When ‘The X-Files’ Became A-List: An Oral History of Fox’s Out-There Success Story
On the eve of a six-episode reunion series, creator Chris Carter, stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, and the executives who put the risky show on the air in 1993 recall how the pop sensation all but minted money for a fledgling network.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Anyone handicapping Fox’s fall 1993 lineup likely would have gone all in on the self-titled sitcom from Sinbad rather than a supernatural FBI drama starring two no-names for the network of 90210 and Married … With Children. That bet would have been woefully misguided.
The X-Files went on to become a bona fide smash for the 8-year-old network in desperate need of legitimacy and has endured in ways few TV series can claim. Chris Carter’s original 202-episode run, which peaked north of 27 million viewers, spawned two feature films and launched the careers of Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny — while turning 20th Century Fox Television into one of the industry’s most profitable and prolific studios.
Its writers room is the stuff of Hollywood legend, nurturing such luminaries as Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and Howard Gordon (24), but what often goes unmentioned is the similar scenario on the executive side. Among those involved in the early days are three current network chiefs (NBC’s Bob Greenblatt and Fox’s Dana Walden and Gary Newman).
Anderson, who came to ‘The X-Files’ with an almost microscopic screen re?sume?, quickly became an international sex symbol.
The X-Files‘ complicated mythology, both real and scripted, makes its history the source of endless pop-culture autopsies. But as Fox readies a six-episode revival (starting Jan. 24), the people most responsible for the enduring franchise sound off — for the first time in the same place — about how the show came to be. And be again.
“We Were the Last Stop”
A comedy writer, best known for Disney telepics, pitches a drama about aliens and government conspiracy to a group of rising execs at an afterthought network.
CHRIS CARTER (creator) I was hired by Peter Roth to develop TV shows when he moved to 20th. We were both interested in something in the vein of [the 1974 cult series] Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and I already had an idea. It was partly inspired by the shows of my youth, The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, but I had recently come upon a scientific survey done by Dr. John Mack. It said that 10 percent of Americans believed they had contact with, been abducted by or believed in extraterrestrials.
BOB GREENBLATT (former executive vp primetime programming, Fox) We had a blind deal with Chris. We thought he was going to pitch a family or teenage soap, so we were surprised when he brought us high-concept science fiction. We were reluctant to develop it because we didn’t have any other drama like it and weren’t in the market for sci-fi.
DANIELLE GELBER (former director of drama development, Fox) Fox was still being called “the coat-hanger network” by [former NBC president] Brandon Tartikoff. We told everybody who came in the door that we knew we were the last stop on the train. The X-Files was the first pitch from my first season. Chris had the most passionate, focused, dimensional, whole construct I’ve ever heard from anybody.
CARTER Danielle and Bob didn’t say yes to the first pitch.
GELBER We were fascinated, but it begged so many questions. He came back with this 15- or 20-page document that was riveting.
GARY NEWMAN (former vp business affairs, 20th Century Fox Television) What I very distinctly remember that fall was going to a meeting with Peter Roth and our management basically telling us that the hourlong business was impossible and we couldn’t make any money doing it. We had an entire slate of drama in development.
SANDY GRUSHOW (former president, Fox Entertainment Group) Shortly after the pitch was bought, Peter Chernin left to replace Joe Roth on the feature film side. My mandate was to make really good shows that spoke to a younger demographic that had been largely disenfranchised by the Big Three. I was looking for whatever the Fox version of a procedural could be — a cop show or a medical show with Fox topspin. The X-Files fit that bill.
GELBER I remember reading the pilot alone in my house late at night and being terrified, chilled to the bone.
Carter directed 10 episodes of the original run, the 2008 film and three episodes of the 2016 revival.
“I Needed to Pay Rent”
A speedy pilot order tasks Carter and company with their biggest job: casting the show’s two leads, an analytical FBI agent and her conspiracy theorist partner.
