THE MEASURE OF SUCCESS

Michael D. Winkle

Think of those dark Friday nights of yore. After a grueling week of work or school, it was every American's God-given right to come home and plotz down before the tube to spend a humorous yet eerie hour watching a blue-collar reporter creep through the darkness, seeking creatures of horror. If you are a true fan of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, you have no doubt sighed occasionally over the fact that there are only two TV movies and a single season of hour-long episodes, twenty-two adventures of Carl Kolchak, in all the world.

Many critics have called Night Stalker a failure, but what is the measure of success? For each show that actually appears on TV, scores of series ideas fall by the wayside. Occult investigators in the Kolchakian vein have rarely made it farther than a pilot episode.

Fear No Evil (1969) was an excellent made-for-TV movie about a woman who sees her dead fiancÚ in an antique mirror. It was the pilot for a series to be called Bedeviled, featuring Louis Jourdan as psychiatrist David Sorrell and Wilfred Hyde-White as his associate, Harry Snowden. A sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970), also starred Jourdan and Hyde-White. The concept eventually became ABC's The Sixth Sense. [1]

The Sixth Sense (1972), an hour-long show featuring Gary Collins as parapsychologist Dr. Michael Rhodes, lasted only one season. The episodes were rather slow-moving, though there were a few memorable scenes, this writer's favorite being an Irish "death-coach" assaulting a modern airliner. People complain about the cuts The Night Stalker has suffered in reruns and syndication -- the twenty-five episodes of Sixth Sense were chopped down to half-an-hour each in 1974 and packaged as part of Rod Serling's Night Gallery! [2]

Dan Curtis, well known as the power behind the Kolchak films, directed another made-for-TV movie in the Night Stalker vein called The Norliss Tapes (1973), written by William F. Nolan [3]. Roy Thinnes starred as David Norliss, a writer who researches a book on the supernatural and then disappears. Norliss' editor finds numerous cassette tapes at the author's house; he listens to them one by one, hoping to find a clue to his whereabouts. Each tape, in a Kolchakian fashion, was to narrate a new case of the supernormal.

The pilot film concerned the walking corpse of a sculptor, who has been promised eternal life if he can create a body out of blood-based clay for a demonic being. Angie Dickinson played the sculptor's widow, and Claude Akins, as in the original Night Stalker, played the disbelieving sheriff. Unlike the Night Stalker movie, Norliss was obviously a pilot, as the film ends with the editor listening to another tape.

Roy Thinnes portrayed a character similar to David Norliss in The Invaders, fleeing in that show human-looking aliens instead of demons and the undead.

Jimmy Sangster, the British writer behind many Hammer films [and author of the Night Stalker episode "Horror in the Heights"], came up with Good Against Evil in 1977. Dack Rambo [is that a real name?!] played a writer who teams up with an exorcist (Dan O'Herlihy) to search for his girlfriend, who was kidnapped by devil-worshipers. They fight evil along the way.

Before the revival of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry came up with Spectre (1977), starring Robert Culp as occultist William Sebastian and Gig Young as his "Watson", Dr. Hamilton. Sebastian is called to England to investigate a wealthy financier only to learn that demonic forces are loose on the Playboy-style estate. Spectre was a slick production, a cut above most pilots; one wonders why it did not make it as a series.

Nineteen seventy-seven also saw The Possessed, starring James Farentino as a defrocked cleric who is given a second chance by the Almighty during a near-death experience. He has a mission to seek out and destroy supernatural evil wherever it appears. The pilot was concerned with "spontaneous combustion" at a girl's school.

. . . And the big year of '77 saw The World of Darkness as well, about sportswriter Paul Taylor (Granville Van Dusen) who has a near-death experience of his own while on the operating table. He can now hear voices of the recently deceased, who send him to help people facing supernatural danger. A year later a second pilot, The World Beyond, featured Van Dusen again as the sportswriter. The plot concerned a golem, a creature of clay and mud, running amok (or a-muck) on a Canadian island.

Vampire (1979) was "a cop show with a little bit of the Night Stalker," says creator Steven Bochco. "It was fun. But making pilots is fun. It's what happens after they sell where it gets ugly." [4] Jason Miller starred as an architect whose girlfriend is slain by a vampire (Richard Lynch). The architect teams up with a retired cop (E. G. Marshall) to hunt down the blood-sucker.

* * *

Mark Dawidziak's Night Stalker Companion makes it sound like the Kolchak series had every person and circumstance conspiring against it. Dawidziak gives credit for the creation of the original movie to four men: author Jeff Rice, SF/horror writer Richard Matheson, producer Dan Curtis, and actor Darren McGavin. And what does this quartet have to say about the series that followed?

Richard Matheson: "When I learned he [Dan Curtis] didn't have involvement in it, I decided not to have involvement in it. Frankly, I was sort of relieved. We'd had so much trouble coming up with a story for The Night Strangler. But that was so tough that I couldn't imagine how they could come up with a new monster every week." [5]

Darren McGavin: "I hope they cancel this show as quickly as they can and get it out of their corporate, pinheaded minds. . . This is not the show I started out to do, and rather than try to pump life with a hypodermic needle into something that's just dying, I'd rather bury it and put it out of its misery." [6]

Dan Curtis: "It was a disaster. It was a terrible show. It deserved to be quickly off the air." [7]

Jeff Rice: ". . . in all honesty, I think you were cheated, in a sense, because my series was nowhere near to what it might have been, what I feel it could have been." [8]

Yet, despite a comedy of network errors, Kolchak: The Night Stalker appeared, eventually giving us fans twenty episodes. That is a respectable run, actually; only a few years later, thirteen episodes would constitute a "season", and new shows would have to prove themselves with six or less.

The police and government officials have always muzzled Kolchak and buried his stories. Let us give thanks that the powers that be at Universal and ABC -- and even the reporter's own creators! -- were less successful.

NOTES

1. Gerani, Gary, and Paul H. Schulman. Fantastic Television (New York: Harmony Books, 1977), pp. 180, 186.

2. Ibid., p. 165.

3. Nolan also co-wrote The Night Killers, which was to be the third Kolchak movie.

4. Goldberg, Lee. Unsold TV Pilots: The Almost Complete Guide to Everything You Never Saw on TV, 1955-1990 (Citadel Press, 1991), p. 56.

5. Dawidziak, Mark. Night Stalker Companion (Beverly Hills, CA: Pomegranate Press, 1997), p. 99.

6. Ibid., p. 173 (quote from Mosby, Wade H. "As I See It," Milwaukee Journal, February 16, 1975.

7. Ibid., p. 176.

8. Ibid.