Peter S. Fischer: Writer of Mystery Novels Who Helped Create “Murder, She Wrote”

From a New York Times obit by Richard Sandomir headlined “Peter S. Fischer, Who Helped Create ‘Murder, She Wrote’ Dies at 88”:

Peter S. Fischer, a creator, writer and producer of “Murder, She Wrote,” the long-running television series that starred Angela Lansbury as a mystery novelist and amateur sleuth, died in Pacific Grove, Calif.

In 1983, Mr. Fischer and the prolific producers Richard Levinson and William Link pitched CBS on a new series. The three had worked together on “Columbo,” the hit show starring Peter Falk as a rumpled, underestimated police detective, and “Ellery Queen,” with Jim Hutton as a detective who was also an author. This time, their idea was “Blacke’s Magic,” about a magician who solves mysteries.

At a meeting with a CBS executive in late 1983, they were told that the network was more interested in a murder mystery series with a female lead. Soon after, Mr. Fischer, he came up with an idea when he watched A Caribbean Mystery,” a CBS-TV movie starring Helen Hayes as Miss Jane Marple, the amateur detective created by Agatha Christie.

“Why don’t we meld Miss Marple and Miss Christie into one character, a mystery writer who actually solved murder mysteries using logic, good sense, observations and a twinkly sense of humor that masks the sharp brain lurking beneath a very attractive hairdo?,” Mr. Fischer recalled thinking in his 2013 autobiography, “Me and ‘Murder, She Wrote.’”

He came up with the names of both the character, Jessica Fletcher, and the fictional town where she solved murders — Cabot Cove, Maine.

But they needed a star. Jean Stapleton, who had portrayed the saintly, ditsy Edith Bunker on “All in the Family,” turned them down. Then they heard that Ms. Lansbury, who was renowned for her work in Broadway shows like “Sweeney Todd” and films like “The Manchurian Candidate,” was willing to star in a TV series. She signed on.

The series was an immediate hit and lasted 12 seasons. Mr. Fischer wrote a few dozen episodes and was the executive producer from 1984 to 1991. He shared nominations for the Primetime Emmy Award for outstanding dramatic series three times and won the Golden Globe Award for best drama series twice. In 1985, Mr. Fischer won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the “Murder, She Wrote” episode “Deadly Lady.”

“Peter was a very good showrunner,” Ms. Lansbury, who died last year, told the Television Academy in 1998. “He was really quite brilliant at what he did.”

But, she said, “I always wanted to make it appeal to more people and to enlarge our audience even more.”

One of the changes she made after succeeding Mr. Fischer as executive producer in 1992, was to move Jessica part time to an apartment in Manhattan, where she taught criminology at a college and tracked down killers in a new location. He disagreed with that decision, but it was no longer his to make.

“To throw this over to become a ‘big city woman’ violated everything I believed about her,” he said in interview with his son Christopher in 2012 after he started writing mystery novels.

Peter Stephen Fischer was born in Queens. His father, Paul, worked for Johnnie Walker, the Scotch whisky maker. His mother, Dorothy (Sullivan) Fischer, was a homemaker.

Peter fell in love with reading at a young age and started writing short stories as a boy. He wrote plays in high school and at Johns Hopkins University, where he studied in a department devoted to writing, speech and drama, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1956.

He married Lucille Warnock in 1957.

Mr. Fischer did not become a full-time writer right away; instead he made a living in direct mail, as an insurance investigator and as a trade magazine editor. He also published a monthly magazine, Sports Car News, out of his house in Smithtown, N.Y., on Long Island.

At 35, he got his screenwriting break. He had written a script about a dystopian future in which couples are permitted only one child and people over 65 are denied medical care. With help from his brother, Geoffrey, a casting director at Universal Television, the script found its way to the producer Aaron Spelling and was made into an ABC movie, “The Last Child” (1971), with Michael Cole and Janet Margolin as a couple who are willing to defy the law to have a second child after the death of their firstborn.

He then wrote episodes of several Universal series, including “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” “Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law,” “Kojak,” “Baretta” and “Columbo,” for which he also worked as a story editor.

Three shows Mr. Fischer created or co-created had short runs: “The Eddie Capra Mysteries” (1978), starring Vincent Baggetta as a lawyer; “The Law & Harry McGraw” (1987), a spinoff of “Murder, She Wrote” starring Jerry Orbach as a private investigator; and “Blacke’s Magic” (1986), starring Hal Linden — the collaboration with Mr. Link and Mr. Levinson that CBS did not want. (It ended up on NBC.)

Mr. Fischer retired from television in the 1990s. He recast himself a decade ago as a murder mystery writer. He self-published more than 20 books set in postwar Hollywood, with a studio press agent as the sleuth and real movies as backdrops.

“He loved old movies,” Ms. McElrath, his daughter, said by phone. “So he came up with this idea of a Jessica Fletcher-like character who’s not in law enforcement but finds himself tripping over all these murders.”

Richard Sandomir is an obituaries writer. He previously wrote about sports media and sports business. He is also the author of several books, including “The Pride of the Yankees: Lou Gehrig, Gary Cooper and the Making of a Classic.”

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