GILLIAN ANDERSON (Dana Scully) I had left New York to go visit my boyfriend and decided to stay in Los Angeles. I was out of work, and we were living in [seedy Hollywood apartment] Villa Carlotta. I went in just like any normal audition.
DAVID DUCHOVNY (Fox Mulder) In 1993, there was an elitist division between movie actors and TV actors. And because I was an elitist and thought myself an artist, I was going to do movies. But my manager [Melanie Greene], bless her, said she had a feeling about The X-Files — and that I needed to pay rent.
CARTER Dave and Gillian weren’t necessarily shoo-ins for the parts due most prominently to one loud voice that wanted someone other than them.
GELBER We cast David first. He was known for hosting Red Shoe Diaries on Showtime, of all things. But he was so intelligent and wry.
DUCHOVNY I had conflicting feelings signing away what I thought would be three to five years of my life to a show about aliens on a network that had kind of crappy programming. But [pilot casting director] Randy Stone, who’s since passed, said, “I know you have a lot of opportunities.” I didn’t. “I’ve only told this to one other actor, one other time — but if you do this show, you’ll never have to work again.” He was talking about Woody Harrelson for Cheers.
ANDERSON Once they decided on David, they brought in a few actresses to read with him — women I had been used to auditioning with for musical theater in New York, like Cynthia Nixon and Jill Hennessy.
DUCHOVNY I met Gillian in the anteroom. I asked her if she wanted to run lines beforehand.
CARTER The chemistry was there from the very first moment that they were put in front of the camera together.
ANDERSON I was secretly told that I got the job that day by Randy. He had been holding out for me and naughtily told me before I left. Female characters like that didn’t exist back then on television.
CARTER For me, [shooting in] Vancouver was a creative decision, but I’m sure Fox saw the value in taking it to a place where their dollar went farther. We were like the 13th company in town, which means that 12 companies before us had hired away a lot of people.
ANDERSON The crew was sweet, but they were also kind of rolling their eyes at my naivete. I didn’t know what a mark was.
DUCHOVNY I was just doing my best to keep my head above water. Mulder was kind of the engine of the show. He was putting his foot on the gas, and Scully was pumping the brake. Constitutionally, I’m not the guy on the gas.
CARTER It was as cold as can be. It was dark and hard work, and I remember Gillian being so freezing cold she could barely speak her lines. I would get these big notes on dailies. One of them — and it was not said with kindness — was that there was no sexual tension between the characters.
GREENBLATT There were no cool, dark cable shows at the time because there were no cool, dark cable networks. The ending of the pilot is very ambiguous about whether or not these kids were abducted by aliens, so [it] was somewhat troubling to people. The show was far from a slam dunk to getting picked up, [but] the chemistry between Gillian and David was a big selling point.
GRUSHOW I loved the rough cut of the pilot. We ordered 13 episodes and scheduled it on Friday nights at 9.
“I always thought the strategy was to turn ‘The X-Files’ into a movie franchise,” Duchovny says of his motivations to depart after the seventh season. “It may have been naive of me to think, but when I left the show, I thought, ‘We’re still going to do the movies, right?’
“Does Everything Have to Do With Aliens?”
The summer before the launch, Carter sets the wheels in motion for one of the most illustrious writers rooms in TV.
DANA WALDEN (former senior vp publicity, 20th Television) I was overseeing the publicity campaign for the studio. My first office on the lot was where I sit right now — except that there was no building and I had a trailer. I had scheduled my first meeting with Chris to talk about the show. My assistant at the time had taken my golf cart to run an errand across the lot. As she was coming back, I think she saw Chris walking up and was so distracted by him that she crashed the golf cart into the trailer. He’s very handsome.
MARK SNOW (composer) Chris kept saying he didn’t want a complicated production number [for the theme]. After several tries, I put my elbow haphazardly on the keyboard. That created that repeated echo effect. Once I got to the melody, my studio — and by that I mean my garage door — was open. My wife walked by and said, “Maybe it needs a little more realism in the whistle.” So I combined her whistle and the sample. Chris liked it. He might have loved it, but he’s a man who doesn’t jump up and down for anything at first.
