20 Surprising Facts About America’s Most Wanted

In 1988, one year before Cops began asking the bad boys of America “What'cha gonna do when they come for you?,” noted victims’ advocate John Walsh was turning every American with access to Fox into a potential crime-solver on America’s Most Wanted.

The series, which highlighted real-life cases of fugitives and suspected criminals who had managed to evade capture (or recapture), became the first hit show for the then-fledgling Fox network and turned into a cultural phenomenon. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, here are 20 things you might not have known about America’s Most Wanted.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A LONG-RUNNING BBC TRUE CRIME SERIES.

America’s Most Wanted partly owes its existence to an assistant to Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, who suggested the idea of a true crime series along the lines of BBC’s Crimewatch, which featured reenactments of brutal crimes and hosts who implored the public to assist them with catching the criminals. The show began airing once a month on BBC One in 1984, and was cancelled in 2017.

2. JOHN WALSH WASN’T THE FIRST CHOICE TO HOST IT.

John Walsh attends a Paley Center event for 'America's Most Wanted'
Neilson Barnard, Getty Images

Though it’s hard to imagine America’s Most Wanted without its longtime host John Walsh—a hotel executive who became a noted victims' advocate following the abduction and murder of his young son, Adam, in 1981—the show’s producers considered a lot of other names before landing on Walsh.

“Stephen Chao—Fox’s vice president of program development—and an L.A. producer named Michael Linder sat down with [Fox’s vice president of corporate and legal affairs] Tom Herwitz to discuss the possibilities,” Walsh wrote in his autobiography, Tears of Rage, about the network’s search for a host. “They considered the author Joseph Wambaugh, and a whole raft of actors—Treat Williams, Ed Marinaro, Brian Dennehy, Brian Keith, and Theresa Saldana, who had played herself in a TV movie about how she was nearly stabbed to death by some psychotic attacker. Then, during one of their marathon conference calls, Herwitz suggested me.”

It took a while for them to track Walsh down—“I was all over the place in those days, traveling something like half a million air miles a year,” he wrote—but after a handful of conversations, he agreed to shoot the pilot.

3. IT WAS FOX’S FIRST HIT SERIES.

Fox was still a new network—less than two years old—when America’s Most Wanted debuted, and it quickly became the network’s first big hit. Though it originally only aired in a handful of markets, by April the network was broadcasting America’s Most Wanted nationwide. In 1989, it became the first Fox series to be the most-watched program in its time slot. By 2010, each episode was being watched by about 5 million households.

4. THE ANNOUNCER’S VOICE WAS A VERY FAMILIAR ONE.

From 1996 until his death in 2008, legendary voice actor Don LaFontaine served as the show’s narrator. You probably know LaFontaine as the voice behind more than 5000 movie trailers, and the person most often associated with the “In a world…” trope. He was often referred to as “Thunder Throat” and “The Voice of God.” Wes Johnson took over the role following LaFontaine’s passing.

5. THOUGH INITIALLY SKEPTICAL, LAW ENFORCEMENT PROFESSIONALS QUICKLY EMBRACED THE SHOW.

In a 1988 interview with The New York Times, executive producer Michael Linder admitted that law enforcement professionals were initially skeptical of the show, though it didn’t take them long to embrace its purpose—and possibilities. “Now, they bombard us with tips and requests for help,” Linder said.

The FBI also played a big part in the series; the agency assigned a handful of agents to act as liaisons between William S. Sessions, the bureau’s then-director, and the show’s producers. On May 29, 1998, Sessions even appeared on an episode of the show to give a rundown of the latest additions to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list (one of whom was captured shortly thereafter, thanks to a viewer tip).

Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau told The New York Times that he, too, was a fan of the series, saying that, “If the media, through publicity, can contribute to the apprehension of dangerous criminals, I'm all for it. Besides, it’s very expensive to track down criminals. A couple of detectives or FBI agents can spend months or years searching for someone. It seems to me that this is a wonderful way to save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

6. THE AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION WAS NOT ON BOARD WITH THE CONCEPT.

Though many of the individuals featured on the show were fugitives, the American Civil Liberties Union had concerns that a suspect who appeared on the show would not be able to get a fair trial. “I suppose it’s like an electronic wanted poster,” Colleen O'Connor, the ACLU’s director of public education, told The New York Times in 1988. “The poster on the wall in the post office makes it seem like the fugitive is guilty, too … Can someone get a fair trial after he's been portrayed as a killer on television?”

