Bill Kurtis, longtime newsman and TV host, and the narrator and producer of the original Cold Case Files, returns to Cold Case Files on May 25, 2017. When the series got a re-boot, producers realized he was such an integral part of the show’s DNA that they asked him to come back. Kurtis is also the scorekeeper/announcer of the NPR news quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! and the host of Through the Decades on the Decades Channel. His authoritative voice is so much the essence of a trustworthy newsman that he did the voiceover for Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.
Curtis spoke with A&E True Crime about the fan mail he gets from prisons all over the country, the worst case he ever saw, and how you can go home again.
How does it feel to be part of the re-booted Cold Case Files?
It’s like going home. It’s just terrific. I have great memories and it’s nice to be associated with the original product. We claim to have coined the phrase ‘cold case,’ though I’m sure some cop will call us on that. On the original show, we had a producer at the Dallas Police Department looking into a case. They said there’s a short-timer headed for retirement in the back room; we give him the unsolved folders that have gone cold to keep him busy. And, so, we started calling them cold cases.
What do you think the viewer gets out of watching Cold Case Files?
It’s the modern equivalent to Sherlock Holmes. Everyone loves crime—it has a beginning, middle, and end. It has mystery and you’re held in the tension of storytelling all the way to the end. In this case, we sub in science and forensics for Sherlock Holmes. When we started, DNA was really coming to the surface and all the labs hadn’t even begun using it yet. So, we were able to mine that territory in terms of stories. The perfect thing about Cold Case Files is that there are many stories. It’s an endless reservoir of the strange things that human beings do to one another.
Was there one case that most affected you?
Almost the very first case led me to believe, ‘Hey, this is hot. This is really something.’
It was a story out of Wisconsin. This all started with an unidentified body that had the fingers cut off to avoid fingerprint identification. A young girl rode the bus into the city and was picked up by a gang member who took her to a house. We go in there following the police. While they are looking around, a 3-year-old boy comes up — it’s a spooky house, a Bates Motel kind of place. They ask him, ‘Does Doris live here?’ He doesn’t say anything but nods his head. ‘Where is Doris’s bedroom? Can you take us to where she sleeps?’ He led us downstairs to the basement. This was not a rec room. It’s a basement with cement floors and all that. ‘Where is Holly?’ He raises his right hand and points to a corner of the ceiling. It was where they had suspended her body until they removed it. It was the most chilling thing.
The result of that was the guy who was ultimately caught and convicted had to be moved from his penitentiary cell because his fellow inmates wanted to kill him [as a result of the TV program]. I still get mail from…prisons all over country. They watch the re-runs.
How did the voiceover for Anchorman come about?
Adam McKay, the Academy Award-winning director, was doing Second City improv in Chicago when I was anchoring locally. Me and my co-anchor were pretty hot. Bill Kurtis was his idea of an anchorman and he needed a straight man to go with the comedy. They sent me a script — as a typical journalist I was afraid to do it. It turned out every anchorman in the country wanted that part.
I heard you received a teepee when you first retired from Cold Case Files?
I’m looking at it right now. It’s a gorgeous thing. They wanted a meaningful personal gift. And they knew I had the ranch with buffalo in Kansas on the site of an old [Native] reservation. What more perfect gift could they give?
We’re looking forward to hearing the first new episode with your voice.
Me too. It’s a big deal. We’ll have a party here!