GLEN MORGAN (writer) Jim Wong and I were supposed to do Moon Over Miami, a romantic comedy that was going to be the new Moonlighting. Our agent said, “Peter Roth is demanding that you watch this other pilot.” We went over to CAA and watched The X-Files and thought, “That was pretty great.” Then we saw Moon Over Miami and were like, “Oh, no.”
HOWARD GORDON (writer) Chris had read a pilot that Alex Gansa and I had done and shot for ABC. He called us and asked us to come on with Glen and Jim. [The X-Files] was not a show that anyone had any great expectations for. It was over our agent’s objections that we took the gig.
JIM WONG (writer) I remember being in the room with Howard and Alex, and we were like, “Does everything have to do with aliens?” At first Chris said yes, but then he changed his mind. [Episode 3,] “Squeeze,” the first monster-of-the-week episode, gave us permission to do anything paranormal.
CARTER The beauty of me being kind of a nobody in television was that I didn’t know what I couldn’t do. So we just tried everything.
“It Had a Heartbeat”
With a forgettable lead-in on a little-watched night, The X-Files defies expectations with ratings growth and a pop-culture courtship that turned Duchovny and Anderson into household names and heartthrobs.
NEWMAN Friday was bigger back then, but it still wasn’t a place where you put a show you really believed in.
GRUSHOW We really focused our promotional efforts on the 8 p.m. show, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., which coincidentally was co-created by Carlton Cuse. Back then, if you didn’t get your night started successfully at 8, you were dead at 9. About 12 million people showed up to the premiere of The X-Files. That was so-so, but I immediately felt like it had a heartbeat.
GELBER It was buried on Fridays, but the audience kept growing and people really keyed into the whole Mulder-Scully dynamic — which, for once, was refreshingly not about, “Will they or won’t they?”
DUCHOVNY People seemed to know who we were … then it was one thing after another. I was doing David Letterman and hosting Saturday Night Live.
CARTER I think I knew we were big when we were reviewed in The New Yorker, and they saw things in the show that even I didn’t see. We ultimately got an order for 24 episodes that first year. And 25 the next.
WONG This was the early days of the Internet. I would go into chat rooms and talk to fans. There weren’t really trolls back then, but everyone felt like Scully was being a dick. She didn’t believe in anything. We originally wanted to hold off on Scully having a mind-changing experience until the end of the first season — but because of that response, Glen and I wrote an episode that flipped the Mulder and Scully dynamic much earlier.
WALDEN The X-Files was incredibly prescient in terms of a feeling in this country of mistrust of our government and a turning point in the nation.
GORDON I think the government conspiracy gave voice to this creeping unease in the ’90s that it couldn’t really be happily ever after. As it turns out, it wasn’t.
CARTER I got a call from Duchovny that we’d gotten a Golden Globe nomination in the second season. That came as a complete shocker.
G. MORGAN And having Darin win an Emmy [for writing the third season’s “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose”] was just mind-blowing.
DARIN MORGAN (writer) When you win an Emmy, your parents stop worrying about you.
CARTER One of the things that nobody can teach you is that when you have a hit on your hands, your starting rotation gets plucked away. In this case, [Glen] Morgan and Wong were plucked by the very people employing me [to run Fox’s 1995 sci-fi show Space: Above and Beyond].
G. MORGAN Jim and I were kind of gone around the time it really took off.
GORDON There must have been at least a dozen writers who didn’t work out. Alex and I split up in the middle of the first season. We stayed great friends, but he wanted to pursue other things. There was quickly a time when Chris and I were the only people from the original group.
FRANK SPOTNITZ (writer) I was in a book group with Chris in the late ’80s, and a friend of mine asked me to put him in touch with him to pitch story ideas. Chris said, “No. But if you have any, I’ll hear yours.” He rejected them all, but about four weeks later he called and invited me on staff.
