A brief history of "Unsolved Mysteries"

Why do we keep coming back to a show about unexplained disappearances, strange alien sightings, and amnesia?

Published May 8, 2021 12:59PM (EDT)

Unsolved Mysteries (Netflix)
Unsolved Mysteries (Netflix)

This story originally appeared on Mental Floss.

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A man sits next to you on an airplane. He looks familiar — is he an amnesiac who's wandered miles from home?

A woman in line at the grocery store seems to be stealing furtive glances. Could she be the missing heir to a fortune . . .  or a murderer?

Some people would call these paranoid thoughts. But this behavior probably seems pretty normal if you grew up watching "Unsolved Mysteries." The primetime show used creepy music, spooky lightning, and sometimes-questionable acting in an effort to crack vexing cases, both legal and metaphysical. Join us. Perhaps you can help solve a mystery—or at least dive into the mysteries behind "Unsolved Mysteries," a show about true crime before true crime was a mass media obsession, and reality television before reality television was everywhere.

Primetime crime

In the mid-1980s, primetime television didn't leave a lot of room for reality programming. Aside from some Geraldo specials, shows about real people involved in crimes just weren't common. In fact, the closest thing viewers had ever seen to a reality-based crime show was a series called "Wanted" that aired on CBS for one season in 1955. "Wanted" featured real victims and law enforcement officials in a telecast that urged viewers to help them capture fugitives. It was likely the first program of its kind, but it wasn't popular, and the format went dormant for about 30 years.

That fact didn't go unnoticed by producing partners John Cosgrove and Terry Dunn Meurer, who met while working at the same production company in the early 1980s. In 1985, they created a series of specials for NBC titled "Missing . . . Have You Seen This Person?" Hosted by "Family Ties" star Meredith Baxter and her then-husband David Birney, the specials profiled children and adults who had disappeared. At the time, the concept of "stranger danger" and kids profiled on milk cartons was in the cultural zeitgeist, and Cosgrove and Meurer believed a show exploring these types of cases could be something rare for primetime television — a public service.

They were right. The "Missing" specials resulted in 25 people being found and reunited with their families. They were also a ratings success for NBC. Cosgrove and Meurer knew they had something, but there were a few missing pieces.

For one thing, it was hard to continue doing specials based strictly on missing persons. While there was no shortage of cases, a solid hour of them might prove emotionally taxing for viewers. For another, even though the shows acted as a way to inform the public, they still had to be entertaining and hold the viewer's attention.

So Cosgrove and Meurer took a cue from a special they had produced for HBO back in 1983 called "Five American Guns." In the special, they had used reenactments to portray the far-reaching consequences of owning a handgun. If they could combine mysteries of all types with dramatic reenactments, they might have a shot at shaking up the primetime landscape. All they needed was a host.

The untouchable Robert Stack

Obviously, they chose Robert Stack. But not at first. Or second. 

When "Unsolved Mysteries" premiered as a special on January 20, 1987, actor Raymond Burr was hosting. Burr is probably best known for playing Perry Mason, the dogged criminal defense lawyer who rarely lost a case over nine seasons (the guy was good).

Burr had an authoritative presence that lent itself well to stories of disappearances, unsolved murders, and lost loves. But Burr didn't return for the following specials. Those were hosted by actor Karl Malden, who won an Academy Award for his role in 1951's "A Streetcar Named Desire" opposite Marlon Brando. Malden did two of the specials before he also bowed out.

When "Unsolved Mysteries" returned for a fourth primetime special, there was a new host. His name was Robert Stack, and viewers knew him best as legendary lawman Eliot Ness in the popular 1960s drama "The Untouchables," which had just been turned into a major feature film starring Kevin Costner and Robert De Niro. Stack gave the show an air of legitimacy, which was key, as some critics dismissed its examination of cold cases as tabloid television. His presence was the last and maybe the most important thing "Unsolved Mysteries" needed in order to take off.

A mysterious formula

NBC was very happy with the specials, and ordered a weekly series to debut in the fall of 1988. But there were still some growing pains to work through.

By the producers' own admission, the earliest reenactments on the show were rough. Cosgrove and Meurer used the actual people involved in a case whenever possible. While that gave the segments an authentic feel, it also meant that regular people were called upon to act. The results were mixed, to say the least. To solve this problem, Stack would narrate over the scenes, effectively drowning out some of the less effective performances.

The reenactments would prove to be a trademark of the show once producers could afford real actors. But the real secret to the success of "Unsolved Mysteries" was hidden in how it presented its cases. In almost every episode, Cosgrove and Meurer highlighted one eerie, unexplained death and one story of lost love.

For the other two segments, they'd rotate stories from categories like missing persons, fugitives, amnesia, or fraud. There might also be an update on a previously-aired case. By changing up the stories, the show had something for everyone. But when it came to the paranormal segments, they had at least one vocal critic — Robert Stack.

