Terry Dunn Meurer grew up reading Nancy Drew mystery books before graduating to the works of Agatha Christie. Little did she know that early interest would turn into a four-decade career producing reality programs including being the co-creator of “Unsolved Mysteries.”
In 1987, actor Robert Stack put on a trench coat to host the first episode of the series that investigated mysteries ranging from murders to Bigfoot. The series would become one of the longest running programs in the history of television and kick-off a true-crime genre that continues to explode to this day.
The 35th anniversary of the series is being marked by the release of the documentary “Unsolved Mysteries: Behind the Legacy.” It will be available starting Oct. 19 on major platforms including Amazon Freevee, Tubi, The Roku Channel, Samsung TV Plus and FilmRise’s own free streaming apps.
“We think of “Unsolved Mysteries’ as a mystery show more than a true crime show because we have the UFOs, the science and the medical mysteries but the majority of the cases we did were true crime cases,” Meurer says. “We feel we were the originators because we engaged the audience in a national and international way.
“This has never just been a TV show to me. I just love the power of ‘Unsolved Mysteries.’”
The series was a hybrid of news magazine and drama that was on the air for nine seasons on NBC before moving to CBS for two more seasons. Each episode featured several stories 8-12 minutes long that needed to be solved and the viewers responded. There were more than 180 fugitives brought to justice, 100 families reunited and 260 cases solved.
This was the first program that gave the audiences the opportunity to play a role in helping an investigation by submitting their own story or sending in a tip. And the tips from viewers came in so quickly that one case was solved before the show aired. Viewers recognized the subject from the promotional commercials.
Meurer recalls how each solved case brought great satisfaction and joy to the production team. The thrills went on for 260 solved cases, but the team would have considered the show successful if there had only been one mystery solved.
“If we could give closure to one family or one dogged law enforcement agent that was definitely worth it,” Meurer says.
“Unsolved Mysteries: Behind the Legacy”features original interviews with co-creators Meurer and John Cosgrove, along with long-time producers and directors of the show. Meurer looks back at the episodes and is amazed at what the teams were able to produce with limited resources.
One of the biggest challenges was doing the research to find new stories and follow up on segments that had been broadcast. The Internet was still in its infancy.
“We were making cold calls to law enforcement. As the show became more popular, people would write in and ask us to do their story,” Meurer says. “The other thing I find remarkable is that back in the day, it was appointment television.
“You showed up on Wednesday night at 8 o’clock and you couldn’t pause. You couldn’t rewind. If you missed it, you missed it. The show might show up in a summer rerun but otherwise until it went into syndication, you couldn’t go back to look at those shows.”
The public often got to do more than call in tips. Local actors were hired – many from local theater groups – to help in the re-creations. Some of those novice actors became well known including Matthew McConaughey, Daniel Dae Kim, Taran Killam, Cheryl Hines and David Ramsey.
Along with the mysteries, the star of the series was Stack. Many viewers did not realize Stack had a huge film and TV career before becoming the host of “Unsolved Mysteries.” One case featured a man who was watching the show when a segment about him was broadcast. When the police arrived, he asked if they were from “Unsolved Mysteries.”
“I guess he thought Robert Stack was going to show up in his trench coat and arrest him,” Meurer says.
Episodes of “Unsolved Mysteries” continue to air on platforms such as the streaming service of Pluto TV. Any episodes where there have been changes since the original airing, information is added at the end with the update.
Meurer is amazed at how much viewers have embraced repeated viewings of the episode.
“The repeatability is remarkable,” Meurer adds. “We have 175 episodes and that is a lot of episodes. People kept watching and they are still watching across decades and generations.”
In 2020, Netflix released 12 new episodes of “Unsolved Mysteries” and another nine episodes in 2022. On Feb. 17, 2021, the “Unsolved Mysteries” podcast was launched, and 80 episodes are now available.