CLOSE
Original image
NBC

25 Things You Might Not Know About Friends

Original image
NBC

Here's a look back at the series that helped get mental_floss off the ground.

1. The show was originally called Insomnia Café ... and a bunch of other things.

In the early '90s, the creators of Friends, David Crane and Marta Kauffman, wrote a seven-page pitch for Insomnia Café. In addition to the different title, the plot itself was quite different from what we know as Friends. For example, Ross and Rachel weren't the key relationship. Instead, Joey and Monica were supposed to be love interests.

After NBC bought the pilot, the title became Friends Like Us. NBC president Warren Littlefield came up with another title that was also considered, Across the Hall. By the time they shot it, the title had switched again to Six of One. When the show premiered on September 22, 1994, they had finally landed on simply Friends.

2. The cast could have been much different.

With a cast of six people, it’s not a surprise that many different actors were considered for each role. For example, Kathy Griffin and Jane Lynch actually became friends after meeting while both were auditioning for the part of Phoebe.

Both Jon Favreau and Jon Cryer were considered for the role of Chandler before it went to Matthew Perry. And Perry almost didn’t get the gig either. During the 1994 pilot season, he filmed the pilot for a show called LAX 2194 in addition to Friends. The show would have been about baggage handlers at LAX who sorted aliens’ luggage. Thankfully, it wasn’t picked up, and Perry was able to take the Friends gig.

Before the show premiered, Courteney Cox was probably the most famous cast member. She was known for many commercials plus Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” music video. The Friends producers originally asked her to play Rachel, but she requested the role of Monica because she liked the “strong” character.

3. The role of Ross was written for David Schwimmer.

This may come as a surprise because Eric McCormack, the Will of Will & Grace, made news when he said that he auditioned “two or three times” for Ross. But, executive producer Kevin Bright had worked with Schwimmer before, so the writers were already developing Ross’s character in Schwimmer’s voice. And indeed, Schwimmer was the first person cast on the show.

4. The opening credits were shot at Warner Bros. studio, not in New York.

Don’t let your NYC tour guide trick you into thinking that you’re looking at the fountain from the iconic opening credits featuring “I’ll Be There for You” by The Rembrandts. Unless you’ve brought your tour guide with you to Burbank for some reason. Although the fountain looks a lot like Pulitzer Fountain in Central Park, the actual shoot occurred on a Warner Bros. lot.

5. The cast went on a Vegas trip before the show aired.

Director James Burrows, who went on to direct a handful of episodes for the show between 1995 and 1997, brought the six cast members to Vegas because he “had a feeling about the show.” While they were at Caesar’s Palace, he encouraged the group to enjoy themselves. “This is your last shot at anonymity,” he told them. “Once the show comes on the air, you guys will never be able to go anywhere without being hounded.”

Friends fans might remember Caesar’s Palace as the place Ross and Rachel got married on a whim in the fifth season finale.

6. Lisa Kudrow hated playing guitar at first.

Kudrow later recalled, “I didn’t like the guitar. I wasn’t getting it. So I think I even asked, ‘What if she plays the bongos?’” They ended up bringing a guitar teacher in, but that didn’t last long. Kudrow learned a couple of chords, then announced that she was done with the lessons. She decided that Phoebe would only know a handful of chords anyway. And thank goodness because “Smelly Cat” is perfect just the way it is.

7. Monica was an early Mental Floss fan.

In the 2003 episode "The One With the Soap Opera Party," Monica is shown casually reading a new magazine called mental_floss in Central Perk. We really owe David Arquette a lifetime subscription, because he's the one who made it happen. "I thought it was so interesting," he told Entertainment Weekly at the time, "[so] I gave it to Courteney" for the show.

8. It was filmed in front of a live audience—except for cliffhangers.

Shooting an episode of Friends was a lengthy process, typically lasting five hours, with multiple takes per scene and 20 minutes between scenes to change sets. Still, the show was filmed in front of a live audience made up of 300 fans. And that’s the way the cast preferred it. “It’s kind of like a test to see if the material works, if the jokes work, if the story tracks,” said LeBlanc. Perry agreed, “Our energy just elevates every time there’s an audience.”

So, what wasn’t filmed in front of a live audience? One example is the cliffhanger in the season four finale, “The One With Ross’s Wedding.” At the end of the episode, Ross is about to marry Emily, but accidentally says Rachel’s name at the altar. “We couldn’t have an audience for that,” Aniston said. “We always remove the audience for the cliffhangers because, obvious reasons, you don’t want to spoil it.”

9. Many people, including Lisa Kudrow, thought that Chandler was gay.

Kudrow said that she was surprised to hear Perry’s interpretation of Chandler at the first table read because when she first read the script, she thought Chandler was supposed to be gay. And she wasn’t the only one. During the first few seasons of the show, many fans speculated about Chandler’s sexual orientation. In 1997, David Crane told Entertainment Weekly, “No, Chandler isn’t gay. Nor will he be gay.”

