True Crime Factor Interview: John Cosgrove

unsolved_mysteries_logoDuring the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, Unsolved Mysteries served as a weekly television fix for those with an interest in the bizarre and unexplained. Most notably hosted by deep-voiced actor Robert Stack, the show masterfully blended accounts of unresolved crime along with alleged stories of the paranormal.

Over the course of 14 seasons, Unsolved Mysteries would undergo numerous changes in format, timeslot and network homes. Amidst all of the revisions, the program retained a loyal audience.

In December 2016, it was announced that FilmRise had acquired the worldwide digital distribution rights to Unsolved Mysteries. Amazon Prime was the first streaming platform to offer past episodes of the show (which are available here) and each season is expected to be added later this year.

Unsolved Mysteries co-creator and producer John Cosgrove kindly spoke with me on February 10 to discuss the program’s history and on stream re-launch. You can visit the official Unsolved Mysteries website at Unsolved.com, follow the show on Twitter under the handle @Unsolved and find the Official Unsolved Mysteries Facebook page at this link.

Let’s begin with the big news for Unsolved Mysteries fans that came down this past December when it was announced that the FilmRise company had acquired distribution rights to the show; this meant that Unsolved Mysteries was now eligible to be presented on online streaming services. Can you discuss this deal and the decision to move forward with it?

Well, we had always wanted the most exposure we could get for the Unsolved show and we also wanted to find a way to put the original episodes that Robert Stack hosted and narrated back on the air somehow. Going with FilmRise – who then has gone to Amazon Prime – allowed us to do that. We had to do updates to the stories because Bob Stack died, as you know, several years ago. So, we did updates by using graphics to show the audience how a story had changed or how a suspect was captured.

There are quite a few seasons up now on Amazon Prime and I understand the plan is to release every season throughout the year.

Yes, that’s true. All of the episodes hosted by Dennis Farina are currently on Amazon Prime and hopefully will be on other streaming services. The Robert Stack episodes take a little longer to edit because we’re doing the updates. The first two seasons are up now and by the end of the year, all of the seasons will be up.

Wonderful. I think many people – myself included – were surprised that something like this had not happened sooner with the advent of online streaming platforms as well as the prevalence of so many DVD collections of past television programs now available. Obviously, there were the “Best Of” DVDs a number of years ago, but was there ever any consideration given to releasing the Unsolved Mysteries seasons on DVD?

No, we haven’t entertained that idea. We cherry-picked the best stories to put in the DVD collection and the sales were okay, but not great. So, we sort of shelved the plan to do the entire seasons.

You mentioned earlier that you are hopeful to get the show on other streaming platforms. Are you able to speak on any updates relating to that?

No new information now. Apparently, the show is doing very well on Amazon Prime and FilmRise is letting it run on there for a while, and then they will take the show out to the marketplace to see how well it will do there.

You spoke of the editing process in regard to providing updates on previous stories featured on Unsolved Mysteries. Can you talk about how the process has been delving back into so many of these stories?

We have an update coordinator who keeps track of the cases and is in touch with the law enforcement people on the cases. And the law enforcement people who were interviewed for the stories will let us know when an update is needed. There have been a lot of updates because so many of the cases have gotten solved.

Going back to the origins of Unsolved Mysteries, the original series run was preceded with a number of television specials. Can you take us back to those early days and tell us how the concept for the show was developed?

My partner, Terry Meurer, and I did a series of three specials for NBC called Missing … Have You Seen This Person? Those were only missing persons cases. The ratings were great and some of the cases got solved, and we came up with the idea of expanding the concept to include all kinds of cases as well as historical cases, treasure cases, ghost stories and UFOs to appeal to a wider audience.

Right. One of the things that attracted me to Unsolved Mysteries was the wonderful blend of stories of a paranormal nature along with true crime cases. Are those subjects that both you and Terry Meurer are interested in personally?

Well, Terry Meurer used to read the Nancy Drew books and was always interested in mysteries. We have always been very curious about the UFO stories, stories of ESP and ghosts and so on. So, it fit right into our wheelhouse as to what our interests were.

In all your years producing Unsolved Mysteries, what are some of the standout stories for you personally?

