice.
The title comes from “Murder, She Said”, which was the title of a 1961 film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple novel “4:50 from Paddington”.
Despite fame and fortune, the series revolves around the day-to-day life of Jessica, as she remains a resident of Cabot Cove, a small coastal community in Maine, and maintains her links with all of her old friends, never letting her success go to her head.
Jessica invariably proves more perceptive than the official investigators of a case, who are almost always willing to arrest the most likely suspect. By carefully piecing the clues together and asking astute questions, she always manages to trap the real murderer.
Murder occurred with such regularity in her vicinity that the term “Cabot Cove syndrome” was coined to describe the constant appearance of dead bodies in remote locations. Indeed, if Cabot Cove existed in real life, it would top the FBI’s national crime statistics in numerous categories, with some analysis suggesting that the homicide rate in Cabot Cove exceeds even that of the real-life murder capital of the world.
Jessica’s relationship with law enforcement officials varies from place to place. Both sheriffs of Cabot Cove resign themselves to having her meddle in their cases. However, most detectives and police officers do not want her anywhere near their crime scenes, until her accurate deductions convince them to listen to her. Some are happy to have her assistance from the start, often because they are fans of her books. With time, she makes friends in many police departments across the U.S., as well as with a British police officer attached to Scotland Yard. At the start of season eight, more of the stories were set in New York City with Jessica moving into an apartment there part-time in order to teach criminology.
The series almost ended with the decade of the 1980s.
In August 1988, Lansbury expressed weariness of her commitment to the series as she was not sure, at 63, that she could continue at the pace now required of her; she specifically cited the change from seven to eight days to shoot each episode. Thus, “Murder, She Wrote” went into its fifth season that fall with the distinct possibility that it would cease production at the end of it and the series finale would air in May 1989.
A solution was worked on, however, which enabled Lansbury to continue but also give her time to rest. This also enabled some secondary characters to get significant stories. For the next two seasons, Lansbury reduced her appearances in several episodes, only appearing at the beginning and the end, to introduce stories starring several friends of Jessica, like PI Harry McGraw, reformed thief Dennis Stanton or MI5 agent Michael Hagarty. The “experiment” ended in 1991. The next year, Lansbury took on a more extensive role in production as she became one of the series’ executive producers.
By the end of the 1994-1995 season, “Murder, She Wrote’s” 11th season, Lansbury again was considering retirement due to her advancing age; this would have made the upcoming twelfth season the final one.
Aside from Lansbury, key cast members were: William Windom as Dr. Seth Hazlitt, the local doctor of Cabot Cove and one of Jessica’s best friends and most intrepid supporters. There is a hint that Dr. Hazlitt may want to be more than a platonic friend but this possibility was never explored; “Happy Days” Mr. C, Tom Bosley as Sheriff Amos Tupper, Cabot Cove’s sheriff at the start of the series who later retires and goes to live with his sister, and Ron Masak, as Sheriff Mort Metzger, a former NYPD officer who takes Tupper’s place as sheriff in the mistaken belief that he would be living in a more peaceful place.
A recurring cast member is Michael Horton, who plays Grady Fletcher, Jessica’s not-so-lucky favorite nephew, who, through no fault of his own. always seems to get in trouble with the law. There was a female Grady, Jessica’s niece, played by Genie Francis, Laura from “General Hospital”.
Some other recurring characters were: Herb Edelman, known as Bea Arthur’s ex-husband on “The Golden Girls”, who stars as Artie Gelber, a NYPD Lieutenant and Jessica’s friend, and Len Cariou as Michael Hagarty, a British MI5 agent who would appear when Jessica least expected him to drag her into a dangerous case.
Since CBS was also the home of another successful private eye series of the time “Magnum, P.I.” they crossed over.
The third season episode of “Murder, She Wrote” entitled “Magnum on Ice” concludes a crossover that began on the seventh season “Magnum, P.I.” episode “Novel Connection”.
