Though it is best known as a horror anthology series, Thriller did not start out that way. Thriller was created by TV legend Hubbell Robinson (former programming chief of CBS). As originally conceived by Mr. Robinson, Thriller would be "the Studio One of mystery, a quality anthology drawing on the whole rich field of suspense literature." The series would be on par with Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Mr. Robinson assured NBC that Thriller would be his own personal project. Mr, Robinson had been programming chief at CBS during the so called Golden Age of Television. During that time he had watched over the development of many of that network's greatest series, including I Love Lucy and Sergeant Bilko. Mr. Robinson championed such classic anthology series as Studio One and Playhouse 90. He had also been executive producer for Playhourse 90. Mr. Robinson then had a good deal of clout in the televison community and NBC added Thriller to their fall 1960-1961 lineup without requiring a pilot episode.
Between the writer's strike and inner turmoil in the production staff, Thriller debuted to almost universally hostile reviews and low ratings. As the series progressed, neither the quality of the stories nor the reviews nor the ratings showed any significant improvement. Its sponsor was not happy, hence neither was NBC. Robinson blamed the low quality of the initial episodes on the writers' strike. From another producer this might be an acceptable explanation, but, from Hubbell Robinson, NBC did not buy it. NBC conducted its own investigation and discovered the ugly truth: Messrs. Robinson, Markle, and Cavanaugh simply could not agree on anything
Mr. Robinson's solution initially made for an uneven series. Though the episodes were now of a fairly high quality, the show itself was divided between two very distinct genres. One week the viewer might tune in to see an exciting tale of murder and drug smuggling, while the next week he might tune in to see a terrifying tale of the undead and ghostly possession. As the first season of Thriller progressed, however, the show began to take shape as a definite horror anthology. Tales of terror outnumbered the tales of crime, and even the crime stories took on a more of an air of Hitchcockian suspense or psychological horror.
In some respects it was logical that Thriller would evolve into a horror anthology. This would further set it apart from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to which it is still compared. At the same time, television had yet to fully mine the horror genre. Thriller first ventured into the horror genre with its fourth aired episode, the first one produced by William Frye, "The Purple Room." This episode dealt with an heir (played by Rip Torn) who must first spend a night in a house said to be haunted before he can inherit the property. It was with the series' 12th episode that Thriller took shape as the horror anthology which most fans remember it as. "The Cheaters" was based on a story by Robert Bloch, originally published in Weird Tales back in 1947. The episode centred upon a mysterious pair of glasses which allowed the wearer to see through the facades of anyone to the truth about that person. Unfortunately, it does so at a terrible cost to the wearer. "The Cheaters" was pivotal in the development of Thriller in that it was the first of many to be based on a classic horror story and it was the first in which Boris Karloff utters the immortal words, "This....is a Thriller!" That phrase would become the tagline for the series.
For its second season Thriller shifted almost entirely to a horror format. Only the final episode, "The Specialists," an unsold pilot about an international ring of jewel thieves, contained absolutely no elements of terror. Among the best episodes of this season was Robert Bloch's adaptation of his own "Waxworks," first published in Weird Tales in 1939, in which figures in a travelling wax museum modelled after famous killers are brought to life. In another one of Bloch's adaptation of his own stories, "The Weird Tailor,"a man has a tailor make a special suit that will resurrect his dead son.
Not every episode of Thriller was an exercise in chills. The show also dealt in black comedy. An example of this is "The Remarkable Mrs. Hawks" in which a lady hog farmer (Jo Van Fleet) in a small American community turns out to be the legendary Circe!
Boris Karloff himself appeared in a few of the second seasons. Among these was an adaptation of Poe's "The Premature Burial." Mr. Karloff played a woman's lover who buries her cataleptic husband alive. Mr. Karloff also appeared in "The Last of the Sommervilles," in which he plots with his cousin to kill their wealthy aunt. In "The Incredible Dr. Markesan," based on an August Derleth/Mark Schorer story first published in Weird Tales in 1934, Karloff plays a doctor who has figured out a way to cheat death.
In addition to Boris Karloff, Thriller would feature several well known guest stars. Classic movie stars Mary Astor, John Carradine, Reginald Owen, and Everett Sloane all appeared in episodes on the series. The show also featured many television actors who were already famous or soon would be: Donna Douglas of The Beverly Hillbillies, Russell Johnson (soon to be best known as The Professor on Gilligan's Island), Werner Klemperer (a few years from lasting fame as Colonel Klink on Hogan's Heroes), Elizabeth Montgomery (who a few years later became the star of Bewitched), Mary Tyler Moore (already starring on The Dick Van Dyke Show), William Shatner (soon to be forever known as Captain Kirk on Star Trek), and Dick York (a few years away from becoming Darren Stevens on Bewitched).
By the end of its second season, Thriller was a cult favourite with horror fans and had redeemed itself with television critics. Unfortunately, this would not guarantee that it would see a third season. . At the time NBC was also home to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Unlike the hour long Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents had only been a half hour in length. With the 1962-1963 season, Hitchcock and his production staff decided to expand his series to one hour and rename it The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It seems possible that Thriller was cancelled to make room for more Hitchcock. Perhaps confirming this theory is a report from Thriller associate producer Doug Benton who had heard that Hitchcock thought that in making Thriller Hubbell Robinson had tread on his turf. From what Mr. Benton had heard, Hitchcock thought that Thriller was doing the same sort of material he covered in his own show. The fact that both shows aired on NBC and that both were made at the production company Revue (now Universal Television) at least makes it possible that Hitchcock expanded his show to an hour in an effort to compete with Thriller.
To this day I have fond memories of watching Thriller Saturday afternoons and nights on KRCG . Sadly, the series would almost totally disappear from syndication in the Eighties. In the Nineties individual episodes of the show would be released on VHS. In the Naughts Thriller would be rerun on the Scream cable channel. At long last, on August 31, 2010, the entire run of Thriller would be released on DVD. Not only were the episodes remastered and uncut, but the DVD set includes a number of special features. Among the extras on the DVD set are commentaries by such names as Arthur Hiller, Daniel Benton, Marc Scott Zircee, Larry Blamire, and others, production and promotional still galleries, the original network promo for the show, and promos for individual episodes. Unfortunately, Thriller is only sold in a DVD set including both the first and second seasons, making it prohibitively expensive for many ($99.99 on Amazon). Regardless, at long last Thriller is finally widely available for the first time for years. For people such as me who remember it from our childhoods and for fans for the horror genre, classic television, and Boris Karloff, this is truly a blessing. At last many will get to see the greatest horror anthology of all time again or, in many cases, for the very first time.