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Popular Culture without... Kolchak: The Night Stalker

By Ryan Fleming

Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, The X-Files. None of these may have existed were it not for a short-lived horror television series of the 1970s. Kolchak: The Night Stalker was first brought to live as two telefilms before being expanded to a full series a year later, but only twenty episodes would be produced before low ratings and a dissatisfied star saw it cancelled. Late night repeats would soon give it a measure of cult success that would be influential on at least one future hit. At least one person that worked on the programme would also go on to be very influential in television. Without the inspiration and opportunity provided to people in the television industry by the programme we might have seen a very different television landscape to what we see today. None of this might have been possible had a struggling writer been able to get his horror novel published.

An unpublished novel picked up by a television network, a subsequent full series that did not last a full season, and the graveyard of late-night repeats might be the makings of a lasting legacy but somehow the impact of Jeff Rice’s creation Carl Kolchak continues to be felt in television today.

Rice’s unpublished novel, The Kolchak Papers, saw Las Vegas news reporter Carl Kolchak on the trail of a serial killer that has delusions of being a vampire. Unfortunately for Carl, it turns out to be more than a delusion and he must do battle with an ancient vampire in the backstreets of Sin City. Rice had problems with getting the novel published, and eventually television network ABC approached him with an option to adapt it for television. The novel would eventually see publication, but only after the success of its television adaptation with a picture of the actor playing Carl Kolchak prominent on the cover.

To adapt the novel, ABC turned to veteran horror and science fiction author Richard Matheson, who had a proven track record in television writing for series such as The Twilight Zone, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Star Trek as well as television films such as Duel (directed by Steven Spielberg). Producing would be Dan Curtis, fresh off the gothic horror soap opera Dark Shadows also on ABC. Bringing life to the main character would be veteran film and television character actor Darren McGavin, adopting the seersucker suit and porkpie hat that would go on to be synonymous with the character. The Night Stalker, as the adaptation would be titled, was hugely successful becoming the highest rated television film up to that time. A sequel was quickly commissioned; The Night Strangler would see the return of McGavin, Matheson, and Curtis (this time taking over directing duties from John Llewellyn Moxey) and saw Kolchak face off against an immortal alchemist in Seattle.

Plans for a third film were abandoned when the network decided to produce a full series based on the character. Curtis and Matheson would not return instead going on to collaborate on future television films like Trilogy of Terror and Dead of Night. McGavin would return and would also handle some production duties, uncredited and uncompensated. Joining McGavin behind the scenes would be newcomer David Chase as story editor, to whom much of the series quirky humour was attributed. Each episode saw Kolchak, now based in Chicago, go up against a different supernatural foe. The “monster-of-the-week" formula did not sit well with McGavin, and coupled with his lack of recognition and recompense for producing duties caused him to ask to be released from the contract with several episodes still to film. ABC, looking at the declining ratings, which could now be blamed on the irregular airings and harmful timeslots, acquiesced to his request.

Two successful films and one unsuccessful series may have been enough for the character and concept to be relegated to the dustbin of history, but repeats of the programme on late night television soon attracted a cult following well into the 1980s. Whilst those involved with the programme went on to other things there were others taking inspiration from the short-lived series.

By the dawn of the 1990s Chris Carter was tired of working on television comedies and desired to branch out into drama. Hired onto the Fox Network he soon began pitching his idea for a science fiction drama series heavily inspired by Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Peter Roth, head of television production at Fox who had brought Carter over from CBS, was intrigued at the Kolchak connection believing there would be a market for something based around vampires given the upcoming Anne Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire. Carter pressed for the idea to be based around extra-terrestrials, Roth gave in to his preference and thus The X-Files began development.

It can be underestimated today just how popular and influential The X-Files was in the 1990s, but with an original run of nine seasons, along with two theatrical films and now two revival runs it certainly had a longevity that Kolchak never enjoyed. Without Kolchak providing the bulk of the inspiration The X-Files might likely never have been produced, and it would not go one to be one of the defining programmes of the 1990s zeitgeist in the United States. Even whilst it was on the air the influence of The X-Files was apparent in many other film and television productions, and after it went off the air those that worked on it took their experience to develop their own projects.

