Death Stalks the Big Top [Murder, She Wrote Episode]

With its fictional setting in Arkansas, “Death Stalks the Big Top” was broadcast as part of the CBS television Murder, She Wrote mystery/drama series starring Angela Lansbury. The two-part episode was aired on consecutive Sunday evenings, September 28 and October 5, 1986, to kick off the show’s third—and highest-rated—season. Arkansas actress Lee Purcell played a significant role in the episodes.

Running from 1984 to 1996, Murder, She Wrote was among the most successful long-running television shows in history, averaging more than 30 million viewers per week in its prime. “Death Stalks the Big Top” was its first two-part episode. Although it was a two-parter, “Death Stalks the Big Top” was not developed into a more extensive series, nor was Arkansas referenced in other episodes of Murder, She Wrote.

The title Murder, She Wrote comes from Murder, She Said, a 1961 film adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel featuring the beloved sleuth character Miss Jane Marple. A number of actresses have played the Marple role over the years. In 1980, Lansbury herself played Miss Marple in a movie titled The Mirror Crack’d, based on a 1962 novel by Christie. When the concept for the Murder, She Wrote television series was developed in 1984, Lansbury was cast in the lead role of mystery writer Jessica Fletcher, loosely based on Marple.

The storyline of “Death Stalks the Big Top” involves Jessica Fletcher’s search for her long-lost brother-in-law, who was thought to be dead. She tracks him to a circus appearing in Arkansas. There, she encounters a string of apparent accidents followed ultimately by murders.

The fictitious Arkansas towns in which the episodes take place are “Catlinburg” (as opposed to Gatlinburg, Tennessee) and “Pullman City,” not to be confused with the tiny real-life unincorporated community of Pullman (Sevier County), near De Queen (Sevier County).

The cast of “Death Stalks the Big Top” represented the traditional Murder, She Wrote formula of a wide array of actors, including a combination of up-and-comers as well as classic stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, like Lansbury herself. Lansbury signed with MGM in 1942, appearing in such classic films as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), and State of the Union (1948). However, for many, Lansbury’s most memorable movie role was as the frighteningly manipulative mother in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Appearing with Lansbury in “Death Stalks the Big Top” were stars Jackie Cooper and Laraine Day alongside newcomer Courteney Cox, who would go on to star in the television series Friends.

Lee Purcell of Paragould (Greene County) was integral to the plot of “Death Stalks the Big Top” in her role as Maylene, a circus bareback rider. There were scenes of Maylene rehearsing her horse in a vaulting routine. As Maylene, Purcell has quite a few scenes with Lansbury’s character, including a near-death experience for them both. Although Purcell was not a series regular, she appeared as different characters in four episodes of Murder, She Wrote. Along with “Death Stalks the Big Top,” she had major roles in “A Lady in the Lake” (1985), “Town Father” (1989), and “Portrait of Death” (1994). “Death Stalks the Big Top” was the only one that was set in her home state of Arkansas.

None of the filming for “Death Stalks the Big Top” took place on location in Arkansas. Principal photography was on Stage 29 at Universal Studios in Hollywood, California. After “Death Stalks the Big Top” was released on the CBS television network in the United States in 1986, it was later released in Australia in 1987, in the Netherlands in 1988, in both Japan and the United Kingdom in 1989, and in Germany in 1992. Although the episode itself was not nominated for any awards, “Death Stalks the Big Top” is often cited on fan websites as being a favorite among viewers.

For additional information:
“Death Stalks the Big Top, Part 1.” Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0653496/ (accessed December 7, 2021).

“Death Stalks the Big Top, Part 2.” Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0653497/ (accessed December 7, 2021).

“Death Stalks the Big Top, Part 1.” The Murder, She Wrote Wiki. https://murdershewrote.fandom.com/wiki/Death_Stalks_the_Big_Top_(Part_1) (accessed December 7, 2021).

Nancy Hendricks
Garland County Historical Society

Last Updated: 01/08/2022

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