Thriller was a new suspense-based anthology series for NBC, which had already been running Alfred Hitchcock Presents for five seasons, hosted by long-time horror actor Boris Karloff. The series was produced by former CBS executive Hubbell Robinson, and, as others have noted previously, varied from one episode to the next in style--from murder mystery to classic horror to Untouchables-like gangster story. While others have cited this variety as a fault, Karloff opined in an October 15, 1960 TV Guide interview that it was actually an asset: "a thriller, you see, can go anywhere. It is not tied down to pure mystery, or violence or murder. I'm quite delighted with the whole thing."
The two constants were the host Karloff and his taglines "as sure as my name is Boris Karloff" and "rest assured, my friends, this one is a thriller!" and the jazzy music score by Pete Rugolo, though even by the end of the 15 episodes that aired in 1960, Karloff's taglines were being changed up and other composers, like Jerry Goldsmith, were called on to provide the score for some episodes. The series also brought in its share of big-name guest stars--Leslie Nielsen starred in the initial episode "The Twisted Image" (September 13, 1960) and Mary Astor appeared in a Sunset Boulevard-ish episode "Rose's Last Summer" (October 11, 1960)--as well as guest writers like Robert Bloch and directors like Mitchell Leisen.
Not surprisingly, the best episodes from those aired in 1960 are the ones that are the most tense. "The Twisted Image" revolves around two people, a man and a woman, who are both abnormally fixated on successful business executive Alan Patterson (played by Nielsen). In "The Watcher" (November 1, 1960), Martin Gabel plays a school teacher named Freitag who is a religious zealot driven to murder young people like Bess Pettit (Olive Sturgess) who engage in wanton behavior. And in "The Cheaters" a series of people try on a pair of magical glasses that allow them to see what others really think of them or, if they look in a mirror, the truth about themselves. The less successful episodes are those that use a worn-out formula, such as the aforementioned "The Purple Room" or the gangster story "The Guilty Men" (October 18, 1960).
The show ran for only two seasons. Word has it that Hitchcock was instrumental in its cancelation, as he did not appreciate the competition and had more pull at the network than the Thriller team.
As mentioned above, a major part of the series is the musical score, initially composed by Pete Rugolo. Prior to working in TV and films, Rugolo had risen to fame as a member and arranger in Stan Kenton's orchestra. He continued his adventurous arranging in numerous albums released under his own name during the 50s, a decade in which he also served as head of A&R for Capitol Records. He is the man who convinced Capitol management to reissue on LP the series of Miles Davis-led nonet recordings that Rugolo dubbed The Birth of the Cool. He also served as musical director for a series of Capitol albums by jazz singer June Christy. And before being signed up for Thriller, he had composed the music for the detective drama Richard Diamond, which starred David Janssen in the title role. He would work with Janssen again a couple of years later on The Fugitive. Rugolo died only recently, on October 16, 2011, at the age of 95.
The complete Thriller series has been released on DVD by Image Entertainment.
As mentioned previously, Karloff was the host of each episode, intruding at the end of the opening sequence to set the stage for the story and introduce the principal actors. He also appeared in five episodes as an actor, including one that aired in 1960--"The Prediction" (November 22, 1960)--in which he played a sham mentalist who suddenly can actually see into the future. He was born William Henry Pratt in Dulwich, England and began his acting career with a Canadian repertory group in 1910. He claims that he was virtually unnoticed, except by his creditors, until being cast as the monster in the 1931 film version of Frankenstein. From that point forward, he became one of the biggest names in horror movies, starring in The Mask of Fu Manchu and The Mummy the next year, The Black Cat and Bride of Frankenstein in 1934, and so on. However, in the 1940s he began branching out beyond horror roles, appearing in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opposite Danny Kaye in 1947, and two years later began a string of guest appearances on TV. He had a regular role as the title character in the British TV series Colonel March of Scotland Yard from 1954-56 before taking the host spot on Thriller. In the later 1960s, besides the occasional horror movie, he had small cameos in teenage films like Bikini Beach and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini as well as providing the voice for The Grinch in the classic Dr. Seuss animated Christmas program How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He died at the age of 81 on February 2, 1969.
Notable Guest Stars
Season 1, Episode 1, "The Twisted Image": Leslie Nielsen (shown on right, played Lt. Frank Drebin on Police Squad and in the Naked Gun movies; also played Vincent Markham on Peyton Place, Lt. Price Adams on The New Breed, and Harry Kleber on Dr. Kildare) plays executive Alan Patterson. Natalie Trundy (starred in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes) plays Lily Hanson, a woman obsessed with Patterson. George Grizzard (starred in Advise & Consent, Comes a Horseman, and Bachelor Party and who played Arthur Gold on Law & Order) plays Merle Jenkins, a man obsessed with Patterson. Constance Ford (Ada "Bubbles" Lucas Davis Downs MacGowan Hobson on Another World) plays Jenkins' sister Louise.