VINCE GILLIGAN (writer) It was a bit of a nervous-making environment, especially when I first got there. The attrition rate for writers on The X-Files was somewhat high, and I knew there was a very good chance I wouldn’t last past the first 13- week probationary period.
Anderson, now 47, was just 24 years old when cast in the pilot; Duchovny, now 55, was 32.
“All X-Files, All Day … for 18 Months”
The X-Files moves to Sunday in 1996 and is the No. 11 show on TV with nearly 20 million viewers tuning in each week. After a VHS release sold gangbusters, Fox greenlights a tie-in movie to cash in on the mania.
ROB BOWMAN (series director-producer; film director) Chris floated the idea of the movie to me pretty early. I remember I bought him a mountain bike, so he had a tangible token to remind him that he told me I could direct it.
CARTER I stole time during Christmas break of the fourth season. Frank and I went to Hawaii, and we sat down to plot the story.
SPOTNITZ The studio said it had to answer a lot of questions, but it couldn’t answer so many that the series couldn’t continue. It was a very specific target we were tasked with hitting.
BOWMAN I think I had 57 days with David and Gillian. There was no 58th day. You normally get a little cushion with movies, but they had to go back to the series the next day.
DUCHOVNY It was all X-Files, all day, all of the time for 18 months.
ANDERSON I really cannot even fathom that now. I don’t think I would survive.
“That show was a rigorous, well-oiled machine,” says Gish, who joined in season eight with Patrick (right). “It was disappointing when they decided to end it. I feel like Robert and I were just finding our groove, but it was nice to join the ride for a little bit.”
“Shouldn’t We Go Out on Top?”
The 1998 movie grosses $189.2 million worldwide, and the cast is rewarded by production moving to Los Angeles and the writers get a short-lived spinoff (The Lone Gunmen). But a lawsuit over syndication profits — that Fox was undervaluing the show and selling it cheaply to corporate sibling FX — spurs Duchovny’s 2000 exit.
GRUSHOW Not only was the studio producing The X-Files for the network, syndication rights went to FX on cable. It was doing extraordinarily well on DVD and internationally. Chris had a good sense of the value to the corporation, so it wasn’t always easy to reel him in. And, to be fair to him, there was an extraordinary amount of pressure to keep topping himself.
CARTER David had a lawsuit with 20th Century Fox, and when that was over and resolved, one of the stipulations was that he would leave the show for a time.
GRUSHOW There weren’t a lot of things that kept me up at night, but two I remember was after the day Chuck Rosen, who was running 90210 at the time, told me “Luke Perry has hair growing out of his ears. These kids have got to graduate high school.” The second was The X-Files, when one of our two leads decided to call it a day.
DUCHOVNY It’s hard for me to remember exactly how uncomfortable it was on set. The lawsuit was just the business part of show business. But I remember asking Chris and Gillian, “Shouldn’t we go out on top?” I wanted to try something else.
ANDERSON It was complicated, because I didn’t necessarily want to go on. But Fox made a deal that I couldn’t say no to. I was kind of over the barrel at the time.
CARTER Then I had to figure out how to tell stories without a principal.
ANNABETH GISH (Monica Reyes) They were looking for someone diametrically opposed to Gillian. And I think they were investigating what the franchise could be like without David and Gillian. I don’t want to say it didn’t work, because we had two great seasons, but those two had something that was magical.
GILLIGAN I recall a certain amount of resistance on the part of the fans when Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish came along — which I always felt bad about, because they were so good. They just had the bad luck of following David. And, as it turns out, apparently nobody on planet Earth was asking for a Lone Gunmen spinoff except for us. Fox wasn’t necessarily interested, but they certainly wanted to keep Chris happy. I’m sorry it didn’t get a few more episodes to really prove itself.
CARTER I think we saw the writing on the wall after Sept. 11. We actually went to work that day, which was a mistake. It kind of colored the rest of the season. All of a sudden, government conspiracies didn’t feel all that relevant. People were putting absolute faith in their government.