10. They were the first TV cast to negotiate as a group.

During the first season, they were each receiving around $22,000 per episode. But allegedly, by the second season, each actor had a slightly different salary. In 1997, all six cast members refused to work until they all earned an equal salary of $100,000 per episode. This was big news. The New York Times reported, “Stars of hit shows often threaten to boycott their series in pursuit of higher salaries. What is unusual is this cast’s effort to use solidarity as leverage.”

This negotiation worked very well. By the final season, each cast member was earning $1 million per episode.

11. The apartment numbers switched during the series.

At the beginning of the series, Monica’s door had the number 5 on it. The producers later realized that didn’t make sense as Monica lived on a higher floor. They changed her apartment number to 20. The number on Chandler’s apartment changed as well—from 4 to 19.

12. Phoebe Buffay’s twin sister, Ursula, was also a character on Mad About You.

Kudrow was already playing Ursula the waitress on Mad About You when she was cast on Friends. NBC and Mad About You encouraged Kudrow to take both roles. According to her, it was the producers of Friends who decided to “address this and say they're twin sisters.” She went on to play Ursula Buffay in eight episodes of Friends as well.

13. Kudrow’s pregnancy was written into the show, but Cox’s was not.

Kudrow got pregnant with her son, Julian Murray, in 1997. Kudrow was dubious about Phoebe getting pregnant too, but the writers decided to have Phoebe act as a surrogate for her brother’s triplets. On the other hand, in the final season, Cox was pregnant with her daughter, Coco Arquette. This was not written into the show for an obvious reason: the series had already established that Chandler and Monica couldn’t have kids. So, they hid Cox’s pregnancy to the best of their abilities with costumes and props.

14. Joey’s Magna Doodle art became a job for the crew.  

Loy Chen, YouTube

Loy Chen, YouTube

Over the years, a few crew members were responsible for drawing on the Magna Doodle on Joey’s door. But in the later seasons, it was primarily a job for Paul Swain, who was the best boy on the electric crew.

The Magna Doodle became one of the show’s stars. It sat right in the middle of Joey’s door, so whenever a character walked through that door, the Magna Doodle was prominently displayed. Fans became obsessed with the drawings. Swain said, “They were looking for hidden meanings being given through the Magna Doodle.” 

15. For the opening credits in “The One After Vegas,” everyone was given the last name “Arquette.”

This episode was the sixth season premiere. It was also the first episode after Courteney Cox married David Arquette. In the credits, her name was switched to “Courteney Cox Arquette” and the other cast members followed suit with new names like “Jennifer Aniston Arquette,” “Lisa Kudrow Arquette,” and so on. You can see the credits above. The episode is dedicated: “For Courteney and David, who did get married.”

16. The actors didn’t always play well with animals.

It was widely publicized that Kudrow was afraid of the duck who made an appearance in season three. Before that, Ross had a pet monkey, Marcel, who was actually played by two monkeys: Monkey and Katie. Marcel was written out of the show in season two because it became too time-consuming to shoot scenes with a monkey. According to Katie’s trainer, Nerissa Politzer, Monkey was once supposed to pick up a bra, but ended up throwing it at Aniston instead. There’s also a fun blooper [at 6:20] in which Rachel is trying to explain a TV show to Marcel, but it doesn’t go so well.

17. Cox and Matthew Perry confronted Judd Nelson on a nearby soundstage about an on-set bet.

While promoting the show on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Cox told the story of an elaborate bet between her and Perry that later involved the major '80s star.

“One day I was on the set, and I was sitting around, reciting this line, like, doing this imitation of Anthony Michael Hall,” she told Leno. “He has this line in a movie. The line is, ‘Chicks cannot hold their smoke, that’s what it is.’ And Matthew Perry walks over to me and very adamantly says, ‘Oh, Weird Science.’ And I said, ‘No, Matthew, that’s The Breakfast Club.’ And he was 100 percent sure that it was Weird Science and I was 100 percent sure it was The Breakfast Club.”

More and more crew members got involved in the debate and the stakes kept rising. “We realized that Judd Nelson was over on stage 29, doing Suddenly Susan,” said Cox. “So, we ran over there and found out that yes, indeed, it was The Breakfast Club.” As for the bet, once Cox finishes telling her story to Leno, she rings a bell and Perry brings her a tissue. She tells Leno that Perry has five more months of being her “man slave.”

18. Bruce Willis appeared on the show for free after losing a bet to Perry.

Apparently Perry was quite the gambler. He got into a debate with Willis while the two were making The Whole Nine Yards. Perry believed that the film would be number one in the box office on its opening weekend, but Willis disagreed. In February 2000, the film was number one. Willis was set to appear on Friends as the dad of Ross’s girlfriend and Rachel’s love interest. As a result of the bet, he had to donate his earnings for the guest stint to charity.

19. For “The One with the Dollhouse,” the props department had to make SIX different cardboard dollhouses.

In the season three episode, Phoebe makes a dollhouse out of cardboard. But the dollhouse ends up catching on fire, which meant six identical ones had to be created from scratch. And in true television deadline fashion, they were put together in three days. The Friends props master, Marjorie Coster, described it as the “pièce de résistance” of the department.

