Copyright (c) 1996, Roanoke Times

DATE: Saturday, May 18, 1996                 TAG: 9605210026


Angela Lansbury's Jessica Fletcher finishes the longest uninterrupted run of any detective in TV history Sunday when she appears in the 264th and final episode of CBS' ``Murder, She Wrote.''

CBS is keeping much of what happens a surprise, but the network's letting Lansbury go out in style in her old Sunday 8-9 time period, where she dominated the Sunday night ratings for more than a decade. A mighty rating is expected for the farewell hour (airing on WDBJ-Channel 7), even though the venerable mystery is no longer a top-ranked show, if you consider its overall season numbers.

Most experts believe ``Murder, She Wrote'' would still be a top-10 show if CBS had left it on Sunday nights at 8 instead of moving it to Thursday nights at 8 last year. The move was made because the show was making less money for the network than the shows it was beating in the ratings. Advertisers pay more for shows that draw young viewers and ``Murder, She Wrote'' drew very few, even though it attracted more overall viewers than any other show.

Still, the long-range statistics for the series are nothing short of spectacular. CBS estimates more than 10 billion viewers have watched ``Murder She, Wrote'' since it premiered on Sept. 30, 1984.

And even though Lansbury never won an Emmy for playing Jessica Fletcher - with all her nominations, she's the Susan Lucci of prime time - she needn't feel neglected. Lansbury won the popularity contest that really counts. ``Murder, She Wrote'' was TV's top-rated drama for nine consecutive seasons, from 1985-'94. That's a record that may never be topped.

Created by Peter S. Fischer and his two partners, ``Columbo'' creators Richard Levinson and Bill Link, ``Murder, She Wrote'' was a forthright attempt to clone Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and bring her up to date for an American audience.

Jessica Fletcher was a widowed mystery novelist who lived in Cabot Cove on the coast of Maine, which soon became the murder capital of the U.S., thanks to the writers who put dead bodies in Jessica's path nearly every week. Because she has such an astute mind, Jessica helps Cabot Cove to another world record: It has the most solved homicides in U.S. history. Virtually no unsolved murders are on the books, unless you look in the books that date back before Jessica came to town.

The episodes were clue-heavy puzzlers in the ``golden age'' tradition of Miss Marple, a character Lansbury once played on the screen in ``The Mirror Crack'd'' (1980). Though murder was the centerpiece of nearly every show, violence and gore was missing and the program was about as G-rated as a murder mystery can get.

``Murder, She Wrote'' quickly captured a huge share of the age 50-plus viewing audience and is probably the most popular show in TV history among older viewers. Each weekly guest list was packed with ``golden age'' stars, playing to the nostalgia market that supported the series for years. Some wags called it ``The Love Boat - With Rigor Mortis.''

Some of the writing on the series was redolent with in-jokes best appreciated by the older viewers who doted on the show. Perhaps the best example was the legendary ``Strangest of Bargains'' episode of May 3, 1987, with guest stars Jeffrey Lynn, Harry Morgan and Martha Scott. Only mystery fanatics realized the episode was a thinly veiled sequel to the 1949 film noir ``Strange Bargain,'' which starred Lynn as an accountant who'd been framed for a murder police detective Morgan was investigating.

Earlier this season, the writers concocted a story line that had Jessica investigating a murder on the set of a TV sitcom very much like NBC's ``Friends,'' the real sitcom that battered ``Murder, She Wrote'' in the ratings once CBS moved it to Thursday nights.

Many fans also may have forgotten that ``Murder, She Wrote'' produced a spinoff series for CBS - ``The Law and Harry McGraw,'' starring Jerry Orbach as McGraw, a seedy private eye who had made a series of appearances on Lansbury's show. It ran 1987-'88.

Lansbury's proprietary interest in ``Murder, She Wrote'' grew phenomenally over the years as she realized it was the fountain of youth for her career. She has been the executive producer for years, but her husband, former MGM executive Peter Shaw, ran the show for her, and her son, Anthony, was her frequent director.

Though Lansbury was furious with CBS for pulling the show off Sunday nights and vowed not to come back next season, it's believed she has warmed up to the new administration that came in last summer. The 70-year-old star is expected to continue working for CBS as the star of TV movies, possibly including a few in which she'll reprise her Jessica Fletcher character.

In the meantime, this is the time to wish Jessica a fond farewell and to thank her for helping keep at least one U.S. community free of unsolved crimes for more than a decade.

LENGTH: Medium:   93 lines
ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO: The series finale of ``Murder, She Wrote,'' starring 

Angela Lansbury, airs Sunday night at 8 on WDBJ-Channel 7. color.

by CNB