In the episode’s plot, Jessica comes to Hawaii to investigate an attempt to murder Robin Masters’ guests, and then tries to clear Magnum when he’s accused of killing the hitman. The “Magnum, P.I.” episode originally aired on November 19, 1986 with the concluding “Murder, She Wrote” episode following four days later on November 23.
Speaking of Magnum, Tom Selleck spent eight years of his life – most of the 1980s, from 1980 to 1988 – portraying Thomas Magnum, a private investigator, or P.I., living on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.
According to the Nielsen ratings, “Magnum, P.I.” consistently ranked in the top twenty U.S. television programs during the first five years of its original run in the United States.
A reboot series of the same name is on CBS now, starring Jay Hernandez as Magnum. Like the reboot of “Hawaii 5-0”, the new cast has a great change. In the new “Hawaii 5-0” the part of Kono was changed from a big Hawaiian guy to a beautiful Hawaiian woman. In the new “Magnum”, Higgins was changed from an older man to a lovely young woman, British actress Perdita Weeks.
In the original, Thomas Sullivan Magnum III, Tom Selleck, resides in the guest house of a 200-acre beachfront estate called Robin’s Nest, at the invitation of its owner, Robin Masters, the celebrated, but never-seen, author of several dozen lurid novels. Ostensibly this is quid pro quo for Magnum’s services based upon his expertise in security; the pilot and several early episodes suggest Magnum had done Masters a favor of some kind, possibly when Masters hired him for a case.
Magnum lives a luxurious life on the estate and operates as a P.I. on cases that suit him. In reality, the three-acre, beachfront property was located on the east shore of Oahu at 41-505 Kalanianaole Highway, Route 72 near Waimanalo Beach. Called “Pahonu”, which means “turtle enclosure” in Hawaiian, it was also known locally as “The Anderson Estate” after long-time owner, a local politician named Eve Anderson. The grounds had been used for hundreds of years for raising green sea turtles for the Hawaiian royal family and includes a 500-by-50-foot stone wall that surrounds the former turtle-raising pond. Since 1978, the turtle pond has been on the National Register of Historic Places listings in Hawaii. A residential estate since the early 1930s, comprising an 11,000-square-foot main house, a boathouse – which in the series appears as the guest house that Magnum occupies – a gatehouse, and private tennis court.
Owned in January 2014 by Cox Communications heiress Barbara Cox Anthony, it was placed on the market with Sotheby’s International Realty for $15.75 million and sold for $8.7 million in March 2015. In April 2018, the estate was demolished.
Many of the indoor scenes of “Magnum, P.I.” were filmed on the old “Hawaii Five-O” soundstage, as the network did not wish for their Hawaiian production facilities to go to waste after “Hawaii Five-O” ended its run right before Magnum” went into production in 1980.
The only thorn in the side of his near-perfect lifestyle is Jonathan Quayle Higgins III, played by John Hillerman. An ex-British Army Sergeant Major, he is on the surface a stern, “by-the-book” caretaker of Robin’s Nest, whose strict ways often conflict with Magnum’s more easy-going methods. He patrols Robin’s Nest with his two highly trained “lads”, Doberman Pinschers named Zeus and Apollo. Magnum has free use of the guest house and the car, a Ferrari 308 GTS Quattrovalvole, but as a humorous aside in various episodes, often has to bargain with Higgins for use of estate amenities such as the tennis courts, wine cellar and expensive cameras.
The relationship between Magnum and Higgins is initially cool, but as the series progressed, an unspoken respect and fondness of sorts grew between the pair. Many episodes dedicated more screen time to this “odd couple” pairing after the relationship proved popular with fans. A recurrent theme throughout the last two seasons, starting in the episode “Paper War”, involves Magnum’s sneaking suspicion that Higgins is actually Robin Masters since he opens Robin’s mail, calls Robin’s Ferrari “his car” etc. This suspicion is neither proved nor disproved, although in at least one episode Higgins is shown alone in a room, picking up a ringing phone and talking to Robin Masters, indicating they are two different persons.
