11 reasons 'Kolchak: The Night Stalker' is the coolest, creepiest show on 1970s television

Vampires, headless bikers and the Cubs in the World Series? Now that's eerie.

Top image: The Everett Collection

To most people, Darren McGavin will forever be the father of Ralphie Parker, the blue-collar "Old Man" who only wants a hot turkey dinner, a working furnace and a glowing leg lamp in A Christmas Story. Yet, for a certain older generation, the actor remains the original investigator of the arcane — Carl Kolchak. 

Sporting a straw hat and seersucker jacket, the reporter dug into supernatural mysteries in Kolchak: The Night Stalker. When the character appeared on the small screen in the early 1970s, he was unlike anything seen before. His stories balanced horror and humor, as McGavin exuded his uniquely plucky if downtrodden persona.

The series opened the door for many iconic genre shows that followed. Let's dig into the mystery of Kolchak.

1. The 'Night Stalker' TV movie was one of the highest rated of all time.


In Kolchak's debut, the intrepid investigator of the arcane was hunting a vampire in seedy Las Vegas. The Night Stalker aired in January of 1972, drawing a massive 33.2 rating / 54 share by Nielsen's measurement. That's just a massive audience. It's no wonder they quickly commissioned a sequel, The Night Strangler, which sent Kolchak to Seattle.

Image: The Everett Collection

2. There was an unmade third TV movie, 'The Night Killers.'


The Night Strangler hit the airwaves a year after the original, and also drew a ton of eyeballs. ABC considered another TV movie to complete a Kolchak trilogy. A script was written for an unfilmed third movie, which would have sent the reporter to Hawaii, where aliens have kicked off an invasion plot using android replicas to replace prominant political figures.

Image: The Everett Collection

3. Horror and sci-fi legend Richard Matheson wrote the two TV movies… but was skeptical of the series.


The I Am Legend author penned some of the greatest Twilight Zone teleplays, including "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Matheson adapted the first Night Stalker script from an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice, The Kolchak Papers. (The success of the TV movie led to the book getting printed.) The writer turned in his script for the third movie, but the network decided to start an ongoing series instead. ABC and Matheson then parted ways. "We’d had so much trouble coming up with a story for The Night Strangler," Matheson said. "But that was so tough that I couldn’t imagine how they could come up with a new monster every week."

Image: The Everett Collection

4. The title changed after a handful of episodes.


When the series launched, it was simply called The Night Stalker. Weeks into its inaugural season, the show took a month-long hiatus. When it returned, with "The Werewolf," the series was branded Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

5. The show had the Cubs in the World Series — in 1974.


In the third episode, "They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be…," Kolchak is cruising around Chicago in his yellow Mustang convertible, listening to a baseball game on his car stereo. Dick Enberg is heard calling game one of a fantasy World Series that pitted the Chicago Cubs against the Boston Red Sox. The show's Chicago setting constantly serves us great vintage footage of the Windy City, from Lake Shore Drive to the Wacker Drive riverfront.

6. Some of the soundtrack was recycled from a Gene Roddenberry show.


In 1974, jazz musician Gil Mellé composed the music for The Questor Tapes. After Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry had a deal to develop more shows with the network. Throughout the 1970s, Roddenberry would dream up four pilot films, though none of them made it to series. The Questor Tapes involved artificial intelligence, benevolent aliens and a buddy relationship. When he was hired to compose music for Kolchak, Mellé recycled pieces from his Questor score.

7. Darren McGavin did a little bit of everything for the show.


The actor was also a de facto producer for the series, though he was not given credit. McGavin touched up scripts. One article from 1974 proclaimed that "he is doing everything but taking out the garbage at night." This arrangement, however, would lead to frustration, and the star asked to be let of out his contract early. The network obliged, which meant that three completed scripts were never filmed. One of the began with the narration: ""What if I told you that a deranged feminist murdered a Casanova lab technician, a sex goddess, and her purveyor?"