SPOTNITZ It was a tortured process bringing The X-Files to a close. We had to write and shoot the season seven and eight finales not knowing if those were going to be the series finales as well. There were never deals in place.
CARTER I’d say about midway through the ninth season, [Fox] made the decision.
“He asked me the day before,” Anderson says of singing alongside Duchovny at a 2015 New York concert. “I was scared for a short period, but I happened to have something that was appropriate to wear for that situation.”
“I Thought It Was a Joke”
A middling second movie (The X-Files: I Want to Believe, which grossed $68.4 million worldwide) seems to put an end to the franchise — until a Comic-Con appearance galvanizes interest.
SPOTNITZ It was absolutely the intention to continue with more movies after the series. But not long after it ended, there were more legal disputes, this time between Chris and the studio. That stalled everything for five years.
CARTER When we were asked to do a second movie, they wanted it on a smaller budget.
DUCHOVNY The 2008 movie wasn’t a disaster. It made money.
CARTER But it came out in the midst of all these tentpole summer movies, and there was no marketing. That movie was abandoned and unloved. It was a blow to me and the show.
ANDERSON It was clear what the issues were with the second movie. We all thought and wished that we’d have another go at it.
CARTER [In 2013,] I got a call from Dana. She asked if I’d be interested in revisiting the show.
WALDEN This was shortly after a Comic-Con panel for the 20th anniversary. It was so apparent that there’s still such an appetite for the show. We talked very briefly about if it would be possible to mount an event series.
NEWMAN The show left a very specific hole. When Dana and I got to the network, it was very much on our minds.
WALDEN We felt pretty committed to the fact that it would have to be the three of them. And Chris wanted to get the right writers room.
G. MORGAN He said he wanted to put the band back together — Frank, Vince, Howard, Darin and Jim. [Director-producer] Kim Manners has sadly passed away. We ended up with six episodes and only four of us because most of the guys are busy making great TV.
ANDERSON At first, I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t until we were at a small number of episodes that I could even have the conversation. Once we agreed, negotiations happened somewhere else. There’s no point in dealing with my side [first] because, as usual, they come to me with half of what they want to offer David. [Sources tell THR that Anderson and Duchovny received equal pay for the event series.]
CARTER Back in the day, it took us 11½ months to do 22 episodes. How did it take us 10 months to do six? I’m still scratching my head on that one. Someone close to the show said to me, “Isn’t this great to do a victory lap?” That’s the last thing I’m looking at the show as. The writers came to do fresh, original material. It’s perfect timing to tell a great X-Files story.
DUCHOVNY Everybody is trying to breathe life into comic book material that was never popular in the first place. Fox has this property that doesn’t need reinventing. The show will just always be a great frame for storytelling.
CARTER Is there closure? There’s always a certain amount of closure, but I think it’s very open-ended.
The series had one of the most illustrious writers rooms in TV. These 14 key players went on to an array of significant credits. ???? ??
From left: Howard Gordon (1993 – 1997)
24, Homeland, Tyrant
Steven Maeda (2000 – 2002)
Darin Morgan (1995 – 1996)
Those Who Kill, Intruders, The X-Files (2016)
David Amann (1999 – 2002)
John Shiban (1995 – 2002)
Hell on Wheels; Da Vinci’s Demons
Greg Walker (2000 – 2001)
Jeffrey Bell (1999 – 2001)
Agents of SHIELD
Vince Gilligan (1995 – 2002)
Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul
Chris Carter (1993 – 2002)
Millennium, The Lone Gunmen, The X-Files (2016)
David Duchovny (1995 – 2000)
Not Pictured: Alex Gansa (1993 – 1994)
Glen Morgan (1993 – 1995; 1996 – 1997)
Those Who Kill, Intruders, The X-Files (2016)
Frank Spotnitz (1995 – 2002)
The Man in the High Castle, Medici: Masters of Florence
Jim Wong (1993-1995; 1996-1997)
American Horror Story: Hotel; The X-Files (2016)