The most famous element was Columbo, which came to television in a Made-for-TV Movie in 1968 (Prescription: Murder, adapted by Richard Levinson and William Link from their stage play) before becoming part of the wheel in its initial season following a second TV movie (1971's Ransom for a Dead Man). McCloud (inspired by the 1968 movie Coogan's Bluff) began as an hour-long show as part of another Wheel Program, Four-In-One, in 1970; the following season, this and Night Gallery were "freed" from the wheel, Night Gallery for its own slot and McCloud to be in the new strand. (The other two elements, San Francisco International and The Psychiatrist, were cancelled along with Four-In-One itself.) McMillan & Wife, starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James respectively, was the only element to be directly created for the Mystery Movie lineup.
Once this was an established success, NBC and Universal Television launched a second night, moving the three originals to Sundays (they initially aired on Wednesdays) as the rebranded NBC Sunday Mystery Movie and premiering the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie; they also tried to find a fourth spoke for the wheel, but none of the new arrivals (see below for chronology) stuck, and neither did the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie itself (which only ran from 1972-74) - in fact, it wasn't until the final season that they finally had an addition which was a real hit, in Quincy, M.E.. In 1977, all the elements were cancelled except for the crusading coroner, who in a reversal of McCloud was granted his own hour-long slot (although Columbo continued to make appearances in additional TV movies).
The series was introduced for most of its run with an opening theme by Henry Mancini and visuals featuring a silhouetted figure walking towards the camera across a desert landscape at sunset, using a flashlight to light up images of the elements of the wheel that season (the order depending on which one was airing that evening). Here are three examples, for Columbo, McMillan and Wife and The Snoop Sisters from the second season of the Wednesday Mystery Movie - the first one had a different theme by Quincy Jones, which you can hear here ("Tonight, James Farentino stars in Cool Million!").
In 1989, ABC resurrected the concept with The ABC Mystery Movienote ; see also its Spiritual Successors on Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (The Matchmaker Mysteries, Darrow & Darrow, The Aurora Teagarden Mysteries, The Garage Sale Mysteries, The Chronicle Mysteries, Morning Show Mysteries, Mystery 101, etc., etc.)
The Sunday Mystery Movie elements in order of debut (see individual pages for more details):
- McMillan & Wife: known as McMillan in its final season.
- Hec Ramsey (1972-74): that's him in the page image up there.
- Amy Prentiss (1974-75): focusing on the first female chief of detectives in San Francisco, played by Jessica Walter. A young Helen Hunt played Da Chief's daughter in the series. The pilot aired in disguise as the double-length Ironside (1967) episode "Amy Prentiss: AKA, The Chief." Incidentally, the City by the Bay wouldn't have a real female chief of police until 2004.
- Ellery Queen (1975): While the resulting one hour series aired separately, the two hour pilot debuted as An NBC Mystery Movie Special.
- McCoy (1975-76): the first American TV series to star Tony Curtis, here playing a con man in the Just Like Robin Hood mold.
- Quincy, M.E. (1976-77): with Jack Klugman as an inquisitive, idealistic coroner. The first four episodes aired under the Mystery Movie banner; early in 1977 it was given its own slot.
- Lanigan's Rabbi (1977): based on the novels by Harry Kemelman about police chief Paul Lanigan and his friend Rabbi David Small (who dabbles in detective work), starring Art Carney as Lanigan and Bruce Solomon as Rabbi Small. In the pilot, Stuart Margolin played Rabbi Small, his commitment to The Rockford Files meant he couldn't return for the series.
The Wednesday Mystery Movie elements in order of debut:
- Banacek: George Peppard as a Polish-American insurance investigator, based in Boston. This was the only element to appear in both seasons (and the only one to have its own page on this site).
- Madigan (1972-73): Richard Widmark reprised his role from the 1968 movie of the same name (suggesting, despite how the movie ended, that Madigan was Not Quite Dead) as a tough New York cop.
- Cool Million (1972-73): James Farentino as a private investigator plying his trade to the jet set and upper crust (the title refers to how much he charges per case).
- Faraday and Company (1973-74): Dan Dailey as Faraday, a PI back in the US after having spent almost 30 years in a Caribbean prison; the "company" (his agency) was basically his family.
- Tenafly (1973-74): Another Levinson and Link creation, with James McEachin as the only black lead in this incarnation of the Mystery Movie lineup, playing one of the unflashiest, most down-to-earth detectives (of any colour) on television - a Happily Married family man just doing a job.
- The Snoop Sisters (1973-74): Leonard Stern's second contribution to the Mystery Movie wheel (he also created McMillan And Wife), with Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as mystery-writing sisters who, like Jessica Fletcher years later, tended to stumble across real-life mysteries. Bert Convy (yes, THAT Bert Convy) played their police contact.
Tropes associated with this include:
- Catchphrase: Columbo's "Just one more thing..." and McCloud's "There ya go..."
- Curse Cut Short: In the McCloud episode "Butch Cassidy Rides Again", a man on a train swears, with the swears covered by the train whistle bursts.
- Meaningful Name: Levinson and Link named Tenafly after the town of Tenafly, New Jersey.
- Reunion Show: McCloud was the only element other than Columbo to have any kind of revival, with 1989's The Return Of Sam McCloud.