20. In “The One Where Old Yeller Dies,” a few takes were messed up thanks to a chatty kid.

The plot of the episode is that Rachel hears the first word of Ross’s son, Ben. Ross is desperate to hear Ben talk again and spends the rest of the episode trying to get his son to talk. In one scene, Ross says, “It’s Ben and his Dada. Dada. Can you say ‘Dada’?” He’s supposed to be met with silence, but the child actor kept actually responding, “Dada.” Later in the series, Ben was played by Cole Sprouse, who would go on to star with his twin brother in the Disney Channel show The Suite Life with Zack & Cody.

In 2001, two of these bloopers were released on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. You can see them here [at 9:30].

21. Matthew Perry struggled with addiction during production.

In 1997, Perry went to rehab for an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. He went again in 2001. He later told People, “I was never high at work. I was painfully hung over. Then eventually things got so bad I couldn’t hide it and everybody knew.”

22. The cast had a huddle before every episode.

Every week before filming commenced, the cast would get together for a moment to prepare for the show. This was the moment that David Schwimmer was dreading before the finale because he knew it would make him emotional. “I started to lose it in this ritual that we had before the show," he said, "which is just a group hug, kind of get in a little circle, right before we come out. And that was the moment I was dreading for a long time because I knew that moment of just looking at everyone in their eyes, and saying ‘Have a good show,’ and knowing that was the last time we were going to be able to be in our little circle.”

23. Jennifer Aniston almost didn’t return for the last season.

By the time the show ended, Aniston was arguably the most famous cast member thanks to films like The Good Girl and Bruce Almighty. Her then-husband, Brad Pitt, didn’t hurt her celebrity status either. With that fame came the rumors that she was almost responsible for the show ending prematurely. In a 2004 interview with Matt Lauer, Aniston admitted that she had hesitations. “I had a couple issues that I was dealing with,” she said. “I wanted it to end when people still loved us and we were on a high. And then I was also feeling like, ‘How much more of Rachel do I have in me?’” She eventually agreed to the final season.

24. There are Central Perk cafés based on the famous coffeehouse from the show.

While there isn’t an actual Central Perk in New York City, the fictional café has inspired some real ones. In 2010, Friends fan Du Xin opened a Central Perk replica in downtown Beijing, which became extremely popular. Its success meant that Du Xin could later afford to reproduce Joey’s apartment next door. In 2012, another Central Perk popped up in Liverpool.

25. A (real) reunion isn’t happening.

In 2015, Cox went on the Late Show with David Letterman where he asked her about the possibility of a reunion. Cox responded, “It’s not going to happen.” She went on to explain that it’s difficult enough for the six of them to get together for a cast dinner, let alone a full-fledged reunion.

Kauffman and Crane have similar views about a reunion. In a 2014 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Crane said, “People say they want it, and the more that we say it’s a bad idea, people [disagree]. But I think if we actually gave it to people, there would be such backlash.”

This Jimmy Kimmel segment from 2014 may be as close as we're going to get:

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise stated. This post originally appeared on the 10th anniversary of the finale.

Original image
Gramercy Pictures
arrow
entertainment
20 Facts About Your Favorite Coen Brothers Movies
Original image
Gramercy Pictures

Ethan Coen turns 60 years old today, if you can believe it. Since bursting onto the scene in 1984 with the cult classic Blood Simple, the younger half of (arguably) the most dynamic moviemaking sibling duo in Hollywood has helped create some of the most memorable and quirky films in cinematic history, from Raising Arizona to Fargo and The Big Lebowski to No Country For Old Men. To celebrate the monumental birthday of one of the great writer-directors of our time (though he’s mostly uncredited as a director), here are some facts about your favorite Coen brothers movies.

1. THE COENS THINK BLOOD SIMPLE IS “PRETTY DAMN BAD.”

Fifteen years after Blood Simple’s release, the Coens reflected upon their first feature in the 2000 book My First Movie. “It’s crude, there’s no getting around it,” Ethan said. “On the other hand, it’s all confused with the actual process of making the movie and finishing the movie which, by and large, was a positive experience,” Joel said. “You never get entirely divorced from it that way. So, I don’t know. It’s a movie that I have a certain affection for. But I think it’s pretty damn bad!”

2. KEVIN COSTNER AND RICHARD JENKINS AUDITIONED FOR RAISING ARIZONA.

Kevin Costner auditioned three times to play H.I., only to see Nicolas Cage snag the role. Richard Jenkins had his first of many auditions for the Coens for Raising Arizona. He also (unsuccessfully) auditioned for Miller's Crossing (1990) and Fargo (1996) before calling it quits with the Coens. In 2001, Joel and Ethan cast Jenkins in The Man Who Wasn't There, even though he had never auditioned for it.

3. THE BROTHERS TURNED DOWN BATMAN TO MAKE MILLER’S CROSSING.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

After Raising Arizona’s success established them as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the Coens had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

4. BARTON FINK AND W.P. MAYHEW WERE LOOSELY BASED ON CLIFFORD ODETS AND WILLIAM FAULKNER.

The Coens acknowledge that Fink and Odets had similar backgrounds, but they had different personalities: Odets was extroverted, for one thing. John Turturro, not his directors, read Odets’s 1940 journal. The Coens acknowledged that John Mahoney (Mayhew) looks a lot like the The Sound and the Fury author.