Season 1, Episode 2, "Child's Play": Frank Overton (starred in Desire Under the Elms, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Fail-Safe and who played Major Harvey Stovall on 12 O'Clock High) plays journalist Bart Hattering. Tommy Nolan (Jody O'Connell on Buckskin, Officer Hubbell on Jessie, and Mick on Out of This World) plays his son Hank. Parley Baer (Mayor Roy Stoner on The Andy Griffith Show, Darby on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Mayor Arthur J. Henson on The Addams Family, and Doc Appleby on The Dukes of Hazzard) plays a fisherman Hank threatens.
Season 1, Episode 3, "Worse Than Murder": Harriet E. MacGibbon (shown on left, played Margaret Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies) plays Myra Walworth, who inherits a fortune dubiously. Constance Ford (see "The Twisted Image" above) plays her daughter-in-law Connie. Christine White (Abigail Adams on Ichabod and Me) plays Myra's daughter Anne.
Season 1, Episode 5, "Rose's Last Summer": Mary Astor (starred in Beau Brummel, Don Juan, The Great Lie, The Maltese Falcon, and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte) plays former movie star Rose French.
Season 1, Episode 6, "The Guilty Men": Everett Sloane (starred in Citizen Kane, The Lady From Shanghai, and Lust for Life and who provided the voice for Dick Tracy on The Dick Tracy Show) plays syndicate lawyer Lou Adams. Jay C. Flippen (starred in They Live by Night, Winchester '73, Oklahoma!, The Killing, and The Deerslayer and who played Chief Petty Officer Homer Nelson on Ensign O'Toole) plays mobster Harry Gans. Frank Silvera (Don Sebastian Montoya on The High Chaparral) plays kingpin Cesare Romano. John Marley (starred in Cat Ballou, The Godfather, and The Car) plays his physician brother Tony.
Season 1, Episode 7, "The Purple Room": Rip Torn (starred in King of Kings, Sweet Bird of Youth, Tropic of Cancer, and The Cincinnati Kid and who played Arthur on The Larry Sanders Show and Don Geiss on 30 Rock) plays estate inheritor Duncan Corey. Patricia Barry (Kate Harris on Harris Against the World) plays his cousin Rachel. Richard Anderson (D.A. Glenn Wagner on Bus Stop; Lt. Steve Drumm on Perry Mason; Chief George Untermeyer on Dan August; Oscar Goldman on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman; and Buck Fallmont on Dynasty) plays her husband Oliver. Alan Napier (shown on right, played Gen. Steele in Don't Call Me Charlie and the butler Alfred on Batman) plays family lawyer Ridgewater. Ray Teal (Jim Teal on Lassie and Sheriff Roy Coffee on Bonanza) plays Sheriff Wiley.
Season 1, Episode 8, "The Watcher": Richard Chamberlain (shown on left, starred in Joy in the Morning, Julius Caesar, The Three Musketeers, and The Swarm and who played Dr. James Kildare on Dr. Kildare and Dr. Daniel Kulani on Island Son) plays young boat worker Larry Carter. Martin Gabel (starred in The Thief, Marnie, and Lady in Cement) plays religious schoolteacher Freitag. Olive Sturgess (Carol Henning on The Bob Cummings Show) plays Larry's girlfriend Bess Pettit. James Westerfield (appeared in The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor, and The Love God? and who played John Murrel on The Travels of Jamie McPheeters) plays Sheriff Al Matthews. Claire Carleton (Nell Mulligan on The Mickey Rooney Show and Alice Purdy on Cimarron City) plays Larry's aunt Eunice Appleby. Stuart Erwin (starred in Make Me a Star, Palooka, and Our Town and who played Stu Erwin on The Stu Erwin Show and Otto King on The Greatest Show on Earth) plays Bess' Uncle Florian.
Season 1, Episode 9, "Girl With a Secret": Myrna Fahey (Katherine "Kay" Banks on Father of the Bride) plays Alice Page, the girl with the secret. Rhodes Reason (starred in Man-Eater, Voodoo Island, and King Kong Escapes and who played John A. Hunter on White Hunter and Sheriff Will Mayberry on Bus Stop) plays her husband Tony. Victor Buono (Victor Traymund on 77 Sunset Strip, King Tut on Batman, and Dr. Schubert on Man From Atlantis) plays criminal Carolik. Paul Hartman (Albie Morrison on The Pride of the Family, Charlie on Our Man Higgins, Emmett Clark on The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D., and Bert Smedley on Petticoat Junction) plays Tony's Uncle Gregory Stafford. Cloris Leachman (Ruth Martin on Lassie and Phyllis Lindstrom on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis) plays his wife Beatrice. Ellen Corby (Henrietta Porter on Trackdown and Esther Walton on The Waltons) plays cleaning woman Mrs. Peele. Fay Bainter (starred in Our Town, Dark Waters, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and The Children's Hour) plays Tony's grandmother Geraldine Redfern.
