Unsolved Mysteries was ahead of its time. It was one of the first reality television shows, and it was also interactive - viewers had the chance to call in with tips to help solve real-life mysteries. The show introduced host Robert Stack to a whole new generation of fans, caused more than one sleepless night with its creepy theme song, helped put lots of crooks behind bars, and reunited about 100 “Lost Loves” that had been disconnected by fate and time. So come along as we dig a little deeper and try to uncover the true story behind Unsolved Mysteries.
A History of Mystery
Most people remember long-time host Robert Stack walking through the fog, often illuminated by a car's headlights, armed with his signature trench coat and unmistakable raspy voice. But Stack was not the only person to ever host the show. In fact, he wasn't even the first.
The first host of Unsolved Mysteries was none other than Raymond Burr, star of the classic TV series Perry Mason. The first episode was only slated to be a one-hour special broadcast on NBC on January 20, 1987. But because it was such a huge hit, the network ordered additional specials. When Burr demanded too much money to return, the producers tapped Karl Marlden, a well-known film and television actor, whose role as a grizzled police lieutenant on the popular 1970s show, The Streets of San Francisco, helped solidify UM's crime-solving theme. After two more specials in 1987, Malden also asked for a bigger paycheck, and he was replaced by another TV cop, Robert Stack, who played Elliott Ness on The Untouchables. Stack's authoritative voice and stern demeanor became synonymous with the show, and to many people, it came to define his career.
But even Stack shared the stage during his tenure. From 1995-1997, Keely Shaye Smith, who would later marry James Bond (Pierce Brosnan), became an on-air correspondent for the show. After it was canceled, CBS picked it up in 1997. They added Virginia Madsen (pictured with Stack), future Oscar nominee for her role in Sideways, as a co-host to try to boost ratings. However, the show was canceled again in 1999, only to be resurrected by The Lifetime Network in 2001, this time with Stack as the lone host. He remained the voice of Unsolved Mysteries until it was once again canceled in 2002.
Stack passed away in 2003 at the age of 84, so when the show was brought back again in 2008 by SPIKE TV, Dennis Farina — best-known for playing mobsters and police officers in films like Get Shorty and Out of Sight — was brought on board. With Farina in tow, Unsolved Mysteries has is part of the Lifetime Network's daily afternoon line-up, proving that you just can't keep a good show down. These new episodes are little more than re-cut segments from the Stack-era with new voice overs and updated information on the cases shown.
For many fans, the theme song was either their favorite or the most terrifying part of the show. The music was composed and performed by Michael Boyd and Gary Remal Malkin, who also wrote the score for the 1984 classic cheese film, Breakin', which introduced much of America to breakdancing. The theme song won back-to-back American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) Film and Television Music Awards for Top TV Series in both 1992 and 1993. If you'd like to relive the memories (or maybe prevent yourself from falling asleep tonight), check out the theme song on YouTube:
Before They Were Stars
One of the highlights of Unsolved Mysteries was the dramatic reenactments. Many people wonder if any of the actors involved were ever wrongfully accused of being the actual wanted fugitive. While there's no evidence this ever happened, that doesn't mean the actors never got noticed. In fact, a handful of people who appeared on the show went on to bigger and better things.
One such actress is Stephnie Weir, who played a nondescript resident at a hotel in a May 1992 episode. In 2000, Weir joined MADtv and stayed there for six seasons, becoming one of the longest-running members of the cast. Another funny lady, Cheryl Hines, who would later star as Larry David's wife on Curb Your Enthusiasm, played a nurse in a 1997 episode. Fans of Lost will recognize a familiar face if they catch the 1991 segment on the murder of Su-Ya Kim. A friend of the victim's husband is played by Daniel Dae Kim, the actor that played Jin on the island, and is currently co-starring on the reboot of Hawaii Five-O. Perhaps the biggest name to have been featured on UM, though, is heartthrob Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey appeared in a 1992 episode as Larry Dickens, a man murdered in cold blood by Edward Howard Bell in 1978. As a precursor to the rest of his career (and personal life for that matter), McConaughey runs around with his shirt unbuttoned in the recreation. (Skip to 3:30 below.)
According to the official Unsolved Mysteries website, 47% of the wanted fugitive cases featured on the show have been solved thanks to tips reported by viewers. During that time, some pretty amazing stories have centered around the show and its successes.
The first case closed thanks to Unsolved Mysteries was the apprehension of Robert Weeks. Weeks was suspected of murdering three women, including his wife Patricia, and had become a fugitive before a solid case could be made against him. The night his segment aired, the woman Weeks was currently dating while living under an assumed name, called the 800 number to report him. The next day, Weeks was picked up and later convicted of all three murders.
Cheryl Holland holds the record for the shortest time from her television debut until her capture. Holland was accused of killing her aunt and uncle in Tennessee, and stealing money from them to partially pay off her debt to drug dealers. After the segment appeared on TV, she was arrested in Texas just 45 minutes later thanks to a viewer who called into the show.
Jerry Strickland and Missy Mundy were wanted for armed robbery, kidnapping and murder when their segment aired in February 1988. They watched the episode they were featured on at home—Unsolved Mysteries was one of Jerry's favorite shows. Afterwards, the couple went over to a friend's house and waited patiently until the police tracked them down the next morning.
Louis Carlucci has the honor of having been featured on the show twice. The first time was because he was on the run for committing fraud. After he got caught thanks to viewer tips, he jumped bail and disappeared again. UM ran another segment a year later and, once again, thanks to viewer tips, he was apprehended shortly afterwards.
A friend told Alexander Graham he was featured on America's Most Wanted earlier that night. When Graham confirmed that Most Wanted hadn't even been on, he figured the person was just fooling around. The next morning, he went into work as usual, but the federal authorities were waiting for him. Graham, whose real name was Gregory Barker, was wanted in connection with as many as 16 murders. A woman at the office building where he worked recognized him from the episode of Unsolved Mysteries (not America's Most Wanted) that she'd watched the night before, and called-into the show.
Perhaps the most astonishing story on Unsolved Mysteries was their 150th solved case – the case of Tony Miller. Miller had been eating at a restaurant with friends in Toledo, OH, in December 1983. Moments after they left, a man entered the restaurant and robbed it at gunpoint, then, during his escape, shot and wounded a police officer. The employees fingered Miller as the crook and the prosecution found a witness who said he saw a man who looked like Miller leaving the scene. A month later, police arrested another man, Joseph Clark, for an unrelated crime, who confessed to the robbery. But when pressed for details, he recanted his story. Instead, Miller was arrested, tried, and sentenced to serve 20 - 40 years in prison for the crime.
Eight years later, Miller was featured on Final Appeal: From the Files of Unsolved Mysteries, a spin-off attempt that lasted only six episodes in 1992. The short-lived show, also hosted by Stack, focused on people who claimed to have been wrongly convicted. Among the audience watching that night was the witness for the prosecution who said he saw Miller running from the scene. During the program, mug shots of Miller and Clark were shown side-by-side, giving the witness the first opportunity he'd ever had to see the two men together. He called the 800 number to say that his testimony had been wrong – the man he saw running away that night was actually Joseph Clark. Because the witness had changed his story, Tony Miller was released from jail just a few weeks later – almost nine years after he was convicted of a crime he didn't commit.
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What were some of your favorite memories of Unsolved Mysteries?? Did the theme music keep you awake at night? Did you ever call into the show with a hot tip? Tell us about it in the comments below!