Stuart Townsend is Kolchak Stuart Townsend is Kolchak
FADE INOur story opens on a muggy July 2005 afternoon in Hollywood, where a handsome reporter stumbles from a dark, dingy cave clutching a scared young girl. After a last fearful glance over his shoulder, he struggles down a dirt path, desperate to outrun an unseen, unspeakable evil. Suddenly, a voice yells, "Great! Cut!" and crew members scurry in to fix the set for ABC's spooky new Night Stalker (premiering Sept. 29 at 9 pm/ET). It's only the first day of shooting, but that perilous trek along a rocky road is the perfect metaphor for the show's journey to prime time. As executive producer

Frank Spotnitz and star Stuart Townsend huddle near the cave to discuss the next scene, we flash back to a year earlier, when it all began....

Spotnitz has never been able to shake the ghost of Carl Kolchak. When he was a kid, he loved watching The Night Stalker, a cult fave that starred Darren McGavin as the spook-chasing tabloid newspaper reporter fond of cheap hats and cheaper suits. As an adult, Spotnitz became an executive producer of The X-Files, a series inspired by The Night Stalker. Now, out of the blue, he has received an offer from Touchtone Studios exec Morgan Wandell to reinvent Kolchak for a new generation.

Things are not going well. For weeks now Spotnitz has been getting up at 5:30 am to write while his wife and kids sleep. His vision of Kolchak as a Bill O'Reilly-type, a fiftysomething cable-news reporter, just isn't clicking, and ABC apparently agrees — the net is interested in Spotnitz' pilot, but only if he finds a new angle. Quickly. "I'm at my low point," he admits. Ironically, a Hollywood trade picks this day to report that he will be re-creating Kolchak. Abandoning the TV-reporter angle, Spotnitz decides Kolchak needs to go back to his roots as a newspaperman who checks out creepy creatures. And this time around, he'll have a feisty female partner.

Christmas is a few days away, and the dozen Touchstone executives consuming sushi in a studio conference room are in a very giving mood. They've come to help evaluate Spotnitz' first complete draft, and by and large they love it. Still, they share a major concern: The critters Kolchak tracks down are scary, but he doesn't have a compelling backstory. Just as X-Files' Mulder began chasing aliens after they kidnapped his sister, Kolchak needs a reason for his own crusade. It's back to the laptop for Spotnitz.

4:30 pm: The phone in Spotnitz' Beverly Hills office won't stop ringing, as seemingly every agent in town is calling to congratulate him on ABC's decision to order a Night Stalker pilot. There's just one problem: It's not true. (Yet.) Finally his agent calls to say a network call is coming very soon, and he needs to act surprised....

4:50 pm: The phone rings. It's ABC. The network wants to shoot the pilot and, if it works, debut the series in the fall. By the next day, Spotnitz is hard at work hiring a staff.

MARCH 1, 2005
After looking at more than 100 actors — including one who showed up in the old Kolchak's trademark rumpled suit — Spotnitz finds his star: Stuart Townsend, who has agreed to take the part after reading the script a few days earlier. Perhaps because of the rush to start shooting in less than a week, Townsend seems a little queasy about taking on the potential long-term commitment of a TV series after a career spent in feature films. "I spent a day by myself, then a day talking to everybody about this," he says. "Right across the board, they said I should do it. That swung it for me."

MARCH 4, 2005
The Night Stalker cast has come together for the first time, meeting in a Burbank hotel conference room to read through the script before heading to a critical meeting at ABC. Since they won't get a second chance to make a first impression on the suits deciding their fate, things must go perfectly — and the fact that a rowdy crowd of businessmen are in the bar next door drowning them out isn't helping the rehearsal at all. "There's so much chaos going on," notes Gabrielle Union, who has been cast as Kolchak's cohort, Perri Reed. "We're trying to fight through this and create something great."

The 24 men and 24 women who have packed into a North Hollywood screening room aren't just TV fans. No, this focus group is the judge, jury and potential executioner for Night Stalker, which finished filming a month earlier. Behind one-way glass, Spotnitz sits frozen while a chart above the screen registers the audience's reaction, instantly measured by handheld meters. As the pilot nears its big finish, a long scene between Townsend and Union comes on and Spotnitz seems worried... until he sees the audience turn their dials the right way. "The scene is just them talking, but the [rating chart] is going up and up," he notes proudly. "Out of that speech, we got a series."

MAY 13, 2005
It's been more than a week since Spotnitz' had 10 copies of the finished pilot delivered to ABC execs. Since then, they've also watched a dozen other dramas and 14 comedies, poring over audience research to figure out which shows could be the next Lost or Desperate Housewives. Finally, Spotnitz gets the call he's been building toward for almost eight months: He needs to pack his bags for New York, where the network will be announcing its fall schedule — Night Stalker included. "I guess in our case, Friday the 13th is a lucky date," he notes.

Townsend saunters out of LAX, fresh from making a movie out of town, unaware that ABC was scheduled to make an announcement on his show's fate. As he hops into girlfriend Charlize Theron's car, she interrupts the welcome home to surprise him with good news. "By the way," she says, "you'll be coming back here in two days to go to New York City. Your show has been picked up!"

MAY 16, 2005
At a party to celebrate ABC's pick-ups, the Desperate Housewives' table is swarmed by fans, while the only visitors to the Night Stalker cast's booth are two giggling young women who want a picture with Townsend. Oh, and ABC has given the series a woeful time slot, opposite Thursday-night hits CSI and The Apprentice. Despite it all, Spotnitz remains upbeat. "The upside is, the [rating] you have to reach to be successful is much smaller," he says. "So I'm going to focus on the positive."

"I've looked forward to this day," says Spotnitz, glancing around the soundstage where Night Stalker has just begun filming Season 1. "In some ways, this feels like the starting line, but in other ways, it's like the finish line. To have gotten through the past year and to be sitting here doing this series.... We're now in the game, which is where I wanted to be." As Spotnitz speaks, Townsend dashes away from the make-believe demons in the man-made cave. His boss grins slightly, realizing that, like Kolchak, he's taken on an intense battle with something scary and unpredictable: Nielsen families.