Season 1, Episode 10, "The Prediction": Boris Karloff (see the section "The Actors" above) plays Mace the Mentalist.
Season 1, Episode 11, "The Fatal Impulse": Elisha Cook, Jr. (starred in The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Great Gatsby (1949), and The Killing and who played Francis "Ice Pick" Hofstetler on Magnum P.I.) plays bomb-maker Harry Elser. Mary Tyler Moore (shown on right, played Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary Brenner on Mary, and Annie McGuire on Annie McGuire) plays glasses-wearing woman Mary Snyder. Conrad Nagel (starred in Little Women (1918), What Every Woman Knows, Lawful Larceny, and Tess of the D'urbervilles) plays mayoral candidate Walker Wylie. Robert Lansing (Det. Steve Carella on 87th Precinct, Gen. Frank Savage on 12 O'Clock High, Peter Murphy/Mark Wainwright on The Man Who Never Was,Lt. Jack Curtis on Automan, Control on The Equalizer, and Paul Blaisdell on Kung Fu: The Legend Continues) plays police Lt. Brian Rome.Whitney Blake (Dorothy Baxter on Hazel) plays artist Jane Kimball. Alice Backes (Vickie on Bachelor Father) plays Wylie's secretary Carolyn.
Season 1, Episode 12, "The Big Blackout": Jack Carson (starred in Gentleman Jim, Arsenic and Old Lace, Mildred Pierce, Romance on the High Seas, Red Garters, and A Star Is Born) plays charter boat operator Burt Lewis. Jeanne Cooper (Grace Douglas on Bracken's World and Katherine Chancellor on The Young and the Restless) plays hotel operator Ethel Bankstrom. Paul Newlan (Police Capt. Grey on M Squad and Lt. Gen. Pritchard on 12 O'Clock High) plays charter boat client Paul Hawkins. Robert Carricart (Lucky Luciano on The Untouchables and Pepe Cordoza on T.H.E. Cat) plays gangster Fisher. Ron Harper (Det. Bert Kling on 87th Precinct, Jeff Conway on Wendy and Me, Paul Marshall on The Jean Arthur Show, Lt. Craig Garrison on Garrison's Gorillas, Alan Virdon on Planet of the Apes, and Uncle Jack on Land of the Lost) plays a young thug working with Fisher.
Season 1, Episode 13, "Knock Three-One-Two": Joe Maross (Fred Russell on Peyton Place, Capt. Mike Benton on Code Red, and Dr. Blakely on Dallas) plays gambler Ray Kenton. Beverly Garland (shown on left, played Casey Jones on Decoy, Ellis Collins on The Bing Crosby Show, Barbara Harper Douglas on My Three Sons, Dorothy "Dotty" West on Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Ellen Lane on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and Ginger on 7th Heaven) plays his wife Ruth. Norman Leavitt (Ralph on Trackdown) plays bartender Charlie. Clancy Cooper (Timmo McQueen on Lawman) plays the police captain.
Season 1, Episode 14, "Man in the Middle": Mort Sahl (stand-up comic who starred in In Love and War, All The Young Men, Johnny Cool, and Don't Make Waves) plays barfly Sam Lynch. Werner Klemperer (shown on right, starred in Five Steps to Danger, Operation Eichmann, and Judgment at Nurenberg and who played Col. Klink on Hogan's Heroes) plays ex-con Mr. Clark. Sue Randall (Miss Alice Landers on Leave It to Beaver) plays socialite Kay Salisbury. Frank Albertson (starred in Alice Adams, Man Made Monster, and It's a Wonderful Life and who played Mr. Cooper on Bringing Up Buddy) plays her father. Bert Remsen (Mr. Pell on Gibbsville, Mario on Making a Living, and Jack Crager on Dynasty) plays a detective hired by Mr. Salisbury.
Season 1, Episode 15, "The Cheaters": Paul Newlan (see "The Big Blackout" above) plays junk dealer Joe Henshaw. Henry Daniell (appeared in The Philadelphia Story, Jane Eyre, Song of Love, Lust for Life, and Witness for the Prosecution) plays inventor Dirk Van Prinn. Dayton Lummis (Marshal Andy Morrison on Law of the Plainsman) plays Mrs. Alcott's caretaker Clarence. Jack Weston (Wilbur "Wormsey" Wormser on Red Brown of the Rocket Rangers, Chick Adams on My Sister Eileen, Walter Hathaway on The Hathaways, and Danny Zimmer on The Four Seasons) plays Mrs. Alcott's heir Edward Dean.