‘Unsolved Mysteries’ Documentary Looks Behind The Scenes Of A True Crime Phenomenon
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Before Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey became a Hollywood name, he earned his first acting credit for a reenactment scene in a 1992 episode of “Unsolved Mysteries,” playing a Texas man who was shot and killed after mowing the lawn.
“Matthew McConaughey had to do a fairly robust death scene,” a producer says in “Unsolved Mysteries: Behind the Legacy,” a new behind-the-scenes documentary celebrating the 35th anniversary of the iconic true crime series. “Let’s just say that his acting has come a long way since then.”
McConaughey was one of countless unknown actors and amateurs hired on location to bring to life the crimes — and occasionally, the reported paranormal activity — of “Unsolved Mysteries,” and the documentary offers a fascinating peek at how the producers, directors and other crew created a phenomenon. Known for its eerie theme song and the famous baritone of its grim-faced, trenchcoat-wearing host and narrator, Robert Stack, the series became appointment viewing for true crime fans after its 1987 premiere on NBC, and it continues with a Netflix revival. Subjects have ranged from spontaneous human combustion to the 1996 murder of Tupac Shakur, but its core mission has always remained the same: enlisting viewers to help solve cold cases and find missing people. Over and over again, they did. (The fugitive killer in McConaughey’s episode, by the way, was identified by two viewers of the broadcast. Two months after it aired, Edward Harold Bell was arrested in Panama, charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison.)
Series co-creator Terry Dunn Meurer recently answered questions from HuffPost about the show’s incredible impact and its often elaborate productions.
“We did four stories per episode, plus usually an update,” she said. “So it was reproducing little mini movies in four different locations for each episode.” Dunn Meurer, who describes her experiences on the original series in the documentary, told us: “I honestly look back and I don’t know how we pulled that off.”
How did you have the money to pay for all of that production? Some of these stories legitimately feel like Hollywood films.
I had actually forgotten about how much production value we actually had [before the retrospective]. There were explosions and casts of thousands in uniforms and things like that. We did it for the budget that NBC gave us.
Stack’s most iconic image featured the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, but he filmed each of his standups in a different location. That must have been expensive!
There was a whole separate unit for the host shoot. And then we had a separate unit for the updates, because the minute a story got solved, off a team went to try and catch that to make it as immediate and fresh as we could.
That was one of the things, looking at all the clips, reminding myself of the production value, going, “Wow.” And then the teams were just amazing. The directors loved it because they could play. I think that you look at Season 1 compared to Season 8, and it just seemed to get a little bit bigger and bigger. But we stayed on budget. We never went over.
What was it like for production to go into a small town and hire local actors, like Matthew McConaughey? What was the role of local law enforcement there?
Law enforcement would just roll out the red carpet for us and just give us so many resources. We didn’t have drones back then, so they would give us helicopters and everything we needed for the reenactments. Most of them played themselves. I guess it would depend on how old the cases were.
When we could, we wanted people to play themselves. Because otherwise we were always afraid that viewers would be going, “How much does that actor look like that guy?” We didn’t want people thinking about that. And a lot of times, the law enforcement really enjoyed playing themselves in the recreations.
We did sit-down interviews with law enforcement and the family members and friends of the victim. That was the core. We really wanted the recreations to match the interviews … but sometimes [people got a detail wrong]. For example, if someone said a getaway car was yellow, but law enforcement later confirmed it was blue. And you’ve already planned on a yellow getaway car and now the producer’s out there scrambling.
Do any interviews with loved ones stand out for you?
sOne story was kind of poignant. The person we were going to interview was older, and I think the production got delayed a little bit. This person waited about two to three weeks and they were not in good health. When they finished that interview, they went into the next room, lay down and passed away. It was almost like they were holding on. In fact, a family member said they thought he was holding on because they wanted to get their story out there.
Those are the hardest cases — family members who wait their whole lives trying to get those cases solved and hoping that that lead’s going to come in. Oftentimes it does, but sometimes it doesn’t. So those are tough.
What was your relationship with law enforcement early on in the cases?
We were cold-calling law enforcement and law enforcement agencies, all different agencies, and they were a little bit wary. … Sometimes law enforcement’s a little hesitant about involving the media, but when they saw the power of the media through “Unsolved,” I think they were really on board. And then we had law enforcement calling us and asking, “Can you do my case?”
We’ve always had a really, really good relationship with law enforcement agencies. You know, a lot of times family members are frustrated with law enforcement, but that was never the point of what our episode was — it was “Let’s solve this case.” Forget that maybe somebody didn’t handle an investigation the way they should. That’s not why we’re here. Law enforcement — they still love us. We still love them. It’s a nice relationship we have. They trust us because we always fact-check everything. We try to present every case in a balanced way, pros and cons, different theories and different suspects. And so we’ve never had a problem.
Some cases got solved even before we aired. [Our researchers] would go, “I think I can make a few phone calls on this one,” and they would solve it. These were usually “lost love” cases [a popular segment on the show] rather than wanted fugitives.
Did “Unsolved” really create a “fugitive card” to give actors who closely resembled their subjects to avoid getting arrested, as discussed in the documentary?
We did have a card! I don’t know how many we actually gave out, but [on the documentary] when you look at that photo of the real guy and the actor, I was like, “Oh wow, this really was a problem.”
It shows you the power of the franchise, of the brand, that somebody saw the show, and then saw that guy, and called it in. Now, you can rewind and study somebody’s photo or some of the clues — but back then, when it aired, it was done. It might rerun in the summer, but that was it. There was no way to rewind and to go back. So that alone makes me still amazed about how many cases were solved because people just in the blink of an eye went, “I know that person.”
Tell me more about the “call center,” where people worked the phones when tips came in during the show’s broadcast.
The night of the broadcast, there’d be a full staff. A case could get solved [that night]. The show would air on the East Coast first, and sometimes by the time it aired on the West Coast, a case had already been solved. That was really fun. There was what we called “clusters”: If you’ve got all these calls coming in [from a specific region] — say everything was from Cleveland, Ohio — you know, “OK, we got this.”
I know you’re an executive producer for the Netflix revival. How do you feel about the new version?
We’re thrilled! The adrenaline of the series just kept propelling you through from season to season. It was just an amazing experience — for me, for sure, and I think for most everyone who’s involved in the series. It’s another way to tell more stories. It’s different because it’s one story per episode. We aren’t getting as many cases out there and the whole idea is to solve as many cases as we can, but some of our viewers really wanted a deeper dive. So I think it’s very different, but it’s still the same. We still have a call to action. The purpose of this series is still the same. And we solved one case last season.
“Unsolved Mysteries: Behind the Legacy” is currently streaming exclusively on Pluto TV. On Oct. 20, it will expand to other platforms including Amazon Freevee, Tubi and the Roku Channel.