The host was outspoken about his reluctance to cover paranormal stories, which Cosgrove and Meurer labeled their "ooga booga" material and which sometimes featured very affordable special effects like shining lights in an actor's face or using a projector to depict a ghost. The show went to great lengths to present stories they felt had credibility — they rejected 80 percent of paranormal ideas. But that wasn't enough for Stack, who would sometimes challenge the more fantastic elements of the show. He was less than enthused about doing a Halloween special in 1988 that was devoted entirely to supernatural stories, but NBC insisted. At the time, a syndicated special about Jack the Ripper was about to air, and the network wanted to compete against it. "Unsolved Mysteries" won, but it was a bittersweet victory: That Jack the Ripper special was produced by Cosgrove and Meurer.

It didn't take long for "Unsolved Mysteries" to go from a modest success to a huge hit. By 1990, it was ranked 11th in the ratings out of 131 shows. Up to 30 percent of all viewers watching television during its time slot were tuned in to "Unsolved Mysteries." And at a cost of $375,000 to $700,000 an episode, it was about half as expensive as most hour-long dramas. After all, it didn't cost much to hire unknown actors — unknown at the time, anyway.

Acting suspicious

With multiple reenactments per episode, "Unsolved Mysteries" provided plenty of opportunities for actors looking to get their big break. If you watch classic episodes, you'll probably be able to spot a few performers who went on to greater success.

Matthew McConaughey played a murder victim in a 1992 episode. He later told IMDb that he was "the guy that got shot while mowing my mother's grass." McConaughey went on to say that a viewer tip led to the arrest of the murderer 11 days later. The next year, McConaughey appeared in "Dazed and Confused" as David Wooderson, launching his career as a guy that didn't get shot mowing his mother's grass.

"Curb Your Enthusiasm"'s Cheryl Hines appeared in a 1997 segment about fugitive Maria Rosa Hernandez. Hines played a mother whose child was attacked by Hernandez.

Daniel Dae Kim, who played Jin-Soo Kwon on the show "Lost," can be seen in an episode playing the brother-in-law of a murder victim named Su-Ya Kim.

Finally, future "Saturday Night Live" cast member Taran Killam played a World War II-era German kid in one memorable segment. Killam had an in, though — his mother's aunt was married to an actor named Robert Stack.

Leaving a tip

In many of the episodes of "Unsolved Mysteries," Stack is seen in a trench coat standing in front of some appropriately spooky location. Sometimes he appeared in front of a Masonic temple that gave the show a gothic atmosphere. Other times, Stack would stand in front of a phone bank of telephone operators.

This wasn't just for show. During and after a typical episode of the series, roughly 28 operators would field around 1500 calls from viewers, many of whom believed they had information that could lead to the resolution of a case. The show took legitimate tips extremely seriously — so seriously that an FBI agent was often standing by on set in Los Angeles to act on valid information. Representatives from other law enforcement agencies would be on hand if the series was profiling a case from their jurisdiction.

There were a few indicators of a hot tip. Multiple callers describing details in a similar way was a good sign; calls coming from the same region were also regarded as promising.

The show could find resolution quickly: In 1991, a maintenance worker named Becky Granniss was watching "Unsolved Mysteries" when she saw a profile of an alleged killer named Gregory Richard Barker. She thought Barker looked familiar, and then she realized she knew Barker as Alex Graham, a telephone solicitor who worked in her building. Grannis called the show and Barker was arrested just 18 hours later.

Even more impressively, the show was able to help locate Cheryl Holland, a woman from Tennessee who burned down the house of Joe and Mattie Harvey, then killed the couple for their money with help from her common-law husband, Eddie Wooten. Cheryl was their niece. Just 45 minutes after Cheryl's segment aired, she was arrested in Rollingwood, Texas, where she had been hiding out and working at a convenience store.

But not all calls were that helpful. Some people phoned in hoping to talk to Stack and convince him to feature their own mysteries. Producers also looked at viewer mail and used a newspaper clipping service that worked kind of like a pre-internet Google Alert to find stories for the show. The service sent in articles from around the country that featured keywords like "murder," "missing," and "UFO." Cosgrove and Meurer liked stories that had multiple theories or where enough information was present where it seemed like it could be solved.

As you might expect, some people who contacted the show were not necessarily "Unsolved Mysteries" material. One man sent in his mother's lung because he believed she had been murdered and wanted forensic testing performed. 

The case files

Throughout its run, "Unsolved Mysteries" profiled well over 1000 cases, and had a high degree of success: Over 340 cases were solved. At one point, the producers estimated that they could solve 60 percent of lost love cases, help locate around 18 percent of the missing heirs they profiled, and even helped capture over half of the fugitives featured. Many of these resolutions were covered in the update segment, which producers said was the most popular among viewers. 