5. THE COENS' WEB OF DECEPTION IN FARGO GOES EVEN FURTHER THAN THE OPENING CREDITS. 

While the tag on the beginning of the movie reads “This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987,” Fargo is, by no stretch of the imagination, a true story. During the film's press tour, the Coens admitted that while not pinpoint accurate, the story was indeed inspired by a similar crime that occurred in Minnesota, with Joel stating, “In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional.”

However, any and all efforts to uncover anything resembling such a crime ever occurring in Minnesota come up empty, and in an introduction to the published script, Ethan pretty much admitted as much, writing that Fargo “aims to be both homey and exotic, and pretends to be true." 

6. THEY WANTED MARLON BRANDO TO PLAY JEFFREY LEBOWSKI.

According to Alex Belth, who wrote the e-book The Dudes Abide on his time spent working as an assistant to the Coens, casting the role of Jeffrey Lebowski was one of the last decisions made before filming. Names tossed around for the role included Robert Duvall (who passed because he wasn’t fond of the script), Anthony Hopkins (who passed since he had no interest in playing an American), and Gene Hackman (who was taking a break at the time). A second “wish list” included an oddball “who’s who," including Norman Mailer, George C. Scott, Jerry Falwell, Gore Vidal, Andy Griffith, William F. Buckley, and Ernest Borgnine.

The Coens’ ultimate Big Lebowski, however, was the enigmatic Marlon Brando, who by that time was reaching the end of his career (and life). Apparently, the Coens amused themselves by quoting some of their favorite Jeffrey Lebowski lines (“Strong men also cry”) in a Brando accent. The role would eventually go to the not-particularly-famous—albeit pitch-perfect—veteran character actor David Huddleston. In true Dude fashion, it all worked out in the end.

7. JOEL COEN WOOED FRANCES MCDORMAND ON THE SET OF BLOOD SIMPLE.

Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand and Joel Coen at the Oscars
Ethan Coen, Frances McDormand, and Joel Coen celebrate their Oscar wins in 1997.
KIM KULISH/AFP/Getty Images

Coen and McDormand fell in love while making Blood Simple and got married a couple of years later, after production wrapped. McDormand told The Daily Beast about the moment when she roped him in. “I’d only brought one book to read to Austin, Texas, where we were filming, and I asked him if there was anything he’d recommend,” she said. “He brought me a box of James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler paperbacks, and I said, ‘Which one should I start with?’ And he said, ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice.’ I read it, and it was one of the sexiest f*ckin’ books I’ve ever read. A couple of nights later, I said, ‘Would you like to come over and discuss the book?’ That did it. He seduced me with literature. And then we discussed books and drank hot chocolate for several evenings. It was f*ckin’ hot. Keep it across the room for as long as you can—that’s a very important element.”

8. O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? WAS ORIGINALLY INSPIRED BY THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Joel Coen revealed as much at the 15th anniversary reunion. “It started as a 'three saps on the run' kind of movie, and then at a certain point we looked at each other and said, 'You know, they're trying to get home—let's just say this is The Odyssey. We were thinking of it more as The Wizard of Oz. We wanted the tag on the movie to be: 'There's No Place Like Home.’”

9. THE ACTORS IN FARGO WENT THROUGH EXTENSIVE TRAINING TO GET THEIR ACCENTS RIGHT.

Having grown up in Minnesota, the Coens were more than familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the “Minnesota nice” accent, but much of the cast—including Frances McDormand and William H. Macy—needed coaching to get the intricacies right. Actors were even given copies of the scripts with extensive pronunciation notes. According to dialect coach Larissa Kokernot, who also appeared as one of the prostitutes Gaear and Carl rendezvous with in Brainerd, the “musicality” of the Minnesota nice accent comes from a place of “wanting people to agree with each other and get along.” This homey sensibility, contrasted with the ugly crimes committed throughout the movie, is, of course, one of the major reasons why the dark comedy is such an enduring classic.

10. NICOLAS CAGE'S HAIR REACTED TO H.I.'S STRESS LEVEL IN RAISING ARIZONA.

Ethan claimed that Cage was "crazy about his Woody Woodpecker haircut. The more difficulties his character got in, the bigger the wave in his hair got. There was a strange connection between the character and his hair."

11. A PROP FROM THE HUDSUCKER PROXY INSPIRED THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE.

Billy Bob Thornton in the Coen brothers' 'The Man Who Wasn't There' (2001)
© 2001 - USA Films

A bit of set dressing from 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy eventually led to 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There. In a barbershop scene, there’s a poster hanging in the background that features a range of men’s hairstyles from the 1940s. The brothers liked the prop and kept it, and it’s what eventually served as the inspiration for The Man Who Wasn’t There.

12. GEORGE CLOONEY SIGNED ON TO O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? BEFORE EVEN READING THE SCRIPT.

The brothers visited George Clooney in Phoenix while he was making Three Kings (1999), wanting to work with him after seeing his performance in Out of Sight (1998). Moments after they put their script on Clooney’s hotel room table, the actor said “Great, I’m in.”