But Linder contested this point, telling the Times that civil liberties were always at the forefront of the producers’ mind. “If one killer was set free because of pretrial publicity from us, the show would be a failure,” he said. The show also made a very clear point of using language like “alleged” and “reportedly” when discussing suspects who had not been convicted—and Walsh ended each episode with a reminder that the suspects featured in the show were innocent until proven guilty.

7. WITHIN FOUR DAYS OF THE SHOW’S PREMIERE, THEY HAD CAUGHT THEIR FIRST SUSPECT.

On February 7, 1988, America’s Most Wanted debuted on just a handful of Fox stations across the country. On February 11, four days later, a viewer tip led to the arrest of David James Roberts, a convicted murderer and rapist who had made a brazen escape from prison in 1986 while being transported to a hospital.

After the episode aired, the show’s tip line received dozens of calls from people who knew Roberts as Bob Lord, an employee at a homeless shelter in Staten Island. Roberts, who was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, was the first fugitive profiled on the show, and the first person caught as a result of viewer tips.

8. THE SHOW HELPED THE FBI CATCH 17 OF THEIR “MOST WANTED” FUGITIVES.

America’s Most Wanted proved to be a huge help to the FBI during the quarter-century it was on the air. According to the FBI’s website, 17 “‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’ have been located as a direct result of tips provided by viewers of this program” (beginning with Roberts in that very first episode).

9. WALSH MAINTAINED HIS OWN “MOST WANTED” LIST.

Like the FBI, Walsh maintained his own “most wanted” list, which was known as the America’s Most Wanted “Dirty Dozen.” It changed regularly, but included fugitives who had been featured on the show and had yet to be captured.

10. THE HOTLINE NUMBER CHANGED SEVERAL TIMES. 


Zaid Hamid, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In order to expedite the crime-solving process, the last two digits of the show’s hotline changed each year for the first few years in order to match the year the episode aired (1-800-CRIME-88, 1-800-CRIME-89, etc.). On average, the show received approximately 3000 to 5000 calls per week. In 1994, the number changed one last time—to 1-800-CRIME-TV. The number was shut down in June 2014. (As for the operators you saw during each episode: most of them were actors.)

Amazingly, crank calls weren’t a big problem for the show, according to Linder, though they did receive a lot of hang-up calls. (He suspected people just wanted to try dialing the number to see if someone would answer.)

11. LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS INVOLVED WITH THE CASES FEATURED WERE ON HAND IN THE CALL CENTER.

So that any promising tips could be quickly vetted and followed up on once an episode aired, The New York Times reported that, “In the television studio, there are some 30 telephone operators to take the calls. Also on hand are police officers or federal agents directly involved in cases being aired that night. When one of the operators gets a good lead, an officer picks up the phone and asks the caller further questions.”

12. A GROUP OF PRISONERS ONCE TURNED IN A FELLOW INMATE.

On May 15, 1988, Mark Goodman was in the final stretch of a brief prison stint following a burglary conviction in Palm Beach County, Florida, but was wanted elsewhere in the country for escaping federal custody following an armed robbery conviction. He was watching the show with a group of his fellow inmates when his face flashed across the screen. Though The New York Times reported that he tried to change the channel, it was too late: Goodman's fellow inmates informed the prison guards that there was an America’s Most Wanted fugitive in their midst. While being transferred to a more secure facility, Goodman managed to escape custody again. Fortunately, he was apprehended the next day.

13. FOX CANCELLED THE SERIES IN 1996. VIEWERS—AND THE AUTHORITIES—WEREN’T HAPPY.

In 1996, the powers-that-be at Fox—which now had a handful of hit series, including The Simpsons—decided to cancel America’s Most Wanted and push Married… With Children (which was in its final season) into the first half of its 9 p.m. time slot. The public let their outrage be known.

“We went off for four weeks,” Walsh told Larry King in 2003. “Everybody in law enforcement contacted Fox. Fifty-five members of Congress contacted Fox. Thirty-seven governors. I don't think 37 governors could agree on how many stars and stripes are on the flag, but they all went after [the network]—and they said it [was] a business decision. But … 200,000 good American citizens wrote Fox and said, ‘This is wrong.’ We were the shortest canceled show in the history of television.”

14. THE SHOW ALMOST HELPED APPREHEND GIANNI VERSACE’S KILLER FOUR DAYS BEFORE HIS MURDER.

This picture taken from the FBI web site on the Internet 16 July shows Andrew Phillip Cunanan, the sole suspect in the murder of Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace. Versace was gunned down in front of his Miami home
H/O, AFP, Getty Images

Fans of FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story probably noticed a recent shout-out to America’s Most Wanted. In the episode, an employee at a sandwich shop in Miami recognizes Andrew Cunanan when he comes in to buy a sub and calls the police to report it. But Cunanan managed to make his way out of the eatery just before the police arrived. While the episode left no doubt that it was indeed Cunanan (as portrayed by Darren Criss) who was ordering a tuna fish sandwich, the reality of what happened is not as clear-cut.

