Angela Lansbury’s enormous talent and appeal expanded beyond the movie and theatrical stage. The actress — who died Tuesday at age 96 — leaves an indelible small-screen legacy as Jessica Fletcher, TV’s forever favorite sleuth on “Murder She Wrote.”
The top-rated series, which ran for an astounding 12 seasons and 265 episodes on CBS (1984-96), and spawned four made-for-TV movies, brought Lansbury and her whimsical world of Cabot Cove into America’s living rooms.
Each week, millions of viewers settled in to watch Jessica, a widowed mystery writer and amateur detective, solve a murder in her small town on the coast of Maine, aided by folksy sheriff Amos Tupper (Tom Bosley) and town doctor Seth Hazlitt (William Windom). Both, like Lansbury, were veteran comfortable-shoe actors who lended gravitas to the series, which garnered Lansbury 12 Emmy nominations, but, for reasons no one can fathom, no winning statuettes. Go figure. I sure can’t.
But Lansbury didn’t need a piece of metal to know that loyal viewers, no matter what age, loved Jessica Fletcher almost like they would a beloved aunt or grandmother.
They came back, week after week, for more of Jessica’s special brand of no-nonsense pluck and savvy knowing that she was, of course, just a big softie underneath with an undeniable charm that warmed the heart — not generally a combination that comes to mind when you’re talking about murder. That was Angela Lansbury’s secret recipe and part-and-parcel of Jessica Fletcher’s warm embrace.
Peter Falk, TV’s “Columbo,” had those traits, too — with his rumpled raincoat, half-smoked cigar and “Just one more thing” catchphrase — but he never had much of a personal life besides a wife he referenced occasionally. Jessica brought viewers into her home and hearth and opened a window into her kindly soul.
That’s priceless, and I just know that her fans the world over are saddened by her passing. Yes, she was 96, but it still hurts to hear the news. That’s the deep emotional mark a legend imprints on all of us.
I was in my early years of covering television at The Post when, in the waning days of “Murder, She Wrote,” we conducted what we called a “Flash Fax Poll,” where we asked readers questions in our print section, and they faxed us their responses, which we then collected on too-curly fax paper. No Internet and e-mail back then!
We decided to do a “Flash Fax Poll” on TV’s favorite sleuth and, wouldn’t you know it, Jessica Fletcher won hands-down. No contest. When Angela Lansbury saw our story about her “victory,” she wrote us a very sweet thank-you note. We were all thrilled.
I had the chance to interview her while writing a biography of “Perry Mason” star Raymond Burr. They acted together in a forgettable 1956 B-movie unsubtly titled “Please Murder Me!” — there’s that murder motif again — and she couldn’t have been nicer.
Through a lens that was, at the time, clouded by over 50 years — and her many other iconic movie and stage roles — she recalled vivid details of working with Burr on the film (and where it was shot — in a supermarket of all places).
I will never forget her generosity in that regard, but that’s who she was — a class act all the way, and then some.