Aside from Higgins, Magnum’s two main companions on the islands are Theodore Calvin “T.C.”, played by Roger E. Mosley, who runs a local helicopter charter service called “Island Hoppers”, and often finds himself persuaded by Magnum to fly him during various cases, and Orville Wilbur Richard “Rick” Wright, portrayed by Larry Manetti, who refuses to use his given name Orville and who owns a local bar, the plush, beachside King Kamehameha Club.
T.C. and Rick are both former Marines from Marine Observation Squadron 2 (VMO-2) with whom Magnum, a former Navy SEAL and Naval Intelligence officer, served in the Vietnam War. The series was one of the first to deal with Vietnam veterans as “human beings” and not as shell-shocked killers, and was praised by many ex-servicemen groups for doing so. Magnum often dupes or bribes T.C. and Rick into aiding him on his cases, much to their frustration, though the deep friendship within the group, including Higgins, proved to be one of the key elements of the program over its eight-season run.
Magnum comes and goes as he pleases, works only when he wants, and has the almost unlimited use of the Ferrari and many other luxuries of the estate. He keeps a mini-refrigerator with a seemingly endless supply of beer (“Old Düsseldorf in a long neck”), wears his father’s treasured Rolex GMT Master wristwatch and is surrounded by countless beautiful women, who are often victims of crime, his clients, or are connected in various other ways to the cases he solves.
Other characteristics specific to Magnum are his thick moustache, baseball caps – usually a Detroit Tigers or VMO-2 cap. Selleck does a voice-over at various points in almost every episode. At the end of the seventh season, Magnum was to be killed off, to end the series. Following an outcry from fans who demanded a more satisfactory conclusion, an eighth season was produced to bring Magnum “back to life” and to round off the series.
A few of the recurring characters were: Carol Baldwin, an assistant district attorney played by Kathleen Lloyd; Luther H. Gillis, a mock St. Louis private eye with a Boston accent, played by Eugene Roche, whose deception, dissembling and disturbing capacity for violence are almost always underestimated or overlooked by Magnum. Gillis provided the narration in the five episodes in which he appeared; Lt. Nolan Page, a hard-nosed, no-nonsense Honolulu Police Department lieutenant with a New York accent, played by Joe Santos, assists Magnum on several cases, and Moki, the bartender of the King Kamehameha Club in the first season, is played by Branscombe Richmond, who would later stat with Lorenzo Lamas in “Renegade”.
Guest stars included: Frank Sinatra, who Larry Manetti knew personally; Noah Beery and Gretchen Corbett from “The Rockford Files”; McHale “Ernest Borgnine” Paul Burke from “12 O’Clock High” and “The Naked City”; Carol Burnett former NFL linebacker-turned-actor Dick Butkus successful YB producer Stephen J. Cannell Jeanie Stone from “The Streets of San Francisco” and Mrs. Jameson Parker, Darleen Carr; Margaret Colin, who co-starred with Selleck in “Three Men and A Baby”; Tyne Daly from “Cagney and Lacey” and “Judging Amy”; “Sudden Sam” Malone, Ted Danson and John Ratzenberger from “Cheers”; Phyllis Davis from “Vega$”; Dana Delany, from “China Beach”; Samantha Eggar, from “The Molly Maguires”; Mr. Roper, Norman Fell; father and son, José and Miguel Ferrer; Beverly Garland, from “My Three Sons”; the Skipper from “Gilligan’s Island:”, Alan Hale, Jr.; Pat Hingle, from “Batman” and “Sudden Impact”; Henry Jones from “9 to 5”; Joanna Kerns, from “Growing Pains”; Geoffrey Lewis from “Any Which Way But Loose” and “Any Which Way You Can”; June Lockhart and Meredith MacRae from “Petticoat Junction:; Mr Steed, Patrick Macnee, from “The Avengers”; Vic Morrow from “Combat”; Annie Potts from “Designing Women”; Joe Regalbuto from “Murphy Brown”; Judge Reinhold from “Stripes” and “Beverly Hills Cop”; Julie Sommars from “Matlock”; Sharon Stone from “Basic Instinct”; Marcia Wallace from “The Bob Newhart Show”; “McCloud”, Dennis Weaver, and Amy Yasbeck from “Wings”.
