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Actors You Forgot Guest Starred In Murder, She Wrote

Angela Lansbury is a stage and screen legend. Her most enduring, long-lived role is still that of the intrepid crime solving mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher from "Murder, She Wrote." The hit mystery series ran from 1984 until 1996 and was usually centered around Jessica and her community in the town of Cabot Cove, Maine — although over the course of the show's run, many episodes took place in New York City and occasionally other metropolitan areas. 

Over its 12 season run, "Murder, She Wrote" brought in a new cast of supporting characters every episode, leading to dozens of incredible cameos. Guest stars were extremely popular in '80s and '90s procedurals and in the episodes of "Murder, She Wrote" you can see a variety of great actors making appearances during, and sometimes well before, their prime. You might not have forgotten the "Magnum P.I" crossover episode with Tom Selleck, but these guest stars might not be so clear in your mind. Let's jog the old brain a bit with a trip down memory lane with the best guest stars of "Murder, She Wrote."

Joaquin Phoenix

Believe it or not, a tiny version of Joaquin Phoenix made an appearance in the first season of "Murder, She Wrote." Now an Academy Award winner, the "Joker" actor wasn't on most people's radar until they saw him in Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" in the year 2000. 16 years prior to "Gladiator," in 1984, Phoenix appeared as a guest star on the eighth episode of "Murder, She Wrote" that was ever aired. He was 10 years old when he made the appearance.

In the episode titled "We're off to Kill the Wizard," Phoenix plays Billy, Jessica Fletcher's great-nephew. He is credited as Leaf Phoenix, as he was for all his roles as a child star. It wasn't until his first major role in 1995's "To Die For" (with Nicole Kidman and Matt Dillion) that the actor started to be credited by the name Joaquin Phoenix. In the episode, Joaquin's real-life sister Summer Phoenix played Billy's sister Cindy, Jessica's great-niece.

Bryan Cranston and Linda Hamilton

Before "Breaking Bad," heck even before "Malcolm in the Middle," Bryan Cranston could be seen as a guest star all over late '80s and 1990's television. He made frequent guest appearances in "Seinfeld," but almost 10 years before that the actor took on a role as a guest in "Murder, She Wrote."

Cranston appeared in the second season episode "Menace, Anyone?" The episode aired in 1986 and Cranston wasn't the only guest that you might recognize from that hour of TV. Linda Hamilton also showed up as a guest early in her career. This was only two years after her breakthrough role as Sarah Connor in "The Terminator."

The two played a charming, socialite couple who, of course, were stricken by a bad case of... what else, murder. Hamilton plays Carol McDermott, a young friend of Jessica's and Cranston is her fiancé. When his character is killed in a car explosion, Carol becomes the key suspect that Jessica must defend until she discovers the real killer.

Courteney Cox

"Friends" and "Scream" star Courteney Cox made a guest appearance in the two-part opener of "Murder, She Wrote" season 3. In 1986, almost a full decade before the days of Monica, Cox played Carol Bannister in "Death Stalks the Big Top."

This two-part mystery begins days before Carol's wedding. She receives a silver leprechaun charm that she believes comes from beyond the grave: from her late grandfather Neil. He also happens to be Jessica's late husband's brother, making this a more personal episode than usual. In the first of this duology, Jessica goes on a hunt to find Neil Fletcher, who she discovers is still alive and using a pseudonym. Of course, anyone who comes into contact with Jessica soon finds themself accused of murder and that is the case again, here. The twist comes at the end of part one when Neil confesses to the crime.

In the second part, Jessica must find the true identity of the killer as the murders multiply and the situation gets tense. Cox returns in part two and we see how Carol fit into the larger murder plot by the end.

George Clooney

While George Clooney doesn't do as much acting work these days, he still is one of the most famous actors of the generation. To explain how he guest-starred on "Murder, She Wrote" in 1987, we have to go way back. Before Clooney was the star of the big screen, he was an '80s TV icon. "ER" and "The Facts of Life" introduced America's newest heartthrob and soon his TV career was thriving.

In the same year that saw Clooney guesting in "The Golden Girls," he appeared on "Murder, She Wrote" Season 3 episode "No Laughing Murder." In this adventure, Jessica is invited to the engagement party of Kip Howard, played by Clooney. Howard and his fiancee are the offspring of two once celebrated comedians, Mack Howard and Murray Gruen. Their feuding led to the two disbanding and future tragedy. When Murray accuses Mack of theft at the dinner, and then winds up not hours later with a knife in his back, Clooney's character becomes a potential suspect. 

Fun fact: Clooney also appeared in a super minor role as a waiter in a season one episode of the show.

