Ever since 1984, Angela Lansbury and her TV series "Murder, She Wrote" have been bulwarks of troubled CBS. In some of the network's worst days just a few seasons back, "Murder, She Wrote" was the only CBS entertainment series among the 20 top-rated shows.
Lansbury, a distinguished veteran of films and a much-honored star of Broadway, is a lady, like Jessica Fletcher, the novelist-turned-crime-solver whom she portrays in her series. But she has a few things she'd like to say.
"Nobody in this town," says Lansbury--referring to the TV industry--"watches 'Murder, She Wrote.' Only the public watches. The industry is barely aware the show exists. I don't think they know that it's made here at Universal. They think it's made back East, I think. It's a very well-kept secret in this town.
"The viewing public can tell you everything about the show. This is what is so extraordinary and has been so strange about my whole experience with 'Murder, She Wrote.' "
Lansbury, whose enduring series launches its eighth season Sunday, also has some blunt thoughts about the Emmy Awards, noting the lack of industry honors for the well-crafted program--a traditional, gentle, well-mannered show that came along just as TV was turning to harder-edged, sexually suggestive and often nastier series, from "slobcoms" to tabloid sensationalism.
According to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which bestows the Emmys, "Murder, She Wrote" has won awards only for music composition in 1985 and costume design in 1986. Lansbury has been nominated six times for best actress in a drama series, but has never won.
The London-born actress agrees that "Murder, She Wrote" is "a bit old-fashioned. It doesn't have boobs or car chases or sex or mayhem. It's really unique unto itself, which is the way it was designed in the first place. I think it's needed, this type of entertainment. But (the industry) is really not terribly interested in this type of show."
Sitting in her trailer-dressing room on the Universal Studios lot during a lunch break, Lansbury acknowledged that TV's generally young executives probably have different tastes in entertainment: "I suppose that has a lot to do with it."
But asked about the perception that "Murder, She Wrote" is a series strictly for viewers 50 years old and up, she answered politely but firmly: "That's bull. Absolute bull."
Nonetheless, says Lansbury, the new TV season will see Jessica and "Murder, She Wrote" making some major changes that include an apparent attempt to increase its younger audience. In addition to her fictional home base of Cabot Cove, Maine, and her world travels, Jessica Fletcher now will spend time in Manhattan as a teacher of criminology.
"She will have a pied-a-terre in New York," says Lansbury. "She has decided to come back into the mainstream and teach at a Manhattan university. This puts her really into the mainstream. She is working with people who are in academia. And she's also teaching younger people who are going into the police force."
Did CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky, by any chance, suggest such changes to attract more young viewers?
"I'd like to say that a specific person said that to me," says Lansbury, "but they didn't. CBS sort of inferred it. Jeff talked about it--but not really. They're not really interested. I don't think that anybody cared about changing it. You know, if it's not broken, don't fix it. That was the adage that was going around.
" I was the one who said I'd had it up to here with the (dialogue of) questions and answers. I want to bring this woman into contact with more interesting situations. Let her be involved with people in a real sense rather than simply as a stereotyped mystery writer-novelist who is nosy."
What's more, says Lansbury: "We've taken away some of the whimsy. We've straightened up people quite a bit. And while we'll have guest stars, we won't do any stunt casting--using a big name in a role and everybody knows he's either going to be the victim or the murderer."
And CBS' reaction?
"We did help support CBS through its darkest days. And they have very nicely given me great credit and been extremely thankful for the show. That's the reason they want to keep it on--because we do represent a very solid section of their viewing hours: Sunday night at 8."
Without the tandem of "60 Minutes" and "Murder, She Wrote," CBS would have been--and still would be--in dire straits on this key night, when more viewers tune in TV than on any other day of the week.
In a surprising show of strength over the years, Lansbury and "Murder, She Wrote" have dispatched such competing shows as "Hardcastle & McCormick," "Knight Rider," Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" and a revival of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents."
This season, however, the competition will be truly fierce as Lansbury tries to hold her own against ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos" and "America's Funniest People," Fox's heralded new sitcom "Roc" and "In Living Color"--and two new NBC comedies bringing back big TV names: James Garner's "Man of the People" and Robert Guillaume's "Pacific Station."
Lansbury, however, remains optimistic.
"Our viewers love the idea of a woman who is making it on her own, who has shown that a woman of her age--60 to 65--is not over the hill and can have a fruitful, exciting life."
In 1989, Lansbury almost called it quits at CBS. At the same time, ABC hoped she'd jump to that network with her show. CBS boss Larry Tisch personally wooed Lansbury to stay.
"I had just got kind of suffocated with the work," Lansbury says now. "It is so time-consuming. Money talked in that instance. CBS was really worried about me leaving and they made me an offer which I certainly didn't refuse. It meant so much not to me personally but to my company, my kids and my grandchildren."
Lansbury will be in all 22 episodes of "Murder, She Wrote" this season: "I really felt challenged to turn the show around because we'd been taken for granted so much. I'm putting in more than I've ever done before because of my real involvement with the scripts, with casting, with the direction we're going. I had no input before, none whatsoever."
Does she now own a piece of "Murder, She Wrote"?
"I have no financial involvement. None at all. I just want people to say, 'This is a hell of a good show.' "