Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV Show
The full story behind one of our most beloved TV shows
It was October 1955 when CBS flipped the switch that put “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” on the television screen. After switching to NBC for one season (1960-1961), the program returned to CBS to end its run in June 1962, to be replaced by an hour-long format, 1962-1965. But it was far from the final curtain for the half-hour anthology series. Even as the millennium approaches, Alfred Hitchcock’s silhouette is still on television screens in the United States and dozens of countries around the world. Only “I Love Lucy” and “The Twilight Zone” can rival its re-run record.
The best one-word description of the program is “classic.” Viewers knew exactly what they could expect after Alfred Hitchcock made his ironic, humorous, and sometimes mordant introductions to stories of mystery, crime, horror and the supernatural, invariably with a twist in the tale. Ratings were consistently high, and the show gave career impetus to some of today’s best-known actors, including Robert Redford, Walter Matthau, Katherine Ross, Charles Bronson, Robert Duvall, Joanne Woodward, Gena Rowlands, and the late Steve McQueen. The list of directors is also a distinguished one: Robert Altman, Sydney Pollack, Arthur Hiller, Stuart Rosenberg, Paul Henreid, Robert Stevens, and of course, Alfred Hitchcock himself, who directed several episodes.
Hitchcock also credited a great deal of the show’s success to its writers. He greatly preferred published material over “developed” stories, and many of the show’s authors are household names, like Eric Ambler, Robert Bloch, John Cheever, Roald Dahl, Eric Ambler, Evan Hunter (also known as Ed McBain), Garson Kanin, Ellery Queen, Richard Levinson, William Link, and Henry Slesar.
Television has brought murder back into the home– where it belongs.
– Alfred Hitchcock
There’s no doubt that one reason for the show’s quick acceptance was Hitchcock’s film reputation. It was a daring move for so prominent a cinematic director to “lower” himself to the small screen. Hitchcock had doubts at first, but one factor which aided his decision was his fondness for personal appearance (he made sure he was briefly seen in each of his movies.) His personal fame was enormously advanced by hosting the television series; it’s arguable that he became the most recognizable non-acting theatrical personality in America, and perhaps the world.
“Alfred Hitchcock Presents” was the brainchild of his friend and ex-agent Lou Wasserman, president of MCA. It was produced by MCA’s Universal Television, and Hitchcock called his company Shamley Productions, after his summer home in England. While his title was Executive Producer, the greatest burden of responsibility was given to the late, multi-talented Joan Harrison, who had been Hitchcock’s closest collaborator and family friend (and the wife of Eric Ambler.) Joan Harrison had the daunting task of choosing all the material for the show. She was later joined by Gordon Hessler and Norman Lloyd, both outstanding producers and directors. Norman Lloyd was also a formidable actor (he was the villain who fell from the Statue of Liberty in Hitchcock’s Saboteur) and he is still giving superb performances in film and television.
Every episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” opened with an iconic silhouette (drawn by Hitchcock himself), the familiar “Hitchcock music” (actually Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette) and a trenchant and amusing introduction written by James Allardice. Often, the comments made insulting reference to the commercials that followed, but the sponsors learned to love them.
The stories told on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” emphasized irony as their chief ingredient, and as a result, many of them ended with virtue unrewarded and villains unpunished. The network’s censors were appalled, resulting in the famous Hitchcock “disclaimers” at the conclusion of many shows, also written by James Allardice. Most of the “disclaimers” were so tongue-in-cheek that the censors could do nothing but sigh and bear it.
There was an unusual postscript to the demise of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”. In 1985, five years after his death, Hitchcock became the first posthumous host of a television series. Colorized, he introduced new productions of a short-lived “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, most of which were remakes of the original.