Murder, She Wrote
In my 20’s I was doing a lot of TV work and excited to be working with actors like Peter Falk (whom I adore), Faye Dunaway, Andy Griffith, and many others…. But nothing quite prepared me for the force that was Miss Angela Lansbury.
As you may or may not know, Angela Brigid Lansbury, CBE (born 16 October 1925) is an English actress and singer in theatre, television, and motion pictures, whose career has spanned seven decades. Her first film appearance was in the 1944 film, Gaslight, as a conniving maid, for which she received an Academy Award nomination. Among her other films are: “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962); “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971); and, of course, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (1991). She expanded her repertoire in the 1950s to television and Broadway musicals and was particularly successful in productions of “Gypsy,” “Mame,” and “Sweeney Todd.” Miss Lansbury is perhaps best known to modern audiences for her 12 year run as mystery writer and amateur sleuth, Jessica Fletcher, on the U.S. TV series “Murder, She Wrote” from 1984 to 1996. Recently, her roles have included Lady Adelaide Stitch in the 2005 film “Nanny McPhee,” Leona Mullen in the 2007 Broadway play “Deuce,” Madame Arcati in the 2009 Broadway revival of the play “Blithe Spirit,” and Madame Armfeldt in the 2010 Broadway revival of the musical “A Little Night Music.” She is incredibly versatile in her acting and has won 5 Tony Awards, 6 Golden Globes, and has been nominated for numerous other industry awards, including 3 Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress, and 18 Emmy Award nominations.
Miss Lansbury is a very formidable woman, but nothing prepared me for the experience I was to have playing her neighbor on the long running TV series, “Murder She Wrote.” I was hired for an episode involving a father/daughter story called, aptly enough, “The Prodigal Father.”
Ironically, the man playing my father in that episode would, years later, be the man Captaining the boat used in my wedding to Hollywood screenwriter, Gary Devore in Vancouver, Canada when I was 23 years old… talk about a small world! His name is Donnelly Rhodes and he appeared in the classic buddy western, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and most-recently in “Tron: Legacy.” His many TV credits include “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “Soap,” “The Wild Wild West,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “Hillstreet Blues.” Most of you sci-fi genre folks will know him as Doc Cottle on “Battlestar Galactica.” He is a wonderful man and quite the host to say the least. He gave up his home and his boat for us and I will always be grateful for his generosity and kindness of spirit.
Larry Wilcox stars in CHiPs
Also appearing in that episode of “Murder, She Wrote” with me was Abe “Fish” Vigoda from “Barney Miller” fame and Larry “Officer John Baker” Wilcox of “CHiPs” fame, who was also a very kind and generous actor with patience and humility despite being the Farrah Fawcett of his generation. Mind you, he was a major sex symbol and icon at the time and I have no idea how he handled that sort of adoration because my Sci-Fi fans are far more discreet 🙂
“Get out of my eye line! YOU in the white shirt… MOVE out of my eye line!!!”
That was the first thing I can recall Angela Lansbury saying. Some poor sod had the gall to wear a white t-shirt on the set of “Murder, She Wrote” and by God, no one was allowed to wear white on the set and by golly did she let them know it! Wow, I was shocked! First of all because her son was directing that particular episode so I figured she had given him a break, nepotism and all, so I thought wow, not only can you get your son a gig directing this successful TV series (even though he had little, if any, experience), but you can also be a complete diva! What a gig for an elderly British woman in America!
I admired the fact that she called the shots and truly looked up to her “star” behavior because at that point all I had been exposed to was Larry Hagman (aka J.R. Ewing) wearing lederhosen and quaffing Champers while directing me in “Dallas” and William Shatner hitting on anything with two legs on “T.J. Hooker.” So my male icons were few and far between. Here was a dame I could look up to! She knew her lines, bossed her son around, told the crew where and when to go, and generally ran the show…. Not to mention what a great actress she was!
My other memories of those two or three episodes I did on “Murder, She Wrote” are all about the joy of being at a studio whilst filming. The joys of a commissary and other actors milling about in costume from other productions. I remember that while I was shooting “Columbo” at Universal Studios, they were also shooting “Dick Tracy” with Madonna, Warren Beatty, and a host of other stars. They had a sushi bar and a steak and lobster booth for their lunch and man was I impressed! Mind you, this was 1990 afterall and who had sushi on set???
Murder, She Wrote
During “Murder, She Wrote” I got to walk around and see other people at work and the set was so settled into a rhythm that it felt more like a well rehearsed play than a TV show. I admire people who can call the shots and I understand now why Miss Lansbury did not want anyone wearing white in her eye line. She was already a well-established and seasoned lady during that shoot so the job of memorizing lines and making production decisions must have been a huge job for her, as it was for Andy Griffith during “Matlock” and James Garner during the filming of “The Rockford Files.” I just thought that she had very specific desires and everyone had to abide by them. I had never seen diva behavior before so this was very interesting to me. It did teach me to ask people to stand out of my eye line and also to be quiet before we rolled camera. Most crew members forget that an actor or actress needs a “moment” to get it together before “performing.” They simply go about talking and shouting and then the director yells “action” and you’re left there without a moment of silence to prepare. It is something I always ask for now.
All in all I had a great time working on “Murder, She Wrote.” It was a wonderful time in my life and then to run into the man who played my Dad in that episode and have him Captain the boat which would take me into my marriage, was simply bizarre! How small the world seemed right then…