The influence in The X-Files was felt in other television programmes, overarching story arcs interspersed with episodic adventures and the innovative portrayal of its female lead Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) were revolutionary for the time. In creating the television version of his forgotten 1992 film Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon drew heavily from the look of The X-Files and mentioned it as an inspiration in interviews. Russell T Davies would also cite the influence of the programme on his Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. The look and feel of the programme would also be an influence to future series like Lost as well as video games like Deus Ex and Perfect Dark. More nebulously, without The X-Files taking science fiction television into the mainstream in the 1990s we may never have seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer come to television or even Doctor Who revived by the BBC.

The X-Files also provided an opportunity for those involved in its production to get other ideas off the ground. Chris Carter would go on to create Millennium and The Lone Gunmen for Fox, the latter a direct spin-off from The X-Files. Writers Glen Morgan and James Wong would take an unproduced spec script for the series from Jeffrey Reddick and turn it into the Final Destination film series. The X-Files also saw Vince Gilligan become impressed with Bryan Cranston’s work in the episode “Drive”, both men would later go on to create and star in the AMC crime drama Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad would go on to be a huge success in itself and would see its own spin-offs commissioned after it came to its conclusion – including the series Better Call Saul.

Without Kolchak: The Night Stalker to provide the bulk of the inspiration we may never have seen The X-Files. Without the huge influence of The X-Files we may never have seen future hits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Lost. Without the opportunity provided by The X-Files we may never have seen Final Destination on the big screen or Breaking Bad on the small screen. The X-Files was not the first such series to provide an opportunity to young writers, Kolchak had provided such an opportunity two decades prior, though the effects would not be truly felt until the turn of the twenty-first century.

After the cancellation of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, story editor David Chase would continue working in anonymity on television for the next twenty years on programmes such as The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure before finally hitting it big in the late 1990s with an idea that had been gestating since perhaps the late 1970s. Without Kolchak he might have gone on to another series or even into film and his career trajectory not see him work so much in television, and he may never have created The Sopranos.

After shopping his idea of a mobster in therapy having mother issues around during the 1990s the pilot script was eventually financed by HBO in 1997. It would linger for two years, with Chase even seeking permission to film an extra 45 minutes and release it as an independent film, before finally being commissioned as a full series in 1999. The Sopranos would become regarded as one of the greatest television series of all time, launch the careers of its writers and actors and is now seeing a theatrical film enter production based on it. It all might never have happened had David Chase not been in the position he was in the 1990s from a long anonymous career in television.

Amongst those writers that would work on The Sopranos to hone their craft were Matthew Weiner and Terence Winter. With the conclusion of The Sopranos in 2007 both would go on to create their own prestige drama series taking much of the style of The Sopranos with them. For Weiner this would be the AMC period drama Mad Men, which itself would last for seven seasons and would itself be called one of the greatest television series of all time. For Winter, this would be the 2010 HBO period crime drama Boardwalk Empire that would be lauded for its style and lead performance.

The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Boardwalk Empire were all factors in the rise of prestige drama on American cable television. Before this most popular drama series were all still on network television in the United States and subject to the standards required for mainstream advertising. The influence of series protagonist Tony Soprano on subsequent television antiheroes portrayed in Breaking Bad, Deadwood, Mad Men, and The Shield is acknowledged. Without the success of The Sopranos, the idea that a series could be successful on premium cable in the United States might never become a viable idea, from this the subsequent idea that a series could be successful on a streaming network might never come to pass. Even the invocation of the name of The Sopranos can prove successful, in order to sell their adaptation of a sprawling fantasy series to HBO, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss pitched Game of Thrones as “The Sopranos in Middle-Earth".

Without Kolchak: The Night Stalker, David Chase’s career might have been altered in such a way that he does not go on to work on The Rockford Files, Northern Exposure and others and subsequently is forced to take his film idea to television networks as a pilot and The Sopranos as we know it would not exist. Subsequently, the era of prestige drama on premium cable networks and later streaming services exemplified by the likes of Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones might never come to pass.

Without Kolchak: The Night Stalker the television landscape of the 1990s through to the present day would be a very different place. Without ever being able to inspire The X-Files that programme might never be made and the mainstream appeal of a science fiction series might never prove possible. Without setting the career trajectory of David Chase on the path it did he might never go on to create The Sopranos. Subsequent to these we might never see such prestige like Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men ever made; created as they were by writers who honed their craft on The X-Files and The Sopranos. Without the idea of a science fiction or fantasy programme being immensely popular or the idea of prestige drama on premium cable being proven, we may never have seen Game of Thrones. We would have seen none of this had a struggling writer not agreed to have his unpublished novel adapted by a television network as a telefilm in 1972.



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