8. It gave director Robert Zemekis his first major screen credit.


With the episode "Chopper," the director of Forrest Gump earned his first credit alongside his eventual Back to the Future writing partner Bob Gale. The episode centers around a headless motorcyclist, a sort of Washington Irving–meets–Ghost Rider premise.

9. The series featured the final screen performance of former child star Jimmy Hawkins.


Hawkins portrayed Jimmy Stewart's son in It's a Wonderful Life, and would go on to appear in The Donna Reed Show as the boyfriend of Shelley Fabares. He was also Betty Jo's love interest on Petticoat Junction. His last screen appearance was in "The Werewolf."

10. Four episodes were recycled to make more TV movies.


In 1976, the network patched together two "TV movies" out of older episodes, spackling the plot holes with added narration and footage. Crackle of Death fused "Firefall" and "The Energy Eater," while Demon and the Mummy mined "Demon In Lace" and "Legacy of Terror."

Image: The Everett Collection

11. It was a huge influence on 'The X-Files.'


There's a reason McGavin appeared on The X-Files as a retired predecessor to Agent Mulder — series creator Chris Carter made no secret of his love for Kolchak. The Night Stalker's "monster of the week" format and blend of macabre mystery with occasional levity created the blueprint for such series. It's hard to imagine long-running series like Grimm and Supernatural without Kolchak blazing a trail.

Image: 20th Television



The Night Stalker was just one of many creepy flicks that gave the disco decade a darker twist. READ MORE

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Neky 8 months ago
Ah yes, I can remember a time when newspapers made the news, instead of just repeating somebody's else's copy. 3 unproduced scripts sounds like a series. Someone needs to make that. Continue with the series set in the 70's. Who could replace Mcgavin. maybe David Duchovny ? His suits always looked like they were wearing him. Just a thought.
blacknock 17 months ago
very cool at all times was my buddy Carl Kolchak
MichaelPowers 20 months ago
Richard Matheson wasn't wrong. The Night Stalker worked well in its two 90-minute TV-movies. The weekly series had a handful of decent episodes, but the premise did not work as a weekly show. They ran out of steam coming up with spooky creatures. The formula got stale. Each week it was the same thing: Nasty monster kills, Kolchak investigates and finds out the truth, no officials believe him, he discovers how to dispatch the monster but has no proof whatsoever. Repeat for the following week and all the subsequent episodes to follow.
frances3agape 21 months ago
I remember watching Kolchak in college. Like, RCChafin, wanted more episodes, not movies.
RCChafin 21 months ago
I always liked Darren McGaven as Kolchak. I wish they made more episodes. I would buy any copies of episodes that weren’t produced. It would make great reading. I once won a contest for writing a short story for Ellery Queen magazine. It was neat it was published. That was my claim to fame, a one off.
frances3agape RCChafin 21 months ago
What was the name of your short story?
StrayCat 21 months ago
The Night Stalker' is the coolest, creepiest show on 1970s television.

Yet it didn't last for more than a single season. I heard numerous reasons for the show's demise, including one reason that had McGavin not wanting to do the show anymore. And the shows producers not wanting to recast the role, so they ended it.
dantelikesit2 28 months ago
Just the best show ever in my book! The monsters were great but Darren McGavin made the show! His sense of humor and wit was the best!!!
teethclenched 33 months ago
At 14/15 years old and a HUGE fan of the original MTV movies, I was so looking forward to the series. i did enjoy the first couple of episodes, THE RIPPER and ZOMBIE, but then...outside of HORROR FROM THE HEIGHTS--which seems to be many fans' favorite, the show just wasn't good.

But...years down the line, you watch it for the characters, for McGavin, and for the great array of 1970s guest stars.

By the way, the series has just been released by Kino Lorber on Blu-Ray with a load of special features including audio commentaries on all episodes by such big-time fans of the series as Mike Dawidziak, Tim Lucas, Kim Newman, Gary Gerani and others!
ECO473 47 months ago
Darren McGavin is just irreplaceable. I miss him to this day.
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