After Cunanan made his way onto the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list on June 12, 1997, the bureau asked the show for help. They ran a segment on the alleged serial killer, and Miami police did respond to a call from Kenny Benjamin, an employee of Miami Subs, who swore that Cunanan was in the shop. Police arrived almost immediately, but the man in question had already left. And Benjamin had ended up blocking the security camera’s view of the suspect while making the call, so whether or not it was indeed Cunanan was never confirmed. But we do know that the call was made four days before Versace’s murder.

15. AT THE REQUEST OF THE WHITE HOUSE, THE SHOW TOOK ON TERRORISTS FOLLOWING 9/11.

In October 2001, in the wake of 9/11, America’s Most Wanted aired a one-hour special that profiled the FBI’s 22 most wanted terrorists. The New York Post reported that the episode was put together in just 72 hours at the request of White House aide Scott Sforza.

“These are low-life coward terrorists that we’re going to profile and hopefully we can get some of these s–bags off the streets before they hurt anymore Americans,” Walsh said, adding that: “I’m going to send a big message to Bin Laden: You’re just a coward. Americans know it and we’re gonna hunt you down like the dog you are.”

16. MORE THAN ONE SUSPECT PROFILED ON THE SHOW WAS LATER ACQUITTED.

Not every suspect featured on America’s Most Wanted ended up being captured—or found guilty of their alleged crimes. One example: Suspected murderer Richard Emile Newman. Acting on tips that he was living in an apartment in Brooklyn following an episode of America’s Most Wanted that profiled his case, Newman was arrested in New York in 2004. He was extradited back to Canada in 2006 for trial, but in 2010 he was acquitted of those charges.

17. AT LEAST ONE SUSPECT TURNED HIMSELF IN.

On May 8, 1988, America’s Most Wanted featured the case of Stephen Randall Dye, who was wanted in connection with the shooting of a man in New Jersey in 1986 as well as the murder of a motorcyclist in Ohio in 1981. Nervous that he would be found out, Dye—who was living in California at the time—flagged down a police car in San Diego and gave himself up.

18. BARACK OBAMA MADE A SPECIAL APPEARANCE.

In 2010, to celebrate the show’s 1000th episode, Walsh was granted what he assumed would be a quick meet-and-greet with President Barack Obama to film a segment acknowledging the milestone. But when he arrived at the White House, he was taken to the Blue Room for an actual sit-down with the POTUS where they discussed Obama’s various anti-crime initiatives and the show’s impact. “It wasn’t a grip-and-grin or a photo op,” Walsh told the New York Post.

19. IT WAS THE LONGEST-RUNNING SERIES IN FOX’S HISTORY AT THE TIME IT WENT OFF THE AIR.

In June 2011, Fox television cancelled America’s Most Wanted for a second (and final) time. When the show went off the air, it had run for 25 seasons, making it the network’s then-longest running series. (The Simpsons has since surpassed it.) 

But that was not the end of America’s Most Wanted. As Walsh told the San Diego Tribune in the wake of the series’s cancellation, "I'm fighting hard to keep this franchise going. It's a television show that gets ratings and saves lives, and we'll find somewhere to keep going. We're not done.”

Walsh was right: The series got picked up by Lifetime, though its run on the network was fairly short-lived; on March 28, 2013, it was cancelled for good.

20. MORE THAN 1000 FUGITIVES HAVE BEEN CAPTURED BECAUSE OF THE SERIES.

In May 2008, America’s Most Wanted was celebrating the show’s 1000th capture. To celebrate, the network got some of the Fox family to tape celebratory messages (including some awkward congrats from American Idol judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul). As of March 30, 2013, the total number of captured persons had risen to 1202.

These Breaking Bad K-Swiss Sneakers Are Heisenberg-Approved

K-Swiss
K-Swiss

On the heels of last week's Netflix release of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, fans of Breaking Bad have another treat on tap. Sneaker brand K-Swiss just announced a special edition sneaker modeled after the now-iconic RV camper where unlikely drug kingpin Walter White and his sidekick Jesse Pinkman cooked batches of the finest methamphetamine New Mexico had ever seen.

