I was watching last Thursday night, as I know a lot of you were. In what is arguably the toughest time slot in prime time, Night Stalker [airing at 9 pm/ET] had a strong premiere, drawing 7.1 million viewers and giving ABC its best numbers at that hour in more than five years. That, along with great reviews from some major newspapers like the New York Times and New York Post, made for a very encouraging start.
For me, it was also the climax to a long journey. If you read the article in TV Guide (and TVGuide.com) a few weeks back, you know that this project began for me in the summer of 2004, when Touchstone Television called to ask if I'd be interested in developing a new series based on the original The Night Stalker TV-movie from 1972.
To my mind, that was — and is — one of the greatest movies ever made for television, and Darren McGavin's portrayal of reporter Carl Kolchak stands as one of the great characters in TV history. I accepted the challenge, but soon found that figuring out how to update Night Stalker for today's audiences was no easy task. Aside from the fact that the world has changed a lot in 30 years, there was the practical question of how to tell these stories in a believable way week in and week out. It had been attempted once before, in a short-lived 1974 series called Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and the result was a critical and commercial disappointment that lasted only 20 episodes.
After months of thinking about the problem — and more than one attempt at a solution — I came up with the approach you now see. Kolchak is a younger man (played by Stuart Townsend) with his future ahead of him who's investigating these stories not because he necessarily wants them for the paper, but because they hold answers he needs for himself. In this version, Kolchak had a wife who was killed by something "not human" a year before we meet him. He believes the mark he found on her body after her death is key to understanding not just what killed her, but all the other strange deaths out there. And, even more disturbing, he (and we) hope to discover the meaning of the mark he himself bears, hidden under the wristwatch on his left hand.
A series needs other characters to help drive the storytelling every week, so in addition to bringing back Kolchak's editor, Tony Vincenzo (Cotter Smith), I invented the new characters of Perri Reed (Gabrielle Union) and photographer Jain McManus (Eric Jungmann). They provide conflict, humor and a complexity to the series that will become increasingly evident in the weeks ahead. With all these changes, the new Night Stalker can't properly be called a remake; it's what Hollywood calls a "reimagining."
As different as it is, it has been a great pleasure to revisit Kolchak and to honor the original in as many ways as I can. Many people have commented on the digital cameo appearance by Darren McGavin in the newsroom scene in the pilot. This was not an inexpensive effect, and I have to give credit to Touchstone Television for giving us the financial resources to pull it off.
Here's how Mat Beck and his team at Entity FX did it: We reviewed the original Night Stalker TV-movie for shots of McGavin with suitable lighting (bright, like a newsroom) and composition (not too much of him could be framed out) and action (he's loading a wooden cross into a bag in that shot!). We then retrieved the original negative from an ABC vault, and Mat and his team digitally scanned the footage and matted it into our new footage.
The last step was getting the blessings of the McGavin family. We invited his oldest son, York McGavin, down to our cutting room last April and waited nervously as he watched a few minutes of the pilot (which was about all we had finished editing at that point) to see if he'd give his blessing for his father to be included. We were all very pleased when he said yes.
There are other nods to Darren McGavin in the show as well. As many people have noticed, a replica of his original straw hat hangs on a rack in Kolchak's home office. (In a moving gesture, York brought the original hat for us to see when he came to visit. It is, of course, too precious to use for filming purposes now.)
But there is one more nod to McGavin in the pilot (and subsequent episodes) that not one critic or viewer has picked up on so far: Look in this space next week, and I promise I'll reveal what it is (if someone doesn't find it first!). Thanks for watching, and talk to you then....
For even more "Frank talk" about Night Stalker, check out the exec 's debut blog for TVGuide.com.