13. A SNAG IN THE MILLER’S CROSSING SCRIPT ULTIMATELY LED TO BARTON FINK.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

14. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY IS THE FIRST COEN MOVIE THAT WASN’T THE BROTHERS’ ORIGINAL IDEA.

In 1995, the Coens rewrote a script originally penned by other screenwriters, Robert Ramsey, Matthew Stone, and John Romano. They didn’t decide to direct the movie, which became Intolerable Cruelty, until 2003.

15. THE LADYKILLERS WAS WRITTEN FOR BARRY SONNENFELD TO DIRECT.

A still from the Coen Brothers' 'The Ladykillers.'
Melinda Sue Gordon, SMPSP - © 2004 - Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.

The Coens effortlessly jump from crime thriller to comedy without missing a beat. So when they were commissioned to write a remake of the British black comedy The Ladykillers for director Barry Sonnenfeld, it seemed to fall in line with their cinematic sensibilities. When Sonnenfeld dropped out of the project, the Coens were hired to direct the film.

16. BURN AFTER READING MARKED THE FIRST TIME SINCE MILLER’S CROSSING THAT THE COENS DIDN’T WORK WITH THEIR USUAL CINEMATOGRAPHER, ROGER DEAKINS.

Instead, eventual Academy Award-winner Emmanuel Lubezki acted as the director of photography. The Coens would work with Deakins again on every one of their films until 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis.

17. IT TOOK SOME CONVINCING TO GET JAVIER BARDEM TO SAY “YES” TO NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

Though it’s hard to imagine No Country for Old Men without Javier Bardem’s menacing—and Oscar-winning—performance as antagonist Anton Chigurh, he almost passed on the role. “It’s not something I especially like, killing people—even in movies,” Bardem said of his disdain for violence. “When the Coens called, I said, ‘Listen, I’m the wrong actor. I don’t drive, I speak bad English, and I hate violence.’ They laughed and said, ‘Maybe that’s why we called you.”’

18. PATTON OSWALT AUDITIONED FOR A SERIOUS MAN.

Patton Oswalt auditioned for the role of the obnoxious Arthur Gopnik in A Serious Man, a part that ultimately went to Richard Kind. Oswalt talked about his audition while appearing on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, in which it was also revealed that Maron was being considered for the lead role of Larry Gopnik (the role that earned Michael Stuhlbarg his first, and so far only, Golden Globe nomination).

19. THE CAT IN INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS WAS “A NIGHTMARE.”

A photo of Oscar Isaac in the Coen brothers' 'Inside Llewyn Davis' (2013).
© 2013 - CBS Films

Ulysses, the orange cat who practically stole Inside Llewyn Davis away from Oscar Isaac, was reportedly a bit of a diva. “The cat was a nightmare,” Ethan Coen said on the DVD commentary. “The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, ‘Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.’ A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don't want them to do, if anyone's interested; I don't know if there's a market for that.”

20. THE COEN BROTHERS PROBABLY DON’T LOVE THE BIG LEBOWSKI AS MUCH AS YOU DO. 

We’re assuming the Coen brothers are plenty fond of The Dude; after all, he doesn’t end up facing imminent death or tragedy, which is more than most of their protagonists have going for them. But in a rare Coen brothers interview in 2009, Joel Coen flatly stated, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.”

Original image
NBC
arrow
entertainment
27 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Unsolved Mysteries
Original image
NBC

Join me. Perhaps you will learn some things you didn't know about the wonderfully spooky Unsolved Mysteries, a show that aired is finale 15 years ago, but still creeps people out to this day.

1. IT STARTED AS A SERIES OF SPECIALS.

An Unsolved Mysteries reenactment
NBC

The three specials, called Missing… Have You Seen This Person?, were hosted by David Birney and his wife Meredith Baxter and aired on NBC in April 1986. The specials were so successful that producers Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove decided to broaden the scope of the show to include all kinds of mysteries.

2. IT WASN’T ALWAYS HOSTED BY ROBERT STACK.

When what would become the pilot episode of Unsolved Mysteries (but was then just a special) debuted on January 20, 1987, it was hosted by Raymond Burr. Karl Malden helmed the next two specials, and then Stack took over hosting duties, narrating the next few specials and the weekly episodes until the show went off the air in 2002. Later, when the show was revived, Dennis Farina took over hosting duties. (Stack had passed away in 2003.)

3. IN EARLY EPISODES, THE SHOW DIDN'T USE ACTORS IN THE REENACTMENTS.

According to director David Vassar, who directed 100 segments of the show, "In the early episodes, if there were any reenactments, we actually had the real people play themselves." That's why, he said in DVD commentary, "the acting of these first seasons when we were just getting our feet wet was not up to snuff. As we went through the seasons we were able to pay top dollar and get good people, so it just got better and better."

4. AND THERE'S AN EASY WAY TO TELL IF THE ACTORS WERE BAD.

"This is an Unsolved Mysteries hallmark, and it’s a secret," Vassar said in DVD commentary, "but if the narrator talks a lot, and the actors don’t talk at all, it means the acting is really pretty bad, and the narrator is going to cover everything up. If there’s everything out in the clear between the actors, it means the actors were usually pretty good. So the game was, how many seconds of the sync sound takes could you get to play in the open? The more sync you got to play in the open, the better the scene. Pretty simple."

