How Angela Lansbury Landed Her 'Murder, She Wrote' Role, Which Was Written for Another Star

The creator of the popular CBS mystery series, which ran for 12 seasons from 1984 to 1996, originally wrote the pilot with All in the Family actress Jean Stapleton in mind

MURDER, SHE WROTE: SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST -- Pictured: Angela Lansbury as Jessica Fletcher -- (Photo by: Randy Marcus/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Photo: Randy Marcus/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty

The not-so-sleepy town of Cabot Cove, Maine, would have had a different actress portraying its intrepid local sleuth if Murder, She Wrote co-creator Peter S. Fischer had his way.

In a 1984 interview with PEOPLE, Angela Lansbury — who died Tuesday at the age of 96 — said Fischer originally imagined All in the Family star Jean Stapleton as the show's mystery writer and amateur detective Jessica Fletcher.

"Peter Fischer had originally written it for Jean Stapleton, but she had just lost her husband and didn't want to do anything," the actress told PEOPLE. Lansbury ultimately played the part on the CBS series for its 12-season run from 1984 to 1996.

"When I read it, I felt that Peter's script could have been written for me. Besides, there are so few decent roles for women on television, and I was immediately taken by Jessica," continued Lansbury.

Until that point, Lansbury was known for her stage and screen work: Nominated for three competitive acting Oscars, she starred in classic films like Gaslight, National Velvet and The Manchurian Candidate and on Broadway in hits such as Gypsy and Sweeney Todd.

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Just before Murder, She Wrote came along "there was nothing exciting for me on Broadway at the moment," she said. "Within the same week, I was sent two television scripts. One was a situation comedy from Norman Lear and the other was the two-hour pilot for Murder, She Wrote."

LOS ANGELES - OCTOBER 26: Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker in "All In The Family." Image dated October 26, 1971. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Lansbury, who was in her late fifties at the time, told PEOPLE she was drawn to the character of Jessica Fletcher because she was a middle aged woman who was "a vital and intelligent being."

The actress also admitted she had "no idea" how "all-absorbing" a task it would be to headline her own weekly one-hour drama, but said she was "motivated by ego."

Continued Lansbury: "Attempting to bring off my own show is a great challenge. If I can do it, at the age of 59, it will be a small miracle. I felt that it would have been a gap in my acting experience if I had never done a television series. I wanted to play to that huge audience just once."

And what a huge audience it was: At the height of its popularity, the series drew more than 20 million viewers each week. Lansbury also earned an Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Emmy nomination for each of the 12 years it aired.

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Lansbury's family announced her death on Tuesday in a statement obtained by PEOPLE.

"The children of Dame Angela Lansbury are sad to announce that their mother died peacefully in her sleep at home in Los Angeles at 1:30 a.m. today, Tuesday, October 11, 2022, just five days shy of her 97th birthday."

"In addition to her three children, Anthony, Deirdre and David, she is survived by three grandchildren, Peter, Katherine and Ian, plus five great grandchildren and her brother, producer Edgar Lansbury," the statement adds. "She was proceeded in death by her husband of 53 years, Peter Shaw. A private family ceremony will be held at a date to be determined."

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