Hallmark Channel has begun production on a film, Murder 101, that it hopes will become a murder mystery franchise in the (jugular) vein of, say, Diagnosis Murder or Columbo.
In fact, Murder 101 stars Diagnosis Murder's Dick Van Dyke, reunited with co-star and son Barry Van Dyke and the series' executive producer, Dean Hargrove (Columbo and the Perry Mason TV films as well).
Van Dyke has signed on for one film, which is slated for a January 2006 premiere, but Hallmark would like to talk him into a sequel or more.
Van Dyke will play Dr. Johnathan Maxwell, a "genial academic" who has trouble finding his classroom, but who teams up with private investigator Mike Palmer (Barry Van Dyke) to find the culprit in a high-profile crime.
Van Dyke, who is pushing 80, says the Hallmark name, and the chance to work with his son again, helped him decide to take on the rigors of the film.
"First of all, I was attracted to Hallmark. They have been turning out some really good stuff. For me, there is a very big demographic, mostly family, who have been turning to that network because they have not been pushing the envelope on sex or violence. They are putting out family entertainment, and very high quality, for a demo that is being pretty much ignored by the networks and cable."
Van Dyke said he will have to check on his stamina to determine whether he will agree to a second film.
"We're going to wait and see how this one turns out. I trust the judgment of the Hallmark people to see if the quality is good enough [for a franchise]." But he is game if the Hallmark is, stamina willing. "for me, it's just a matter of making sure I can do it."
Don't look for any CSI-like forensic voyeurism in the show, says Van Dyke. He concedes there is an audience for it, but says: "We're going the other way. The murder mystery is a background for the relationships. We want it be lighthearted with some humor. We'll never get graphic, believe me."
How will he differentiate this sleuthing doctor from Mark Sloan, the sleuthing doctor he played for eight years on CBS? "It's going to be tough," he concedes. "Mark Sloan was just an older Rob Petrie. And this character: "He'll be a little older...and a little absent minded."