5. THE REENACTMENTS WEREN'T THE SHOW'S MOST IMPORTANT COMPONENT, THOUGH.

"The interviews were so important to the way Unsolved Mysteries was produced," Cosgrove said. "People would think that the most important thing was the recreations, but really, having articulate people who can summon up the emotions of what it felt like [was key]."

"You trusted the interviews," added director Keva Rosenfeld. "If you didn’t have that, you didn’t have a good episode."

6. THE SHOW'S DIRECTORS CAME FROM DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKING.

A still from season four of Unsolved Mysteries
NBC

"We were all used to real life," Vassar said, "and in the first couple of seasons, it shows. Only occasionally had we worked with actors, and if we did, we worked with actors as hosts because they were hosting a documentary we were making." In the beginning seasons, the show shot with a small crew, too: "On the first season, it was basically director, a director of photography, an assistant photographer, a sound man, a producer, and lighting or grip guy," Vassar said. "There were five or six of us, trying to make these little movies. It was like silent films in the 1900s. We did everything ourselves."

7. IT WAS CHEAP TO MAKE.

In the early ‘90s, an hourlong scripted drama cost about $1.5 million per episode. Cosgrove told the Baltimore Sun that Unsolved Mysteries could be made for 25 to 40 percent of that cost. “If you're the president of NBC Entertainment, which show are you going to buy?” the Sun asked. “The one that costs $375,000 to make and finishes 11th in overall ratings or the one that costs $1.5 million to make and finishes 40th?”

8. STACK COMPARED UNSOLVED MYSTERIES TO THEATER.

"We're balancing two needs here," Stack told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. "We're trying to produce theater and we're trying to do a public service."

Stack’s stage comparisons didn’t end there: He saw his duty as host, according to Cosgrove, as akin to the stage manager of Our Town. The three-act play, written by Thornton Wilder, takes place in the small town of Grover’s Corners and features stories from a period between the years of 1901 and 1913. The stage manager served as the narrator.

9. THE SHOW’S FOUR-SEGMENT FORMAT WAS A DESIGN TO GET VIEWERS.

The show’s segments covered a number of themes, including Murder, Missing Persons, Wanted Fugitives, UFOs, Ghosts, The Unexplained (Paranormal), Missing Heirs, Amnesia, Fraud, and more. Each show consisted of four segments, plus an update on an older case. "Almost every show has an unexplained death in it, and almost every show has a lost love story," Meurer told the Los Angeles Times. "Then we'll mix and match in there a legend or a gold mine, or we'll put in one of our UFO stories."

“The idea,” Cosgrove said in DVD commentary, “was to have four different segments in four different areas so people would find something that they liked.” 

10. THE SPOOKY THEME MUSIC WAS COMPOSED BY GARY MALKIN.

Unsolved Mysteries’ original goosebump-inducing theme was written by Gary Malkin, who also served as the show’s main composer. “One of the things that really worked was the music,” Cosgrove said. “I had a lot of friends whose kids would run out the room because the music scared them so much.” Producer Raymond Bridgers agreed: “The music was so distinctive that you didn’t even have to be in the room to know that Unsolved Mysteries was on,” he said. The theme was updated four times (you can hear the 1995 version here), and when the show was revived in 2008, it came back with a new theme (and new logo) altogether.

11. IT PULLED IN GREAT RATINGS.

In 1990, the show ranked #11 for all TV series that year. “Once a sleeper, the reality series hosted by Robert Stack, former star of The Untouchables, now is just a flat-out smash,” the Los Angeles Times wrote two years later. “In the last four weeks, for instance, the unshowy but rock-solid series has demonstrated its clout—ranking 3rd, 16th, 8th and 10th in the ratings.”

12. IT WAS NOMINATED FOR SIX EMMYS.

The category was the Outstanding Informational Series, and Unsolved Mysteries was nominated in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1995. Unfortunately, the show didn’t win, losing out to PBS’s Nature (1989), Smithsonian World (1990), The Civil War (1991), TNT’s MGM: When the Lion Roars (1992), PBS’s Healing and the Mind with Bill Moyers (1993), and PBS’s Baseball and NBC’s TV Nation (1995).

13. PRODUCERS HAVE SOME IDEAS ABOUT WHY THE SHOW WAS SO SUCCESSFUL.

Robert Stack hosts the first season of Unsolved Mysteries
NBC

Number one, of course, was Robert Stack, whose poker-faced delivery could send chills up anyone’s spine. “Bob’s contributions were immense, really impossible to calculate,” Cosgrove said in a tribute to the actor after Stack’s death in 2003. “His fame and charisma helped attract an audience.” Said Bridges: “No one could deliver a spooky line like Robert Stack.”

Number two: Curiosity. "People are fascinated by the idea that they might be living next door to one of these people, and might be able to help find them," Meurer told the LA Times in 1990.

And number three: “One of the things that attracted people to the show,” Cosgrove said, was that “they wanted to be scared.”