The original theme music for the opening credits of the pilot episode was a mid-tempo jazzy piece by Ian Freebairn-Smith. This music was also used for the next nine regular episodes.
Beginning in Episode 12, it was replaced by a more uptempo theme typical of 1980s action series by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter with guitar by Larry Carlton. This theme had been used during the show and over the closing credits from Episode 8. A longer version of this second theme credited to Post was released as a seven-inch single by Elektra Records in 1982 and featured on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that same year, peaking at No. 25 on 8 May 1982. This version also appeared on Post’s 1982 album Television Theme Songs.
Selleck won an Emmy in 1984 for his portrayal of the title character. Three years later, co-star John Hillerman also won an Emmy. In 1981, series creators and writers Glen A. Larson and Donald P. Bellisario received an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Episode in a TV Series.
Matt Houston stars Lee Horsley as a wealthy mustachioed Texas oilman named Matlock (ironic, isn’t it?) “Matt” Houston who worked as a private investigator in Los Angeles in his abundant free time. The show also stars Pamela Hensley as his lawyer sidekick, C.J., and George Wyner as his continuously frustrated business manager. During the show’s third and final season 1984-85, Buddy Ebsen joined the cast as Matt Houston’s uncle, Roy Houston.
Most episodes typically involved one of Matt Houston’s close friends being murdered or involved in some criminal enterprise, requiring his assistance. C.J. had access to an Apple III computer named “Baby” that contained a remarkable database on virtually all living and deceased persons, allowing her to provide all necessary information.
This private eye was a …. car.
Well, not really. It was Michael Knight, played by “Baywatch” star David Hasselhoff, going high-tech with an artificially intelligent, self-aware, and nearly indestructible car, for four TV seasons, 1982-86.
Self-made billionaire Wilton Knight rescues police Detective Lieutenant Michael Arthur Long, an undercover detective of the Los Angeles Police Department who, while on a case in Las Vegas, is shot in the face and nearly killed. Knight, creator of Knight Industries and founder of FLAG, directs his doctors to save Long’s life and reconstruct his face, giving him a new identity, by plastic surgery, and a new name: Michael Knight. Wilton selects Michael to be the primary field agent in the pilot program of his public justice organization, the Foundation for Law and Government, which gives us a nifty acronym, FLAG.
The other half of this pilot program is the Knight Industries Two Thousand – yet another nifty acronym – KITT, a heavily modified, technologically advanced Pontiac Firebird Trans Am with numerous features, including an extremely durable shell and frame, controlled by a computer with artificial intelligence.
Michael and KITT are brought in during situations where “direct action might provide the only feasible solution”.
Heading FLAG is Devon Miles, played by Edward Mulhare, the leader of FLAG, who appeared in every episode to provide mission details to Knight and KITT. He was also the spokesman for FLAG whenever it came under scrutiny.
Dr. Bonnie Barstow is the chief engineer in charge of KITT’s care, as well as technical assistant to Devon.
Hasselhoff also played Garthe Knight, Wilton Knight’s estranged son and a criminal artificially intelligental mastermind who drives Goliath, a semi tractor trailer Peterbilt 352 Pacemaker truck armed with rockets and protected by KITT’s molecular bonded shell after the formula was stolen by Elizabeth Knight, Wilton’s widow.
William Daniels is the voice of KITT, or Knight Industries Two Thousand, the autonomous car, with whom Michael Knight is partnered. Daniels, who simultaneously starred on “St. Elsewhere”, requested not to be credited for his role as KITT’s voice.
Patricia McPherson was Dr. Bonnie Barstow, KITT’s chief technician and romantic tension for Michael. The character was dropped after the first season, but due to strong fan reaction and lobbying by Hasselhoff and Mulhare, she was returned for the third season and remained through the end of the series
Rebecca Holden was April Curtis, the chief technician for KITT in the second season. The character was written out when Patricia McPherson returned. The connection between the two was never established in any installments.