A K-Swiss Classic 2000 x 'Breaking Bad' Recreational Vehicle sneaker is pictured
K-Swiss

The Classic 2000 x Breaking Bad Recreational Vehicle sneakers sport the same distinctive striped pattern as the camper and feature the show’s logo on the tongue. Inside is a lining that resembles the upholstery of the camper’s interior. The shoebox even has a few bullet holes to mimic the ones on the camper’s door.

Unlike Walt's meth, the sneakers are available only in limited quantities. K-Swiss plans on launching the shoe beginning at 6 p.m. PST on Thursday, October 17, at a pop-up store at 7100 Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, California. (The “store” is actually the screen-used RV from the series, and fans are welcome to stop by to take pictures with it.) The company will release 50 pairs at the pop-up, with another 250 through K-Swiss.com and through Greenhouse, a designer and collectible shoe app from Foot Locker.

The shoes retail for $80, but unless you’re one of the lucky few able to grab a pair through the routes above, you’ll probably have to consider a marked-up eBay sale. As Walter White well knows, quality comes at a heavy price.

10 Gruesome Facts About Dawn of the Dead

Anchor Bay Entertainment
Anchor Bay Entertainment

In the late 1960s, George A. Romero changed horror cinema forever with Night of the Living Dead, an instant classic that defined zombie storytelling on the big and small screens for decades to come. Over the next decade, Romero—who was reluctant to revisit the creepy world of shambling corpses he’d brought to life—tried other things. But then a chance encounter with a shopping mall and a little help from a fellow horror master changed his mind. The result was Dawn of the Dead, an over-the-top horror comic book for the big screen that remains, for many fans, the greatest zombie film ever made.

It’s been more than 40 years since Dawn of the Dead first arrived in theaters, and the film remains a wickedly fun piece of horror satire full of exploding heads, mischievous bikers, and one very dangerous helicopter. In celebration of four decades of terror at the mall, here are 10 facts about the making of Dawn of the Dead.

1. We can thank the mall (and Dario Argento) for Dawn of the Dead.

When Night of the Living Dead became a massive hit after its release in 1968, Romero began fielding various offers to potentially revisit the world of ghouls that he had created. Romero, who’d made a living making TV commercials in Pittsburgh before Night of the Living Dead was made, was "paranoid" about the idea of returning for a second film, and left it alone for years until an idea unexpectedly came to him.

As Romero explained on Anchor Bay’s Dawn of the Dead commentary track, the idea for the film initially came to him when he touring Pennsylvania's Monroeville Mall, which was owned by some friends of his. During the tour, he was shown some crawlspace within the mall where various supplies were stored, and started thinking about what might happen if people holed up in the mall to try and ride out a zombie apocalypse.

The second big ingredient that led to Dawn of the Dead was Dario Argento, the acclaimed Italian director best known for Suspiria and Deep Red. Argento offered to help Romero get financing for a Night of the Dead sequel, and even invited him to Rome to work on the script.

“They got us a little apartment, I sat in Rome and banged this out,” Romero said.

2. George A. Romero came up with the most famous line while drinking.

A photograph of George A. Romero
Vittorio Zunino Celotto, Getty Images

The most famous line in Dawn of the Dead—a line so famous it became the movie's tagline and was later reused in Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake—belongs to the character of Peter: “When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the Earth.” As catchy and unforgettable as it is, Romero doesn’t recall any grand moment of inspiration. He was just drunk one night, trying to get the script finished.

“I just made that up. Truly. On a drunken night when I was really crashing to finish the script and I thought that was kind of nice. It was from something Dario Argento told me,” Romero told Rolling Stone in 1978. “My family is Cuban and Dario said, ‘Well you have a Caribbean background and that’s why you’re into the zombie thing; zombies originated in Haiti.’ I said, well, all right, and I just figured that’s something a voodoo priest might say. Whee! I’m just having fun, man.”

3. Multiple versions of Dawn of the Dead exist.

Argento helped Romero find financing for Dawn of the Dead and served as a “script consultant” on the film. In exchange, Argento retained the right to recut the film for various foreign markets, while Romero retained final cut for North and South America. As a result, the Italian version of the film was shorter than Romero’s U.S. version, as Argento trimmed certain jokes he felt Italian audiences wouldn’t get. This increased the darkness of the film, which led to certain content cuts in other foreign markets. This is why several different cuts of the film wound up existing around the world, including an R-rated re-release that was re-cut for drive-in theaters in 1982.

4. Dawn of the Dead was released unrated in America.

Dawn of the Dead was released first in international markets, arriving in Italian theaters in the fall of 1978, months before it would land in the United States. In just a few weeks, the film was a commercial success overseas without ever playing to American audiences. So, when Romero and company ran into MPAA demands that they cut the film down or get an X rating, they doubled down and released the film unrated without any cuts to the gore.

