Long before he became the telegenic host of “America’s Most Wanted”—one of the longest-running prime-time series on network TV—John Walsh (honorary doctorate ’04, BA ’73) wanted to be a writer. And so he enrolled at the University at Buffalo. “They had internationally acclaimed writers in the English department,” he explains. “People say, ‘You must have been an actor; you must have been in the TV business.’ UB is where I developed my creativity.”
Despite his college aspirations, Walsh’s first career was as a hotel developer. Then, in 1981, his 6-year-old son, Adam, was kidnapped and murdered. Walsh became a full-time activist on behalf of victims’ rights, and his creative writing skills started coming into play. In addition to launching “America’s Most Wanted” and writing segments for the show, he has authored three books, hosted a daily talk show, created an Emmy-nominated children’s program and almost single-handedly made missing children a national law-enforcement priority through his lobbying efforts.
“I will always be the father of a murdered child,” says Walsh, who recently turned 69. “You just can’t sit still. I’ll do this as long as I physically can.”
Indeed, shortly after the cancellation of “America’s Most Wanted,” Walsh launched his new show, “The Hunt with John Walsh,” over the summer. The Hunt has big shoes to fill. In its 25 years on the air, says Walsh, “America’s Most Wanted” helped capture 17 men from the FBI’s Most Wanted list and recover 61 missing children. The highlight of the show’s run, he says, was the recovery of Elizabeth Smart, the 14-year-old who was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City bedroom in 2002. Walsh had reached out to Ed Smart, Elizabeth’s father, early in the search. “Ed and I never believed Elizabeth was dead,” Walsh says.
When she was found, nine months after her abduction, the media camped out in front of the house. “The family snuck me in the back door,” says Walsh. “I told them, ‘Don’t be seduced by Oprah or Good Morning America. She needs counseling.’ Elizabeth walked down the stairs in terrible shape, and she said ‘thank you,’ and I just broke into tears. I didn’t know what to say. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Despite the show’s popularity, Walsh says he was comfortable with the decision to cancel it. “We were on for 25 years,” he says. “I had traveled nonstop, and it just seemed time to end it.”
Not long after, Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide and a longtime friend, asked Walsh if he’d consider doing a show for his network. “Over a long year, we talked back and forth,” Walsh says. “CNN is in 45 countries. The head of Interpol is a good friend of mine. I talked to the FBI and they said, ‘We’d be thrilled if you came back.’”
So he agreed to a new show with a different format—only one or two fugitives per episode instead of the three routinely featured on “America’s Most Wanted,” which leaves more time for storytelling. The Hunt debuted in July to favorable ratings. More importantly to Walsh, two of the men the show profiled have already been captured.