‘Unsolved Mysteries’ a Surprise Hit for Stack

TV or not TV. . . .

THE QUIET MAN: He doesn’t make much fuss. Never has. But Robert Stack has his biggest TV hit since “The Untouchables” three decades ago.

Stack’s Wednesday NBC show, “Unsolved Mysteries"--re-enactments with actual participants and witnesses--ranked No. 11 among all TV series this season. He’s the host.

The show, which encourages viewers to phone in and help solve cases, often draws more than 30% of the national audience--blockbuster figures amid TV’s numerous new viewing choices.


And it’s likely Stack’s law enforcement image as Eliot Ness in “The Untouchables” is still a factor after all these years.

“In some senses,” he says, “Unsolved Mysteries” reminds him of his old cops-and-robbers classic “because nobody expected anything from either show.”

When he made the pilot for “The Untouchables,” he recalls, ABC “was afraid of this dirty, back-alley, bootleg kind of program. Not everybody thought it would be dandy.”

“Unsolved Mysteries,” which started as a series of specials, is a similar surprise, he says. “It’s what you call a designated hitter. They just shoved it in, and it kept winning its time slot. They decided that since it’s winning, make it a series. And, by George, it turned into No. 11.”

A total Angeleno--L.A. High School, USC--Stack gets a special two-part outing tonight and Wednesday on Bob Costas’ wee-hours NBC interview show, which airs at 1:30 a.m.

Stack treasures a letter he got from Ness’ widow, Elizabeth, who described her husband as “an exciting, delightful and very real man. . . . You have done an amazing thing in catching so much that was characteristic of him.”

The actor says he was warned against doing “The Untouchables,” which ran from 1959-63: “In those days, a TV series was for movie performers who couldn’t get arrested.”

He agrees his comedy role in “Airplane!” helped re-introduce him to the new generation: “That makes a lot of sense. People said that this straight-arrow guy is not so straight arrow.

“Look, I did ‘To Be or Not to Be’ in my 20s with Ernest Lubitsch and Jack Benny. My wife Rosemarie said later, ‘You’re funny. Why don’t you do comedy?’ I said, ‘What? After more than 100 episodes of catching bad guys in ‘The Untouchables’?”

I REMEMBER MAMA: Surely you’re watching “The Donna Reed Show” marathon that’s running every night this week from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. on the Nick at Nite channel. It ends on Sunday, Mother’s Day, with a special called “How to Be Donna Reed.” Listen, that’s not such a bad idea--or did you forget her in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “From Here to Eternity”?

TOUCH AND GO: Oprah Winfrey’s new ABC drama series, “Brewster Place,” got off to only a so-so ratings debut--a 24% audience share, dropping off 9% from its “Roseanne” lead-in. The second episode of “Brewster Place” airs tonight, then it moves to its regular slot the very next evening, Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. Whatever the results of “Brewster Place,” Winfrey is a huge prime-time presence just waiting to happen. ABC obviously agrees: The network announced a deal Monday under which her Harpo Productions will produce at least one new series and four TV movies for the network.

GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: Valerie Bertinelli’s detective sitcom, “Sydney,” gets the regular spot following “Major Dad"--and preceding “Murphy Brown"--on CBS starting May 28. That’s the week after “Newhart,” now in that time period, bids adieu. “Sydney” perked up in the ratings in a recent post-"Major Dad” tryout.

UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS: Two of CBS’ most promising series, “The Famous Teddy Z” and “City"--both on hiatus after struggling on Mondays--will be sent on an apparent suicide mission starting Saturday, teaming back-to-back to take on NBC’s killer combination of “The Golden Girls” and “Empty Nest.” Not a bad notion by CBS Entertainment President Jeff Sagansky--to see if his tandem has any firepower left at all on a new night and against monster hits.

THE WOMEN: But why is CBS presenting an hour retrospective of “Designing Women” on Wednesday when the show is seen weekly on Mondays, where it would have been perfect? The competition isn’t too tough for the Wednesday special--ABC’s “Equal Justice” and NBC’s “Quantum Leap"--but it just seems out of place. Guess when you haven’t got much during the sweeps, you use whatever you have as often as you can.

JUDGMENT DAY: Peter Falk’s “Columbo” revival has done all right for ABC on Saturdays, but the other stars of the network’s “mystery wheel"--Burt Reynolds, Telly Savalas and Jaclyn Smith--are all down for the count.

THE POWER: With “I Love Lucy: The Very First Show” doing fabulously for CBS last week and “The I Love Lucy Christmas Show” also finishing in the Top 10 for the network in December, we repeat: Why not break precedent and bring back “I Love Lucy” with special showcasing for an entire season? And why not also rerun other classic series on network TV with imaginative showmanship? Last week’s “Lucy” special drew 49% of women viewers between 18 and 34 years old.

ONE OF A KIND: TV executive Harry Ackerman tells this anecdote about Lucy in the journal of the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors. She “had no sense of self-importance or the importance of others,” he writes in a memoir. “As recently as 1986, Lucille was set to appear on the Joan Rivers show along with Nancy Reagan. One of Mrs. Reagan’s inner circle came into Lucille’s dressing room and said, ‘Mrs. Reagan would like to see you now, Miss Ball.’ Lucy looked at her and said, ‘OK. Send her in.’ ”

Say good night, Gracie. . . .