The show had many memorable segments — both solved and unsolved — that fans are likely to remember, including: 

  • Cynthia Anderson: Cynthia Anderson was a 20-year-old legal secretary in Toledo, Ohio, who had recurring dreams about a man who entered her house to harm her. She also received harassing phone calls—so many that her employers installed an alarm buzzer on her desk in case there was a problem. On August 4, 1981, Cynthia disappeared from the law office. The door of the office was locked, and her car was still in the parking lot. Police had no leads. But two anonymous phone calls came in where a woman claimed Cynthia was being held in a basement. She's never been found. The most chilling part? The novel left on her desk after her disappearance was open to a page describing an abduction.
  • The Kecksburg UFO Incident: It's easy to dismiss a UFO sighting by one or two people. But on December 9, 1965, thousands of people in the northeast reported strange lights in the sky. In Kecksburg, Pennsylvania, residents claimed they saw government officials surrounding an acorn-shaped spacecraft. Was it a meteor? A satellite? Or did the town of Kecksburg have a close encounter? No one knows for sure.
  • The Circleville Letters: In 1976, several letters were sent to school bus driver Mary Gillespie of Circleville, Ohio, accusing her of having an affair with the school superintendent. Both Mary and her husband, Ron Gillespie, thought they knew who it was. Ron went out to confront the letter-writer, only to be killed after his car crashed into a tree. Authorities discovered that he had fired his gun before the accident, leading to more questions. The letters didn't stop with Ron's death — in fact, they continued for years, eventually escalating off the page and onto harassing signs posted along Mary's bus route. She ripped one of the signs down one day and discovered a booby trap behind it that would have fired a gun had she pulled the sign down in just the right way. The gun belonged to her brother-in-law, Paul Freshour, who was charged with attempted murder. He was also believed to be the one writing the threatening letters but denied both setting the trap and being the poison penman. Freshour was paroled in 1994 and maintains he didn't write the letters. When "Unsolved Mysteries" was preparing to profile the case in 1993, the production got a postcard warning them to stay away. It was signed "The Circleville Writer."
  • Craig Williamson: Craig Williamson told his wife Christine he was going on a trip to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to sell tilapia they had raised on their farm in Wisconsin. That was August 28, 1993. On August 30, she spoke to him on the phone. Then he vanished. Christine thought a concussion he had suffered a few weeks prior may have given him amnesia. It wasn't until he was profiled on the show that a viewer recognized him. Actually, the viewer recognized himself. Craig was watching "Unsolved Mysteries" when his face appeared onscreen. He was living in Key West, Florida, and claimed he had been mugged, lost his memory, and started a new life there. He reunited with Christine, but because he said he couldn't remember anything, they got divorced. Solved? Kinda. He was found — but did he really have amnesia?
  • The Lucky Choir: Everyone in the church choir at West End Baptist Church in Beatrice, Nebraska, knew better than to arrive late for practice. The choir director, Martha Paul, was extremely punctual and expected the same of her performers. They were all due at 7:25 p.m. But on March 1, 1950, all 15 members were late for various personal reasons ranging from car problems to homework. At exactly 7:27 p.m., the church exploded. The pastor, Walter Klempl, had turned on the heat earlier that afternoon not knowing there was an issue that could lead to a gas explosion. For the 1990 segment, producers of "Unsolved Mysteries" found a church in Unadilla, Nebraska, that was due to be demolished and blew it up. The resulting fireball was said to have reached a quarter-mile into the air.

Mystery solved

"Unsolved Mysteries" kept the spooky music humming for nine seasons before being canceled by NBC in 1997. But Stack didn't hang up his trench coat for long. The show was picked up by CBS, where it aired for two more seasons. When CBS declined to renew it, it found yet another home on Lifetime, where it aired through 2002.

When Robert Stack passed away in May 2003 at the age of 84, that seemed to be the end. But the show returned in 2008 on Spike TV with actor Dennis Farina as host. Farina, who was once a Chicago police officer, stuck with the show through 2010.

Classic episodes have been available on streaming services like Amazon Prime, sometimes with updates, which Cosgrove and Meurer have said are mandatory if a person featured in a segment has been released from prison. Other times, they've deleted segments if the statute of limitations has expired or if the law enforcement agency handling the case asked them to remove it. Unsolved Mysteries was recently revived again, both as a podcast and as a series for Netflix.

So why do we keep coming back to a show about unexplained disappearances, strange alien sightings, and amnesia? It's simple: "Unsolved Mysteries" was interactive television. People watched because they never knew if they'd see a suspect or missing person just around the corner. They enjoyed the ambiguity, and they knew that even if the show didn't offer a resolution for one case, they'd be able to wrap up another. It was scary without being graphic. It was emotional without being exploitative. And it had Robert Stack, who could make anything—even little green men — sound plausible.

It's unknown if Stack had a favorite segment, but if he did, it might have been the one where the show profiled a famous lawman who battled the infamous Al Capone before searching for a serial killer in 1930s Cleveland. His name? Eliot Ness.

By Jake Rossen

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