Megan Mullally

Megan Mullally's TV career goes back to the '90s, as any sitcom fan can tell you, but even before that she was appearing in shows like "Murder, She Wrote." The "Will and Grace” star is one of the great comedy actresses of our time and her long, consistent, career is a testament to her greatness. Before her comedy days, Mullally made a guest appearance on the Season 5 "Murder, She Wrote" episode entitled "Coal Miner's Slaughter."

Before her days as a writer, Jessica Fletcher was a teacher in Cabot Cove. In this episode, Megan Mullally plays a former student of the mystery novelist who gets in trouble with the law and needs Jessica's help. Ten years after her father dies, Molly (Mullally) sneaks into a private staff party and accuses local coal miner Tyler Morgan of being responsible for her father's death. Molly then threatens to sue him. That same night, Morgan is found dead and the murder weapon has been planted in Molly's car. Jessica must unravel a series of mysteries to determine the guilt or innocence of her once excellent pupil.

Adam West

Nananana nananana, nananana nananana Guest Star! That's right, the 1960s Batman himself made a guest appearance early in the run of "Murder, She Wrote." From one film legend to another, Adam West joined Angela Lansbury in the Season 3 episode "Death Takes a Dive" and he wasn't the only name you may recognize from the credits.

In this rare Boston-based episode, West plays the character that ultimately becomes the victim. Wade Talmadge (West) is the manager of prize fighting champion Sean Shaleen. The pair's upcoming fight is mired in controversy and eventually leads to crime. Instead of the fighter taking a dive, though, it is the manager who is found dead.

Adam West isn't the only famous actor who appeared in "Death Takes a Dive." Jessica is brought to Boston by her friend detective Harry Graw, who is played by Jerry Orbach of "Law and Order" fame. Circumstantial evidence leads to Harry being accused of Talmadge's murder and it is up to Jessica to discover the truth.

Neil Patrick Harris

In the later days of "Murder, She Wrote," a young Neil Patrick Harris had his time as a guest star. One of the youngest guest stars on this list at the time of his appearance (still a bit older than 10-year-old Joaquin Phoenix, though), Harris is arguably at the height of his career these days. Still under 50 years old, the actor most recently appeared in "The Matrix Resurrections" and the Netflix movie "8-bit Christmas" in 2021. NPH was only 20 when he guest-starred opposite Angela Lansbury in the Season 9 episode"Lone Witness."

Contemporary TV audiences might have been familiar with the young actor, despite his age. Neil Patrick Harris's role on "Murder, She Wrote" came in 1993, years after he broke through as a child actor in "Dougie Houser, M.D." In "Lone Witness," Harris plays Tommy Remsen, Jessica's grocery delivery boy who also happens to be a budding writer. Jessica sees herself as his mentor, until one day he becomes the prime suspect in the murder of a female customer at the store. Tommy claims to have seen the man who killed the woman, and while he confides in Jessica he also further takes steps to incriminate himself. Only Miss Fletcher can prove his innocence... or guilt.

Jerry Stiller

Jerry Stiller was a lot of things. He was the father of Ben Stiller and an accomplished comedian in his own right. But to many viewers in the age of '90s television he was George's father Frank Costanza on "Seinfeld." After leaving multiple comedic legacies in his wake, Stiller passed away in 2020

In 1989, Stiller made a guest appearance on a "Murder, She Wrote" episode entitled "When the Fat Lady Sings." For this Season 6 outing, Jessica takes a plane across the country to San Francisco in order to spend a night out at the opera. Of course, a scandalous murder ensues and the famed opera singer is killed. In this campy, but not outrightly comedic, role Stiller played the nosy police Lieutenant Birnbaum who believes this might not quite be the open and shut case the other officers seem to think it is. In a wonderful team-up, he and Jessica get to the bottom of who really killed Rosanno Bertolucci.

Caitlyn Jenner

In 1985, Olympic Gold Medal winner Caitlyn Jenner was a decade removed from the peak of her athletic career. This didn't stop her from taking the acting route, despite more than half of Jenner's credits are cameos and appearances as herself on TV. So her guest-starring role in the first season of "Murder, She Wrote" is a bit of a rarity, especially for the era it aired in.

The episode "Sudden Death" begins when Jessica inherits a stake in an American football team after her uncle suddenly passes. Jenner plays a hot-headed star player by the name of Zak Farrell. When a business looking to buy out Jessica is found dead in the stadium, the team's coach is an obvious suspect. Another red herring is Farrell, who is arrested after witnesses attest to seeing him in the area at the time of the murder. Jessica uses her wits to find the real killer and get justice where there is some.