I think one of the standout stories that we did was the case of a woman – I think it was in Michigan – who was accused of murdering her child, like a three-year-old child, by feeding her antifreeze poison because when the child died suddenly and inexplicably, they discovered an open can of antifreeze in the garage. When they did the autopsy, they concluded that she had given the kid antifreeze.

So, she was in prison – she was actually pregnant when she was arrested and had a baby in prison, but wasn’t allowed to see the baby. We did the story and somebody watching worked for, I think it was the University of Michigan biology department, and they knew that there was a very rare genetic disease that imitated antifreeze poisoning. They re-autopsied the dead child and it was determined that it was not antifreeze poisoning, but a rare genetic disease that took the child’s life. So, she was released from prison.

Oh, wow. That’s pretty incredible.

That gave us a great feeling.

Absolutely. Obviously, Unsolved Mysteries in its original run was hosted by Robert Stack, who I guess you could say became the icon of the show. He also hosted a number of the aforementioned television specials. When you saw Robert Stack in that role and it came time to select a host for the original series, did you know, “That’s our guy right there”?

Well, we did seven specials. The first was narrated by Raymond Burr and then the next two by Karl Malden. The next one – I guess it was the fourth one – Bob did. We knew from the very first day of shooting that he was going to be great, and we knew he was right for the show because of how he portrayed Eliott Ness on The Untouchables.

It’s my understanding that Stack thought highly of the Unsolved Mysteries concept as it pertains to the viewer interaction, such as providing the on-screen telephone number for those watching to call with tips and information. Is that correct?

Yeah. Bob really liked doing the show. He liked the storytelling, he liked the interactive nature of the show. He compared it to the play Our Town and that kind of gave him a sense of, “I’m doing something that is significant and important,” especially as the cases started getting solved and we were getting good ratings. It was a very satisfying job for him.

Sure. I’m curious to ask how Robert Stack was to work with behind the scenes, because obviously his cold on-camera demeanor and deep voice made him perfect for the hosting role. What was Stack like when the camera was off? Was he outgoing with a good sense of humor or more quiet and reserved? What was his personality like on set?

Bob was a very warm guy and very funny, and had just an entire treasure trove of stories to tell about his days in Hollywood. And so, he entertained us a lot while filming.

Stack was briefly paired with actress Virginia Madsen for his final season hosting Unsolved Mysteries. Can you talk about the decision to pair the two up as co-hosts?

It was basically an effort to reach a wider audience and a larger female audience. I think she’s a terrific talent and I think she did a nice job, but nobody could match Robert Stack.

Sure, absolutely. Personally, for that original series run, I can’t imagine anybody but Robert Stack hosting, to be honest. (Laughs) He was just so perfect for that position.

Yeah.

Unsolved Mysteries was rebooted during the late-2000s with Dennis Farina as the host. Can you take us behind the scenes of that version and the selection of Farina for the position?

Well, we’d been longtime fans of Dennis Farina and he comes out of law enforcement – as you know, he had been a cop in Chicago. So, he seemed like a really good choice to host the show when we needed to rework the shows to appear on the Spike network, which appeals to a younger audience. We wanted to do a version that had a sort of rawness that Dennis Farina brought to the show.

If a network was to approach you with the idea of airing a brand new, revamped version of Unsolved Mysteries with new cases and stories, is that something you would be interested in or are you content to let it rest and allow fans of the show to enjoy the previous incarnations?

No, we’re constantly working on ways to try and get it back on the air, either on the broadcast networks or the larger cable networks.

Terrific. Is there anything in closing you would like to say to those reading?

Just that we’re extremely excited to have the show on Amazon Prime. We’ve gotten a lot of response on our website from fans that are delighted to see it back. So, this is a very good time for us.

Absolutely. I think it’s a great time as well for fans of the show. Unsolved Mysteries has a very loyal following and there are many, many people – myself included – who are excited to see it back. Personally, I have interviewed a number of people who are closely associated with cases featured on Unsolved Mysteries that are still unresolved today, families in mourning. With more eyeballs on these stories now, perhaps answers can be provided.

We’re hoping so. We’re hoping so.

I have to say, I have been a fan of Unsolved Mysteries since I was eight or nine years old, so to get a chance to speak with you today is a real cool deal for me. I want to thank you for your time and wish you the best. I’m sure the show is going to do great on the streaming platform.

You’re welcome, and keep up the good work on your website. We appreciate your interest.

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