Angela Lansbury was born on October 16 — as were Oscar Wilde and fantastic German singer Nico, but unlike those other two Libras Lansbury is still alive and kicking, nine decades after she was first born. She’s still doing theater, too, appearing earlier this year in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Over her seventy-year career, Lansbury’s most iconic role has almost surely been that of Jessica “JB” Fletcher, the Maine English teacher turned mystery novelist who coincidentally stumbled across twenty-two different murder cases each year from 1984 until 1996 on the CBS series Murder, She Wrote.
Born in 1925, Lansbury received an Oscar nomination for her very first film role, the teenaged maid in the 1944 thriller Gaslight. The following year she received another nomination for her role in The Picture of Dorian Gray, based on the novel by her birthday-buddy Oscar Wilde. Her other famous roles include playing Elvis’s snobby mother in Blue Hawaii, a sinister mom in The Manchurian Candidate, the novice witch in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and of course Mrs. Potts, the teapot in Beauty and the Beast.
She’s also won five Tony Awards for her Broadway roles, as well as an honorary Oscar. But mystery novelist Jessica “J.B.” Fletcher beats them all, with a combination of brains, empathy, and down east charm that kept the show going for twelve seasons.
While some fools dismiss Murder She Wrote as a boring show for old people, fans are drawn to the show’s slyly campy humor and the show’s self-awareness when it came to situations repeating themselves. In one episode, a Canadian trial lawyer grilled Jessica about the fact that her nieces and nephews has been wrongly arrested four times in the previous year alone.
In honor of Lansbury’s 90th birthday, here are our nine favorite pisodes of Murder, She Wrote. It was very, very hard to narrow the list down to just nine, so we apologize for not including the virtual reality episode guest starring TV’s Hercules, the episode where Jessica’s future niece-in-law killed someone with a frozen fish or the episode where an astronomer caught his wife having an affair several miles away by looking through a giant space telescope that was pointed right in someone’s bedroom window. With no further ado (except for a spoiler alert or two) here are our nine faves:
9. Sudden Death (Season 1, Episode 16)
Jessica inherits ownership of a professional football team, because why not? The episode features a young Caitlyn Jenner, NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, a deaf child and a comical vehicle shaped like a football helmet for no reason whatsoever.
8. Murder on Madison Avenue (Season 7, Episode 22)
Jessica is in New York because she’s been hired to develop a mystery board game, but soon a grouchy executive is found murdered in a bizarre toy impresario’s secret gaming lab. You’ll not be surprised to learn that Jessica is conveniently nearby when the body is discovered.
7. The Sound of Murder (Season 9, Episode 10)
Jessica gets invited to the taping of a music video that features girls in cages and some very, very silly dancing. Then (spoiler alert) someone gets murdered, the sound of the gunshots disguised by the gun sounds in the ridiculous song “Bullet Proof”! Jessica uses her limited knowledge of synthesizers to get to the bottom of the case.
6. Capitol Offense (Season 1, Episode 10)
When Maine’s congressman dies of a heart attack, the governor asks Jessica to take his place in Washington, because she is Jessica Fletcher and of course she ought to be a member of Congress. She begins to suspect the Congressman was murdered however, and ties everything back to a shady deal at a Maine fish cannery.
5. Night of the Tarantula (Season 6, Episode 7)
Jessica visits a Jamaican sugar plantation for a surprise birthday party — because this is something she has time for — and it’s all fun in the sun until someone brings up a voodoo curse and a crotchety uncle ends up dead in a locked room with a python. This is the Murder, She Wrote episode that most resembled Scooby Doo.
4. Something Borrowed, Someone Blue (Season 5, Episode 9)
Jessica’s annoying nephew Grady is finally marrying his dumb girlfriend Donna, even though we have already seen her kill someone in a previous episode with a frozen fish. But then the grouchy cook is found dead in the bushes, stabbed in the back with a meat thermometer! Can Jessica solve the murder in time for the ceremony to go on without a hitch? Of course she can! She’s Jessica Fletcher.
3. Jessica Behind Bars (Season 2, Episode 9)
Things don’t go as planned when Jessica takes a job as substitute English teacher at a women’s prison. You guessed it: someone gets murdered! In this case, the prison doctor dies and falls to the ground in just such a way that her lifeless body trips the prison security system, sending everyone into lockdown and Jessica into a hostage crisis!
2. Who Threw The Barbitals In Mrs. Fletcher’s Chowder? (Season 4, Episode 12)
Murder, She Wrote featured over a hundred different actors and actresses each season, so it makes sense that some of Hollywood’s most entertaining character actors showed up once in a while. This episode was set in Cabot Cove, Jessica’s fictional Maine hometown, and featured Colleen Camp (Yvette the maid from Clue), Henry Gibson (the old gay man in Magnolia), and Anne Meara (Mark Wahlberg’s mom in Boogie Nights and Ben Stiller’s mom in real life). It also might win the award for Best Episode Title, which is saying a lot.
1. Death Stalks The Big Top (Season 3, Episodes 1 and 2)
Jessica travels to her niece Courteney Cox’s wedding and is amazed to discover that one of the bride’s presents is a silver leprechaun that belonged to her grandfather, Jessica’s long-dead husband’s even longer-dead brother (It’s a complicated family tree she has). Jessica’s on the case and soon discovers that her brother-in-law staged his own death and ran away to join the circus as a means to escape from his awful wife. And that’s all before the murder even happens! It’s impossible not to crack up at the end of this two-part episode, because the killer’s acting is so completely hammy. Florence “Carol Brady” Henderson co-stars.
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