And, now, for today’s “this’ll make you feel old” moment: on Saturday night, “America’s Most Wanted” will be celebrating the airing of its 1,000th episode. The series has been on the air for an astonishing 23 years, and when you consider the number of criminals that host John Walsh has – with the assistance of the show’s viewers – helped put behind bars in that amount of time, you have to hope that it will continue to run for at least as many more. I had the chance to chat with Mr. Walsh when he made an appearance at the January TCA Press Tour, and I quizzed him about the show’s origins, its longevity, and its ties to the TV movie based on his own real-life events (“Adam”), but given the heavy topics at hand, it seemed appropriate to ease into things with a slightly lighter topic.
Bullz-Eye: I wanted to start off by asking you about a couple of your pop-culture appearances outside of “America’s Most Wanted,” the first being your turn as a character in DC Comics’ “The Outsiders.”
John Walsh: It was a real honor. It actually was a real honor, and when I talked to the guys who draw and write “The Outsiders,” they went, “You know, we’d like to incorporate you into this, because you are the real-life Batman.” And I went, “What a compliment!” And they said, “Well, you were a successful businessman, and you’re kind of not a vigilante. You really want to try and change things.” I considered that a real compliment. I have a 15-year-old son who’s a terrific artist and a big fan of comic books. I had had the distinct pleasure of being the only guy ever written into the “Dick Tracy” comic strip, too, so I’d experienced it years before, but “The Outsiders” is kind of a cool comic book, and for an old guy like me… (Laughs) You know, it’s so funny, but of all the things…I mean, I’ve been honored in the White House Rose Garden by four different presidents, and that’s something that really touches your heart, but my son said to me, “Dad, you’ve been on ‘South Park’ and now you’re on the cover of ‘The Outsiders.’ Now you’re cool.”
BE: Did you manage to score any of the original artwork from your “Outsiders” appearance?
JW: I did! And I treasure it, because they really did it with some dignity. The segments were about the exploitation of runaways, of how bad guys use teenage runaways that may be running away from a terrible abusive home or sexual abuse, and they hit the streets and get exploited. And, you know, a lot of the Outsiders are kids who’ve been through Hell themselves and are trying to make a difference. So, yes, I have some of the original artwork, and I treasure it. It’s really kind of a gratifying thing.
BE: So how about that “South Park” appearance? (Laughs)
JW: “South Park” I loved. I loved the “South Park” guys, was a fan of the show, and didn’t know I was going to be on… (Laughs) …and was on the road somewhere and….I have another son who’d just graduated from college, and he said, “Dad, everybody at my college is talking about you being on ‘South Park.’ It’s all over school.” I thought it was funny. It’s really an irreverent look at society, and it was very cool. I’m a fan of that show.
BE: Did you send them a thank-you note?
JW: Oh, gosh. You know, I should. I actually should, because it was very funny. Very satirical, but very funny.
BE: Have you turned up anywhere else that’s really stuck out for you?
JW: You know, someone told me the other day that there’s a punk rock band called John Walsh, and that they’re not kind of the alternative punk. Their music is pretty edgy, and they’re kind of on the side of the right. Their punk music says, “Hey, there are heroes out there, and there are guys who are making a difference, but you can still be an alternative type of person and a punk rocker.” I never cease to be amazed by the younger culture in this country.
BE: How thrilled are you that the show has continued to thrive for as long as it has?
JW: I’m amazed, because we…now I’ve been told that we’re the 3rd longest running show in prime time history, behind “60 Minutes” and “48 Hours.” That’s a real compliment to the fans. And we’re still #1 in the most important demographics. I mean, I don’t kind myself: you’ve still got to be #1 in the 18-49 demo. It’s such a rewarding experience, because we’ve caught over 1,000 guys, and last week we caught the guy who murdered a 6-year-old girl and shot three other people on Thanksgiving. He’d been out there 5 weeks. I went down to south Florida to do the show, and he got caught 10 minutes after the show aired. It was fantastic. I’ve walked in those people’s shoes. I’m the father of a murdered child. I’m amazed that we’ve been able to stay on this long and that we’re so popular, but I thank the public. Now we’re worldwide, we’ve caught people in 35 countries, our website is huge and usually the second most popular TV website next to “American Idol”…usually, depending on the week. (Laughs) It’s such a gratifying experience, and I think it’s the public saying, “We don’t want to be vigilantes. We watch the show because we want to make a difference. Maybe we’ll see one of those creeps, or we’ll learn something, or we can help society.” Last year, we caught someone in China, we caught someone in India. Both countries extradited those creeps immediately. We’ve kind of been woven into the global culture now, and it’s a pretty gratifying thing, it really is. Especially for the father of a murdered child.
BE: That actually leads me to a question I’ve been curious about. When they made the movie “Adam,” about your son, were you very involved, or was it just something that came about because they were aware of your experience and wanted to bring it to the public consciousness?
JW: It was a wonderful woman named Linda Otto, who is now deceased, who brought the idea. She was an award-winning documentary film producer, and she’s the one who brought it to NBC. At that time, Grant Tinker was the president of NBC, and they were the #1 network. I’ve been told it was the most-watched TV movie of all time. It aired three times. She said to Grant Tinker, “We’re going to do it with dignity and integrity, and I’m going to involve the Walshes. I want to try and stay as close to what happened with the Walshes as possible.” And I thought they did a really good job, but the most incredible thing is that, with those three airings of “Adam,” it was the first TV show ever to show pictures of missing children…and they found sixty kids from those three airings! Most of them were non-custodial parental abductions, but they were kids that were missing for years, so I sort of learned the power of television from watching and being part of the movie “Adam.” I think NBC did a very dignified job of doing it, and Linda Otto sort of changed the way this country looks at missing children with a TV movie.
BE: To bring it full circle, was it “Adam” that led you – either directly or indirectly – to “America’s Most Wanted”?
JW: No, you know, it really was people internally at Fox. Rupert Murdoch had seen “Crimewatch UK” in England, which is done by the BBC and has been on for 40 years. When they approached me in 1987, I said “no” for six months. I didn’t know what Fox was… (Laughs) …and I didn’t know who Rupert Murdoch was, and I didn’t know who Barry Diller was. I didn’t want to be on television. I was trying to change laws, trying to recover from Adam’s terrible abduction, and…I was a businessman. I built deluxe hotels before Adam was murdered. So when they approached me…it wasn’t my idea…they said, “You know, you’ve spent so long trying to change laws and change the way this country looks at missing and exploited children. How would you like to host the first reality television program?” My first question – other than “who’s Rupert Murdoch?” and “what’s Fox?” – was, “What’s reality television?” Because America didn’t have reality television. So we were Fox’s first show. I did it because the first guy was a child killer that escaped from prison. He was our first capture. Three days after the show had aired, he was caught in Staten Island, New York. Guess what he was doing? He was running a shelter for the homeless. An escaped killer and rapist. (Shakes head) It’s been an incredible experience…but it was really Fox’s idea. They pursued me, and it’s been a wonderful partnership for 23 years.