Peter Parros played Reginald Cornelius III aka RC3, driver of the FLAG mobile unit and occasional sideman for Michael and KITT.
Richard Basehart of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” fame played Wilton Knight, the founder of FLAG, who dies in the pilot episode. Basehart’s voice, however, is heard throughout the series, narrating over the intro and outro.
The car used as KITT in the series was a customized 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am sports model, that cost $100,000 to build – equivalent to about $266,000 in 2018.
The “Knight Rider Theme” was composed by Stu Phillips and Glen A. Larson.
This was the last series Glen A Larson devised at Universal Television before he moved to 20th Century Fox Television
The Fall Guy
Lee Majors played Colt Seavers, a Hollywood stunt man who moonlights as a bounty hunter. He uses his physical skills and knowledge of stunt effects – especially stunts involving cars or his large GMC pickup truck – to capture fugitives and criminals. He is accompanied by his cousin and stuntman-in-training Howie Munson, portrayed by Douglas Barr, who studied in Nashville – whom Colt frequently calls “Kid”, and occasionally by fellow stunt performer Jody Banks, played by the lovely Heather Thomas, one of two Heathers on the small screen at that time, the other being Heather Locklear.
Guitarist and lead singer of The Diamonds, Dave Somerville, had been asked by television executives to develop a song for TV series based on the life of an anonymous stuntman. Although the original show never went forward, a year later when asked to vacation with his friend Glen A. Larson at Larson’s holiday home in Hawaii, the only original song Somerville had in his guitar case was the same song. Larson had also been trying to develop a TV show about stuntmen, and on hearing the song began developing his idea. On their return to Los Angeles, Larson and Somerville pitched the idea to ABC Studios, opening their pitch with Somerville playing the song on his guitar, now called “The Ballad Of The Unknown Stuntman”. Just on the five minute pitch alone, ABC Studios agreed that Larson could write a fully funded pilot show.
Whilst writing the pilot, Larson met actor Lee Majors in an airport terminal. Looking for a new project post the Larson-produced “Six Million Dollar Man”, Majors agreed to take on the lead role in the pilot. The series became known from the pilot onwards for its frequent cameos by Hollywood celebrities, and the occasional in-joke referring to Majors’ previous starring role in “The Six Million Dollar Man”. The pilot featured a cameo appearance by his then-wife Farrah Fawcett and his friend James Coburn. In the series, due to Majors’ pending divorce, Larson cast actress Heather Thomas in the Fawcett role, having previously cast her in other pilot shows at Universal Studios. Seavers’ house was built on a studio backlot, but its design was based on Somerville’s real house which still exists today in the Hollywood hills, which had an outside bathtub.
During the first-season episodes, typically, an episode begins with a voice-over introduction from Majors – in his role of Seavers – explaining the precarious life of a Hollywood stuntman, and how he, Seavers, is unable to make a full-time living from stunt work and must moonlight as a bounty hunter. This is intercut with actual Hollywood stock footage from various eras of dangerous movie stunts, such as an exploding plane plunging straight into the ground, a motorcycle jumping through a flaming hoop, and a biplane crashing/barnstorming into a barn. After the voice-over introduction, the crew is seen performing a stunt for a film or TV series when Seavers is then assigned to finding, for example, a man who has skipped bail. His case turns out to be more complicated than it first seemed. In the course of dealing with the villains, Seavers performs a stunt similar to the one shown at the beginning of the show. Seavers’s voice-over narration was dropped from the second season onward.
The series intros were composed mainly by both scenes from the TV series as well from risk scenes taken from films that dated before 1981. Scenes were borrowed from the films “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry”, “The Stunt Man”, “Silver Streak”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “Our Man Flint”, “The Poseidon Adventure”, “The Blue Max”, :Race with the Devil” and “Moving Violation”. Also included is archives footage from stunt shows made in the 1930s.
