In the tradition of The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Amazing Stories was a weekly anthology series that poked at the strange and fantastical part of life—that sneaky little part-fact/part-fiction creature that tramps through campfire stories and fairy tales, which happened to be the very media creator Steven Spielberg wanted to encapsulate for television.
NBC gave Spielberg (Jaws, E.T., and a truckload of other blockbusters) full creative control of the series, enviable budgets, and the freedom to farm work out to the hottest and most interesting talent in Hollywood—movie directors, fresh out of film school directors, and actors who hadn’t directed much at all, if ever. It wasn’t the first time Spielberg had worked in television—he directed the classic suspense TV movie Duel (his first foray into feature-length) as well as some episodes of Rod Serling’s other supernatural anthology series, Night Gallery. With an unprecedented two-year, forty-four episode commitment from the network, Spielberg unleashed that Spielberg whimsy—sometimes creepy, sometimes heartwarming—and the result was a TV experiment that made prime time TV-ing pretty interesting.
In the first year, Spielberg directed two episodes, “Ghost Train” and “The Mission.” The latter was a special one-hour show, starring Kevin Costner as the captain of a World War II B-17 bomber, and Casey Siemaszko as its young gunner, Jonathan. After a dogfight with the enemy, the American plane heads home—but heads home without any landing gear, which was lost in the air fight, and it looks like the crew can’t get Jonathan out from the belly of the plane in time.
A smattering of other well-loved episodes:
“Mummy Daddy” – An actor playing a mummy is mistaken for an actual mummy and hunted down by small town folk while he races to get to the hospital in time to catch the birth of his child.
“The Amazing Falsworth” – Gregory Hines plays a magician who senses a killer’s identity while doing his blindfolded ESP show.
“Family Dog” – An all-animated show which takes a look at a regular family (sort of regular at least) through the family dog’s point of view.
In addition to Spielberg himself, episode directors included Danny DeVito, Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Timothy Hutton, Burt Reynolds, Martin Scorsese and Robert Zemeckis. In front of the camera, there was just as impressive a range: Sid Caesar, Loni Anderson, Dom DeLuise, John Lithgow, Christina Applegate, Beau Bridges, Drew Barrymore, David Carradine, Kevin Costner, Lukas Hass, Mark Hamill, Harvey Keitel, Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Annie Potts and Kyra Sedgwick.
Though the show had been heartily hyped and many of its episodes were gems in 22-minute form, the anthology format and the quirk-heavy stories proved too elusive for a big fan base to grasp. If the stories amazing hit the airwaves these days, who knows? Spielberg could have just been a little ahead of his time. After all—it wouldn’t have been the first time.
USA / NBC – Universal – Amblin / 45×30 minute episodes / Broadcast 29 September 1985 – 15 May 1987
Devisors: Steven Spielberg, Joshua Brand, John Falsey / Theme Music: John Williams / Executive Producer: Steven Spielberg