Hollywood is full of unsolved mysteries. One is the secretary Robert Stack met in a producer's office. She didn't know he played Eliot Ness years ago in The Untouchables. He loves to tell the story.
"She says, "What's your name?' I say Stack. She says "Stick?' I say no, Stack. Guy in the office says, "Don't you know who that is? That's Eliot Ness.' She says, "That ain't Ness. I seen the movie last night.'
That's the Now Generation. But Stack is not in the Then category, even though he is 73, yes, 73, and made his acting debut with Deanna Durbin in a 1939 film musical, First Love.
He currently headlines NBC's high-rated Unsolved Mysteries, a solemn, stentorian-toned host who outlines true stories of crime most foul, people who disappear without explanation, and occasional medical miracles.
He may seem the Voice of Doom, the Great Stone Face. But off-screen, he actually is a funny, witty guy who, should the whim strike, probably could give the young hopefuls of cable comedy shows a good run for their funny.
Indeed, Stack, an Oscar-winner in 1956 for a raging melodrama called Written on the Wind, did a well-received bit of silly a few years ago in the loony movie, Airplane. He may do another movie comedy soon.
Wednesday, Stack will don his formal face again for a two-hour, 100th-edition showing of Unsolved Mysteries, at 8 p.m., locally on WFLA-Ch. 8. The special definitely is for the current ratings "sweeps" period; it even includes tales of UFOs sighted in Virginia circa 1987-90.
The series is one of the pioneers in TV's current revival of "reality" shows. Such go back to radio days, with actors re-creating crimes, heroism by police, and events in a general category you might label Plumb Amazing Stuff.
In addition to Unsolved Mysteries, viewers now face ABC's new FBI: The Untold Stories; CBS' Rescue 911, which began in September 1989, and America's Most Wanted, begun nationally in April 1988.
(Fox's Cops, begun nationally in March 1988, doesn't use actors or re-creations; its bag is video verite views of constables on patrol.)
NBC's Mysteries began in 1987 as a series of seven specials, the first hosted not by Stack, but by Raymond Burr of Perry Mason and Ironsides fame. Karl Malden did the next two, and Stack the rest.
When NBC bought it as a regular series for the fall of 1988, Stack didn't know the network had picked him as the host. He learned, he said, when "I came home from Europe, and my agent said, "Congratulations'."
Stack began a new career hosting Unsolved Mysteries, his fifth network series since The Untouchables, on ABC from 1959 to 1963.
Networks like "reality" shows because they're cheap; no stars are needed for re-creations, and law enforcement agencies, which almost always are shown in a favorable light, are willing to provide help gratis.
But Unsolved is "far from cheap," Stack says.
"It's expensive. They spend a lot of money on re-creations. They do a lot of stuff in period, which costs money."