Rue McClanahan

A contemporary to "Murder, She Wrote," "The Golden Girls" was on the air for a majority of the same years from the mid '80s until the early '90s. Rue McClanahan is best known for her role as the frisky Blanche Devereaux, the youngest and most flirtatious of the main cast. In 1985, the same year McClanahan debuted as Blanche in "The Golden Girls," the actress also made a guest appearance on the first season of "Murder She, Wrote" in the aptly titled "Murder Takes the Bus."

Linda Blair (still best known as possessed child Regan in "The Exorcist") takes a lead role in this episode as well, but it's the "The Golden Girls" star steals the show. When on a bus to Portland, Maine, Jessica and her fellow passengers are forced to pull over amid a thunderstorm, we get to know all the episode's colorful characters. This includes McClanahan as Miriam Radford, an excitable librarian with a bit of a fan crush on Jessica. After another passenger is found murdered, Radford's husband becomes a prime suspect.

Jessica Walter

J.B. Fletcher takes a trip to visit her niece in New York and ends up running into a Jessica of another sort. Before Lucille Bluth became an icon, Jessica Walter's career skyrocketed after her award-nominated role in Clint Eastwood's "Play Misty for Me" in 1971. Walter passed in 2021, but in the later years of her career she became best known for her incredible comedic performances in "Arrested Development" and "Archer." The actress appeared in a Season 2 episode of "Murder, She Wrote" that takes place in the big apple.

"Murder in the Afternoon" takes us alongside Jessica to the set of a daytime soap opera, where her niece Nita plays a role in danger of being cut. The malevolent new producer Joyce Holleran (played by Walter) is causing the cast and crew ire by cutting roles and bringing her personal drama to the set. Then, Joyce is killed by gunshot by a cast member in costume, and Jessica's niece Nita is prime suspect number one.

Walter returned to make another guest appearance the following year. In 1986, Walter played Joan Fulton in the two part "Magnum P.I." crossover event. Technically only one of these episodes is a part of the "Murder, She Wrote" canon. The other aired as an episode of "Magnum P.I."

Cynthia Nixon

Ironically, New Yorkers might know Cynthia Nixon better as a politician these days but for years she was known only for playing a New Yorker on TV. Only a couple years before she was Miranda on "Sex in the City," Cynthia Nixon showed up in an episode of the Angela Lansbury led mystery show. While it is mostly associated with '80s television, "Murder, She Wrote" ran well into the '90s. Nixon was the guest star of the 1993 episode "Threshold of Fear."

This Season 9 episode put Nixon front and center as Alice Morgan. Doing what she does best, the actress plays a New Yorker. Alice is trouble, though, and cannot stop having nightmares about her mother's murder that took place five years prior. The man who keeps appearing as the murderer in her dreams is found dead one day and Jessica finds the mystery to be a compelling case.

Herb Edelman is another guest in this episode, playing the NYPD officer who investigates the crime. If you don't know that name you might know his face. Edelman played Stan on "The Golden Girls," making for yet another connection between the two shows.

Leslie Nielsen

Over the course of only a couple years, Leslie Nielsen appears twice in two separate roles as a guest on "Murder, She Wrote." The comic legend and star of "Airplane" and "The Naked Gun" made his two showings on the mystery show in the time between making his genre spoof masterpieces.

Nielsen's first appearance is in the show's very first season in the episode "My Johnny Lies over the Ocean." In this nautical adventure, Jessica finds herself on a cruise with her mourning friend Pamela Crane following her husband's suicide. Just when strange oddities start popping up, Johnny's biological mother is found dead on the ship, an eerie coincidence made spookier by the staging of the death to look like a suicide. Nielsen plays the captain of the ship in this caper.

The comedian returns in Season 3 as David Everett, a playboy and ex-love of Jessica's, who becomes the main suspect in a series of attacks. In a funny twist, the details of this episode, entitled "Dead Man's Gold," is also nautical, this time having to do with sunken ships and their treasure.

Janet Leigh

In addition to all the guest stars listed above that have become more famous since their appearance on "Murder, She Wrote," the program also featured plenty of old Hollywood stars from the 1950s and 60s. One of the most prominent actresses of that era to appear on the Angela Lansbury detective drama was Janet Leigh. You may remember her best from her leading role as Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock's iconic "Psycho." In the decade that followed, Leigh would go on to transition to more TV guest appearances than film roles. She made appearances in some great detective and crime shows including "The Man From U.N.C.L.E," "Columbo," and, of course, "Murder, She Wrote."

In the 1987 episode from the show's fourth season, "Doom with a View," Leigh used her chops to embody Cornelia Montaigne Harper, a hardworking hotel owner in New York City. She also happens to be the wife of a buddy of Jessica's nephew Grady Fletcher, who fans of the show will recognize as one of the handful of recurring supporting characters. Of course, usually where Grady goes, trouble and murder follow, and that is very much the case here.