Seavers’s truck was a 1981 GMC K-2500 Wideside with the Sierra Grande package. Supplied at low-cost to the production by General Motors, during the show’s initial series the stunts took their toll on the modified production trucks, so several different years, makes – both Chevy and its cousin, GMC – and model years were used during the show’s initial run. As a result, there are some inconsistencies in the episodes.
For the second series onwards, General Motors supplied three specially adapted trucks for the stunt sequences, with the engine moved to a mid-chassis position immediately under the cab seat. This meant that these trucks flew in a flatter-projection whilst in the air, flew further, and landed flat on the ground, allowing them to be reused for multiple takes and shows
At the end of the series, the remaining trucks were either auctioned or given away in a contest. One of them was sold on eBay in 2003.
TRIVIA THIS TIME
QUESTION: What two actors famous for other TV series appeared as private investigators in “Murder, She Wrote”?
Q. Only the voice of Robin Masters was heard on “Magnum, P.I.” Who provided it?
Q. What other series did John Hillerman star in before “Magnum”?
Q. In what other series did Joe Santos play a detective?
Q. Who played Grady Fletcher’s wife in “Murder, She Wrote”?
Q. Colonel “Buck” Greene: A Marine Corps aviator and intelligence officer, was played by Lance LeGault, often Magnum’s nemesis. In what other series does LeGault play a military officer?
Q. What successful sports movie franchise did Corbin Bernsen star in?
A. Bernsen, who has had a varied career in military television series such as “JAG’ and “The Cape” and daytime dramas such as “General Hospital” and “The Young and the Restless” was Roger Dorn, the expensive, not-so-talented third basemen who later becomes the owner of the Cleveland Indians in the “Major League” movie franchise.
TRIVIA FROM LAST TIME:
QUESTION: What star of a then-recently-completed TV series appeared in the Mannix pilot?
ANSWER – Barbara Anderson, who portrayed Officer Eve Whitfield during the first four seasons of “Ironside” 1967-71, appeared in the series debut in 1967, “The Name is Mannix”.
Q. William Conrad used his deep voice to narrate 23 different projects during his career. Can you name any of them?
A. Conrad narrated “The Fugitive” with David Janssen, and cartoons “The Bullwinkle Show” and “The Best of Mr. Peabody and Sherman”. He was also the voice of Sheriff Matt Dillon in the radio version of “Gunsmoke”.
Q. What was the original name of “Charlie’s Angels”?
A. “Harry’s Angels”, but the title was dropped when ABC did not want to run into conflict with the series “Harry O”, and changed it to “Charlie’s Angels”.
Q. Who was supposed to be Charlie?
John Forsythe was offered the ‘Charlie’ role in a panicky late-night phone call from producer Aaron Spelling after the original choice, Gig Young, showed up too intoxicated to read his lines. “I didn’t even take my pajamas off – I just put on my topcoat and drove over to Fox. When it was finished, Aaron Spelling said, ‘That’s perfect’. And I went home and went back to bed,” Forsythe said.
Q. Who was originally supposed to be “Charlie’s Angels” leader?
A. ABC executives brought in David Ogden Stiers, Dr. Charles Emerson Winchster from “M*A*S*H” as Scott Woodville, who would act as the chief backup to the Angels and John Bosley’s superior. Woodville would also be depicted as the organizer of the plan, in similar fashion to Jim Phelps in Mission: Impossible.
Q. What star of a later TV series appeared in “The Rockford Files” pilot?
A. Lindsay Wagner, “The Bionic Woman”, appears in “Backlash of the Hunter”, as a young girl whose father was murdered and LAPD has closed the case on without finding the killer.
Q. What actor who had success in both dramatic and comedy roles was cast in the pilot of “Richie Brockelman, Private Eye?”
A. Norman Fell was cast as Mr. Brockelman, Richie’s father. Fell was Burt Reynolds’ second in “Dan August” in 1970, but is known better as Stanley Roper, the cranky landlord on “Three’s Company” which was spun off into “The Ropers” with his on-screen and real-life wife, Helen Roper, played by Audra Lindley.
My sister would be upset with me if I didn’t begin this column with Jessica Fletcher, one of her favorite TV characters.