14. THANKS TO JACK THE RIPPER, THERE WAS AN UNSOLVED MYSTERIES HALLOWEEN SPECIAL.

In its first year on the air, Unsolved Mysteries had a Halloween special—an entire hour devoted to ghosts. "Bob was pretty skeptical at this point about doing an entire hour about ghosts," Cosgrove said on DVD commentary. "He definitely, I don’t think, thought it was a great idea for us to change the formula of having four segments of different categories for this Halloween special. It was a little risky doing an hour on one topic."

NBC had asked the producers to create a one hour special, Cosgrove said, because the network "had gotten wind that there was going to be a Jack the Ripper special in syndication, one of those live event specials, that revealed the secret identity of Jack the Ripper at the end of the show. And they said, 'We want you to come up with a stunt program on Halloween.' But we said, 'Wait, we’re the people producing the Jack the Ripper special—we don't want to do that!' And they said 'We don’t care!' So we came up with this, which clobbered the Jack the Ripper special."

After this, though, the show would occasionally do single-topic episodes.

15. THE SHOW ONCE BLEW UP A CHURCH.

The segment "Lucky Choir" tells the story of a choir that met to practice every Wednesday night at 7:25 p.m. Except one night, when every choir member was late—and, as a result, avoided an explosion at 7:27 p.m. that surely would have killed them. The producers chose a church in Unadilla, Nebraska, that was slated for demolition, and planned an explosion. They flew a special effects expert to the site and surrounded the church with five cameras framed by plywood boxes that would protect the gear and the cameramen. "We were supposed to cave in the roof, and we framed [the shot] slightly above the roof," Rosenfeld, who directed the segment, recalled. "[The special effects guy] blew it up way bigger than we expected. A fireball went into the air, probably a quarter mile. We were all scared."

Shrapnel speared the plywood boxes around the cameras and their operators, and debris rained down for 20 minutes. "The cameraman walked up to the macho special effects guy, pretty angry, and said 'What did you put in there?' And this macho guy goes, 'Ninety-five sticks of dynamite and three 10 gallon tubs of gasoline,'" Rosenfeld remembers. "We immediately rushed the site to film the scene because we couldn’t recreate that. We knew we weren't doing that again."

16. A NUMBER OF STARS GOT THEIR BREAKS ON UNSOLVED MYSTERIES.

Matthew McConaughey in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries
CBS

In his first professional acting gig, Matthew McConaughey appeared as a (shirtless, of course) murder victim in an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. "They got the guy," the Academy Award winner told Entertainment Weekly in 2014. "They found him around Bryan, Texas, about two weeks after that show." Virginia Madsen also co-hosted the show with Stack in 1999. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines, MADtv’s Stephnie Weir, Saw’s Ned Bellamy, and Lost’s Daniel Dae Kim also appeared in episodes.

17. ONE OF THE SHOW'S MOST POPULAR SEGMENTS WAS ALSO TOUGH TO SHOOT.

It was called "Mystery Hum," about the Taos Hum, so named because the low-frequency sound began to be reported in Taos, New Mexico, in 1992. (In other parts of the world, it's called the Bristol Hum, the Bondi Hum, or just "The Hum.") Director Bob Wise said the segment was particularly difficult to film because there weren't many visual elements for the audience—and the hum's low frequencies didn't come through televisions well. Still, he said, "we got a lot of response to this, because a lot of people around the country and the world are hearing this same thing, and there’s a whole network of people who hear this thing."

18. THE SHOW USED A VISUAL EFFECTS COMPANY CALLED AREA 51.

That company was tasked with creating the show’s effects, from sparking clocks to creepy ghosts to, appropriately, aliens. In fact, the “Allagash Abduction” segment featured some of Cosgrove’s favorite effects created by Area 51. “We had such detailed paintings and drawings from [the abductees], and we based our special effects session on their drawings and paintings, not just from the descriptions,” Bridgers said.

19. BUT SOMETIMES, THEY DID EFFECTS THE OLD FASHIONED WAY.

In Unsolved Mysteries's early years, visual effects weren't very advanced and the show didn't have a huge budget for them, either. "When you’re shooting ghost stories, it gets kind of tricky if you want to do it without special effects," director Bob Wise said in DVD commentary. The crew was forced to get creative: For the episode "Gordy's Ghosts," Wise chose to give the ghosts an overblown white look. "We put a lot of light on [the actor's] face," Wise said. "The poor little girl could barely keep her eyes open."

For another sequence that showed a ghost lying down next to the little girl on the bed, the crew took off the mattress and had the actor lie on boxes, and pulled on springs underneath to achieve the effect. Ghostly effects in other episodes were created in camera using double exposure and projection.

20. ROBERT STACK—AND THE PRODUCERS—WERE PRETTY SKEPTICAL OF THE PARANORMAL STUFF.

DVD cover of Unsolved Mysteries: UFOs
Alchemy

Though Stack was, in Cosgrove’s words, “terribly proud of our contributions to catching bad guys,” he was pretty skeptical of the show’s paranormal and extraterrestrial segments. “In some of those narration sessions, he’d be like, 'Come on, Raymond!'” Bridgers recalled. But even Stack found some stories—like the “Allagash Abductions” segment—pretty compelling. “[That] one even nailed Bob,” Cosgrove said. “[It] got under his skin. These guys were so normal and credible and stood to gain nothing by making up a story.”

