Diary of a Night Stalker
Former 'X-Files' executive producer Frank Spotnitz chronicles his efforts to resurrect a 1970s TV cult horror classic for ABC
July 15, 2004
Having coffee with my wife, Melissa, when my cell phone rings. It’s Mark Pedowitz, president of Touchstone Television. Reception is poor, but the words ”The Night Stalker” cut right through the static. Mark, a longtime science fiction fan, wants to know if I’d be interested in doing a new series based on the 32-year-old TV movie.
Would I be interested? As a child, I watched endless hours of television — Star Trek, The Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible — but nothing struck me as deeply as The Night Stalker, which aired as an ABC Movie of the Week on Jan. 11, 1972. It was about a down-and-out newspaper reporter, Carl Kolchak, who comes upon the story of his life when cocktail waitresses start turning up exsanguinated, apparent victims of a real-life vampire. The show scared the crap out of me — and I wasn’t alone: It was the highest-rated TV movie of all time (up to that point), grabbing 48 percent of the viewing audience.
Not surprisingly, ABC broadcast a sequel, The Night Strangler, which transplanted Kolchak to Seattle in pursuit of a serial killer who couldn’t die. I loved every second of it, as I did Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the TV series that followed in 1974. Although the show wasn’t half as good as the movies, it had one very big thing going for it: Darren McGavin.
McGavin, by that time a veteran character actor in his 50s, was unforgettable as Kolchak. Funny and charming, sporting a straw hat and seersucker suit, he was always sticking his tape recorder into places it didn’t belong — a perpetual irritant to anyone in a position of authority, most especially his long-suffering editor, Tony Vincenzo, played by the late, great Simon Oakland.
But neither McGavin nor the viewing public was enamored of the series, and by the time the 20th episode aired, the network granted McGavin’s pleas to cancel it.
It made sense Pedowitz would think of me to take another crack at it — Chris Carter, my friend and collaborator, cited The Night Stalker as his prime inspiration for creating The X-Files. I was an exec producer of that show, writing on it for eight years. And the similarities between the two were undeniable. But much as I loved Night Stalker, I wasn’t eager to put in 80-hour weeks over the next eight years telling the same kind of stories. I said I’d think about it.
Woke up thinking about Night Stalker. Pedowitz probably doesn’t know this, but I liked The Night Stalker so much I wrote McGavin into The X-Files as an FBI agent who discovered those unsolved cases before Agent Mulder was born.
My agent called. Touchstone is prepared to make a deal for me to develop a new Night Stalker. I say I’ll mull it over, but I’m leaning against it. Truth is, for the past few years I’ve had a nice career writing movies — an action thriller about World War III for Revolution Studios, a remake of The Star Chamber for 20th Century Fox, and an adaptation of a novel for Paramount I’m working on with Chris Carter.