There’s a saying in Hollywood that if something worked well once, why not do it again?
And so it came to pass that when Peter S. Fischer, William Link and the late Richard Levinson were creating “Murder, She Wrote” for Angela Lansbury, they harked back to their guest-star ploy on the “Ellery Queen” series they had done 14 years earlier.
Fischer, who is executive producer on the five-year-old CBS series, said: “Many times there was only enough money in the ‘Ellery’ budget to hire one guest star, and he or she would want to be the murderer. That told the audience immediately who dunnit. On ‘Murder,’ we decided to hire all stars and hide the murderer among the names.”
To date, he and casting director Ron Stephenson have used some 500 guests--ranging from Eddie Albert to June Allyson, from Hurd Hatfield to Vanessa Brown--in more than 100 episodes. Among those who will be appearing next season are June Havoc, Coleen Gray, Robert Horton and Dane Clark.
“The older stars love to come on the show because they get to work with old friends without any responsibility: If you’re a guest you just have a good time. Nobody’s looking to you to carry the show.”
Viewers love to see their favorite actors of yesteryear and often write in suggestions. Sometimes they’re acted upon, sometimes not.
“We all bring up names in meetings. We want to make sure we don’t miss somebody we should have thought of,” Fischer said.
They are contacted by agents, or they see someone on a late-night movie. Sometimes stars come up with ideas. Van Johnson once called them from his New York City home suggesting they cast Joan Caulfield. They did.
Not all stars are eager to be on the show. John Payne turned them down firmly, as did John Lund, who now lives in San Diego. Both said they are retired, and that’s that.
“A few years ago we did a story with a 30-year flashback. We wanted to use clips of an original movie made between 1948 and 1952 in black-and-white and then fast-forward to present time. The first problem was finding stars who were still alive, and then stars who’d appear on the show. John Payne was in three of our proposed movies. That ruled him out. Alice Faye was in another. She told us: ‘That’s the worst damned movie I ever made. I don’t even want to think about it!’ Finally, we cast Martha Scott, Jeffrey Lynn and Harry Morgan and it was a fine show.”
Every guest is paid a top fee, in the low four figures, and all guests are billed alphabetically. This arrangement didn’t sit well with Dale Robertson, who allowed as how he would just as soon have no billing.
“That was OK with us. He did two shows, we didn’t break our top fee and he didn’t get billing. That was his choice and I never knew why. Other actors have said they wanted special billing or none. Then it’s none,” Fischer said.
“Occasionally we run into people who demand star treatment, but not very often, because Angela is so professional. She comes in prepared, ready to go to work. She’s not a prima donna. We’ve had stars with reputations of being monsters on other shows and they’re wonderful with us.”
“We keep trying to find new people among the older stars that everybody knows. It’s my ambition to try to use every older actor who’s ever trod the boards in Hollywood,” Fischer said.
But Stephenson is quick to point out that they are always on the lookout for up-and-coming actors too.
“We don’t want viewers to get the impression we hire only stars over 40. What’s difficult is to find stars under 28 for a major part because if they’ve achieved stardom by then, they’re into movies.”
Among the young actors used recently are John J. Yorke, Jill Schoelen, Page Hannah, Todd Bryant, Tony O’Dell, John Dye, Kristian Alfonso and Courtney Cox.
There are frequent nostalgic moments when actors are reunited years after they had last worked together.
Everyone was misty-eyed when Lansbury and Hurd Hatfield met again, 40 years after they’d been in “The Picture of Dorian Gray” together. Likewise when Van Johnson and June Allyson fell into Lansbury’s arms, long after the good old days at MGM. They had been together in “Remains to Be Seen” in 1953.
Many of the 500 stars who’ve guested on the show say they had the time of their lives:
-- Eddie Albert took time out from tending one of the first organic vegetable gardens in town, and he did get to play the murderer. He pronounces himself as well pleased with the experience, just as he is with the “thirtysomething” he did last season.
“I’m better than ever,” the 81-year-old said. “I’m the yellow flower of the forest!”
-- Former Quiz Kid Vanessa Brown, 61, has been active behind the camera. Her agent arranged for her to meet with Fischer and Stephenson after her friend Jean Peters did a show. They cast her as a housekeeper in one episode.
“It was wonderful: I worked with Bill Prince--28 years ago we were in ‘As You Like It’ with Katharine Hepburn.”
-- Gloria De Haven, 65, and Kathryn Grayson, 67, pals from the glory days at MGM, have been teamed together twice as two of the gossipy ladies in the Cabot Cove beauty parlor. Both love doing the show and can’t wait until next season, when they’re set for another.
De Haven, who now makes her home in New York City, flies in to film and then does her nightclub act locally for a week or two.
“We have such fun. Katie and I have known each other since we were very young girls, but we never worked together until now.”
Grayson wanted to do the show because she loves mysteries and police shows.
“And I love Angela. She’s darling. We never worked together at MGM but I admired her so much for being able to do those great character parts when she was only 18.”
-- Jane Greer is now 65. Her first claim to fame was modeling the WAC uniform during World War II on a Life magazine cover. Howard Hughes signed her to a contract, Rudy Vallee married her, as did attorney Edward Lasker.
“I work now and then. I got a terrific role on this show playing Angela’s roommate during World War II. I don’t do three-camera shows because audiences terrify me. Doing ‘Murder’ was great because I’m not nervous doing film.”
-- Evelyn Keyes, forthright as always, said: “I did a couple of shows because they paid me, and it was delightful. It’s a terribly professional experience. Everyone comes in to work, there are no jokes on the set. There’s no strain, everyone cares, from the drivers up to the top people.”
-- The usually reclusive Jean Peters, 62, was astounded when Stephenson’s office called her, and she agreed to do an episode for a sweet reason:
“It was my mother’s very favorite program. She passed away two years ago and I figured she’d be very angry if I didn’t do it. It was fun going back to work. Angela is such an angel. She’s wonderful to work with. They sure work longer hours than we used to. It’s the first acting I’ve done in some time but I’d do it again if it was something I liked.”