As many as 80 percent of the supernatural cases were dismissed outright, according to Bridgers. But, like Stack, the producers found themselves swayed by certain stories. “When we pick a ghost story, we’re always mindful of those stories where there seems to be a historical reason for there to be a haunting,” Cosgrove said in the DVD commentary for “Black Hope Curse.” “I don’t think any of us, when we started Unsolved Mysteries, really believed in ghosts ... we’ve all had to take a second look at our preconceived notions after the experiences that we’ve had. Initially we’d be very skeptical of stories, but when you find that there is a story, that there are facts and history and accounts from the past that match up to what people see ... it takes your breath away, and makes the stories a lot more credible.”

21. NOT EVERYONE WANTED THEIR MYSTERY ON UNSOLVED MYSTERIES.

In the early days of Unsolved Mysteries, it could be tough to get people who'd had supernatural experiences to appear on the show—they were afraid, Cosgrove said, of exposing themselves to potential ridicule. "Back then, people didn’t want to come out of the woodwork to say that they’d seen ghosts," he said. "It was really tough to get people to agree to do the interviews." Still, there seemed to be some therapeutic value in it for the interviewees. "Having us talk to them and pay such close attention to them and help them explain it to the public seems to help them," Cosgrove said.

22. THEY FILMED MANY OF STACK’S SEGMENTS AT A MASONIC TEMPLE.

The temple was located in Pasadena, California. “We liked it as a set because it evoked ghostly spirits and things like that,” Cosgrove said.

23. UNSOLVED MYSTERIES RAN ON FOUR NETWORKS.

The show spent 10 seasons on NBC before moving to CBS, where it aired for two seasons before being cancelled. It later ran on Lifetime and on Spike TV.

24. THE REALITY SHOW SPAWNED TV MOVIES.

Victim of Love: The Shannon Mohr Story, which aired in September 1993, was based on an Unsolved Mysteries segment from November 1987. In the movie, Mohr (Sally Murphy) marries Dave Davis (Dwight Schultz) in a quickie Vegas ceremony. She soon discovers that he’s a pathological liar who neglected to tell her about his first wife. When Mohr dies of what appears to be a horse riding accident, her parents become suspicious. John J. O’Connor, who reviewed the movie for the New York Times, wrote,

The parents embark on a 10-year campaign to seek justice. A journalist and a detective prove most helpful. Confronted with mounting evidence against him, Dave flees the country, finally ending up in American Samoa. How can he be found? There's one possibility left, says the detective: "Unsolved Mysteries." And so we find the actors in this movie recreating the interview the real parents gave on the "Unsolved Mysteries" broadcast. The repackaging turns out to be an ingenious plug for the series itself. … Actually, Dave wasn't captured for more than two years after the original telecast. Credit, it seems, must go to the reruns. Marketing comes full circle.

Other TV movies followed: Escape From Terror: The Teresa Stamper Story (1995), Voice from the Grave (1996), and The Sleepwalker Killing (1997).

25. IT HAD A DRAMATIZED SPIN-OFF.

It was called Final Appeal: From the Files of Unsolved Mysteries. According to a synopsis from the New York Times, the show was “a reality-based series based on the NBC series, Unsolved Mysteries. [It] examines real-life cases of potential injustice involving convicted persons who, according to impartial observers, may be innocent.” Stack hosted. Final Appeal premiered in September 1992 and was cancelled shortly after.

26. MANY OF THE MYSTERIES ACTUALLY GOT SOLVED.

“Join me. Perhaps you may be able to help solve a mystery,” Stack said at the beginning of each episode. The show asked its viewers to call police or a tipline if they had any information on a crime, missing person, or lost loved one—and boy, did they. The LA Times wrote about one case that appeared on Unsolved Mysteries in 1988:

It was no mystery to Jerry Strickland and Melissa K. Munday when police showed up at their door in Moses Lake, Wash. Hours earlier they had been watching television as the show "Unsolved Mysteries" mentioned them in connection with the unsolved robbery and slaying of a gas station worker near Pontiac, Mich. Police got about 15 calls from area residents after the program aired, and Officer John Mays and Sgt. Dennis Duke arrived to find the couple waiting for them, Mays said.

Unsolved Mysteries covered more than one thousand cases, and according to its website, more than half of the episodes featuring wanted fugitives have been solved. Over 100 separated families have been reunited—including LeeAnn Robinson, who ran away from her father’s home when she was 16 and found her brother and sister years later through the show. "I was standing there in the studio (after the program ran) and this guy came over and said, 'I have your sister on the phone,'" Robinson said. "I just started to cry. I cried for a week."

27. AND YOU CAN STILL HELP SOLVE A MYSTERY.

Though the show isn’t currently in production, visitors can submit information that might pertain to an unsolved crime on the show’s website. But just because it isn't currently in production doesn't mean it won't be back: in April, the show's creators participated in a Reddit AMA where they said that they were actively "in the process of reaching out to networks to see if there is interest in ordering new shows. Let's keep our fingers crossed!”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios