Could you see Jean Stapleton of “All in the Family” portraying murder-solving author Jessica Fletcher? It came pretty close to happening.
Stapleton, who made a name for herself as Edith Bunker on the long-running CBS sitcom, was offered the lead role for another CBS series. That was “Murder, She Wrote.” Stapleton turned down the role, which eventually went to veteran Broadway and movie star Angela Lansbury.
But why would Stapleton say no to such a rather meaty role?
“I had just come off of eight-and-a-half years in a series,” Stapleton said in an interview, referring to “All in the Family.” “I’m sure that had its part in it. But it didn’t seem to be the kind of role I could really get my teeth into. It just didn’t have enough color for me.”
Therefore, the “All in the Family” matriarch didn’t go any further with “Murder, She Wrote.”
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This sent up a lot of fears through producers for “Murder, She Wrote.” One of them, Peter S. Fischer, said in a 1988 article for the Christian Science Monitor that Stapleton was their No. 1 choice.
“We met with Miss Stapleton over lunch,” Fischer, who is now 86 years old, wrote, “and she expressed guarded interest in the project.” That interest included a provision that she would like the material and the work didn’t conflict with her other projects.
“It was an amicable luncheon, and Miss Stapleton was charming though basically noncommittal,” Fischer wrote of Stapleton, who died in May 2013.
Fischer wrote that upon giving CBS the show’s initial script, Stapleton had second thoughts and bowed out.
“It was, of course, a great disappointment to us,” Fischer wrote. “Her tentative participation had given the project impetus; her withdrawal threatened to stop it dead.”
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He knew there were two ways a show with star power like that could go. With a star like Stapleton, then it’s a go. Without it, then there’s a chance it doesn’t move forward.
There appeared a third option, though. It came in the form of Lansbury, whose name and career never had found a place on a television series.
Yet here, in 1983, was Lansbury, who is now 95, wearing sweaters, playing the role of a mystery writer, and solving murders. Jessica Fletcher became a beloved TV character. “Murder, She Wrote” ran for 12 seasons on CBS, deftly carrying a mix of name co-stars and guest stars to bring stories to life.
Now the series is in syndication and introduces new generations to not only Lansbury but a show that came really close to not making it.