5. The zombies didn’t get a lot of direction.

Though he’s renowned among horror fans as the man responsible for building zombies into one of the most effective movie monsters, Romero didn’t spend too much time guiding his undead ghouls. The director felt that if he tried to offer detailed direction in terms of zombie behavior, the zombies would all start acting one way instead of like a group of individuals. So, direction was kept to a minimum.

“You just have to say, ‘Be dead,’” he later recalled.

6. Yes, it was filmed in a working mall.

The Monroeville Mall was not a Romero invention. It was a real, working shopper’s paradise, owned by friends of his, which meant that it wasn’t just going to be shut down for weeks at a time so a zombie movie crew could come in and wreck it. Though Romero and his wife Chris later recalled having to stay out of the mall while the Christmas decorations were up (which is when scenes set elsewhere were shot), once the crew did get into the mall they could only shoot at night.

To make that easier, the crew replaced many of the lights in the mall with color-corrected lighting, so they could essentially shoot wherever they chose. At 7 a.m. each morning the mall’s Muzak would automatically start playing, which meant shooting was done for the day, and the cast and crew could shamble home for a little rest. (The Monroeville Mall, which is located about 10 miles from Pittsburgh, is still in operation today.)

7. Many of Dawn of the Dead's gore effects were improvised.

Though he would eventually become known as one of horror’s great gore wizards, at the time of Dawn of the Dead Tom Savini’s career as a special effects artist was still quite young. As he recalled later, he was doing a play in North Carolina when Romero called him and said: “We got another gig. Think of ways to kill people.”

Savini later recalled that he was given a great deal of freedom to play with different ideas for the many, many gore effects in Dawn of the Dead, so much so that many of the most memorable effects were made up on the day of shooting, including the scene in which a zombie takes a screwdriver through the ear and the exploding head during the SWAT raid on the housing project near the beginning of the film. Savini’s knack for improvisation also served him well in another capacity: The character of Blades the biker, which Savini plays, was not in the original script. He was simply added during shooting.

“George let us go play,” Savini recalled.

8. Dawn of the Dead is packed with cameos.

Like many of Romero’s films, Dawn of the Dead’s production was based in his native Pittsburgh, which meant that getting people to be in the movie was often as simple as contacting friends and family and inviting them to appear on camera. Romero makes a cameo in the film himself, alongside his future wife and producer Chris, in the film’s opening sequence at the TV station, where the couple is sitting side by side at a control panel (Romero, Savini noted on the commentary track, is also wearing his “lucky scarf”). Other cameos scattered throughout the film include Chris Romero’s brother Cliff Forrest as the man who leans over a sleeping Francine in the opening shot, and Tom Savini’s niece and nephew as the two zombie children who burst out of a closet at the landing strip and attack Peter.

9. The bikers were not actors.

As with some of the smaller speaking roles, getting extras to show up in Dawn of the Dead was often a matter of simply asking around Pittsburgh for the right people. As a result, the National Guardsmen present in the film, as well as some of the police officers, were real National Guardsmen and real cops.

For the legendary sequence in which a biker gang stages a raid on the mall, the production also managed to find real bikers in form of a group called The Pagans, who brought their own motorcycles for the shoot.

“I don’t remember who contacted them, but they just showed up,” Chris Romero later recalled.

10. Dawn of the Dead almost featured a darker ending.

During production on Dawn of the Dead, George Romero told Rolling Stone writer Chet Flippo that the film had, in Flippo’s words “no beginning and two endings.” Romero explained that this was because he was working “moment to moment” on the film. He eventually figured the beginning of the film out, of course, and went with an ending in which Peter and Francine fight their way out of the mall and onto the roof, where they escape in the helicopter. So, what was the other ending?

On the film’s commentary track, George and Chris Romero and Tom Savini all discuss a much darker concept to close the film, in which Peter would have shot himself (which he contemplates doing in the final cut) while Francine would have leapt into the spinning blades of the helicopter, mirroring one of the most famous zombie deaths earlier in the film. That ending would have followed in the footsteps of Night of the Living Dead’s dark ending, but Romero ultimately decided on something lighter.

Still, the original plan didn’t go to waste: Savini had already made a cast of actress Gaylen Ross’s head to use for Francine’s death scene, so he repurposed it—with the help of some makeup and a wig—for the famous exploding head shot during the housing project raid.

Additional Sources:
Shock Value by Jason Zinoman (The Penguin Press, 2011)
Dawn of the Dead DVD Commentary (Anchor Bay, 2004)

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