[[O B I T]] * Unlike the legendary monsters he slew under ... um, frightful conditions in the 1974 cult TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, actor Darren McGavin lived long enough to receive both public and professional acclaim. However, he finally died yesterday at a Los Angeles-area hospital, brought down by natural causes at 83 years old and leaving behind a wealth of film and television work, including noteworthy appearances in the 1955 Katherine Hepburn film Summertime and 1984’s The Natural (headlined, of course, by Robert Redford), as well as starring roles in half a dozen small-screen series. McGavin reportedly made his last, though uncredited cameo turn as a reporter in the short-lived 2005 remake of The Night Stalker.
McGavin, who was apparently born William Leland Richardson on May 7, 1922, preferred to be circumspect about his boyhood. Sources disagree as to whether he was born in Spokane, Washington, or San Joaquin, California. According to the Associated Press, the actor “told TV Guide in 1973 that he was a constant runaway at 10 and 11, and as a teen lived in warehouses in Tacoma, Washington, and dodged the police and welfare workers. His parents disappeared, he said.” After a year spent at the College of the Pacific in northern California, McGavin moved to L.A., where he found work painting signs at Columbia Pictures. He reportedly got his Hollywood “break” while laboring behind the scenes on the 1945 film A Song to Remember. McGavin recalled years later that, after being told by an agent that a minor role in that picture remained unfilled, “I climbed off a painter’s ladder and washed up at a nearby gas station. I returned through Columbia’s front gate with the agent.” Director Charles Vidor hired him for the part--which was a good thing, because shortly thereafter, McGavin’s paint foreman fired him from his crew.
The young actor soon relocated to New York City, where he studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio, and began taking parts in live TV dramas and Broadway stage productions. In 1951, he won his first TV series lead, replacing Richard Carlyle as a quick-fingered Manhattan newspaper shooter in Crime Photographer. But it was his supporting roles in a trio of 1955 movies--Summertime, Frank Sinatra’s The Man With the Golden Arm, and The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell--that initially won McGavin wide renown. A year later, he returned as a TV leading man, this time portraying Mickey Spillane’s familiar hard-fisted, liberal-drinking, skirt-chasing private eye in Mike Hammer, which TV Guide decried as “easily the worst series on TV.” McGavin was quoted in 1968 as acknowledging that his Hammer was “a dummy. I made 72 of those shows, and I thought it was a comedy. In fact, I played it camp. He was the kind of guy who would’ve waved the flag for George Wallace.”
But that didn’t seem to harm McGavin’s career any. The actor went on to star in a third TV series, Riverboat (1959-61); guest on myriad other small-screen serials, from Route 66 and Rawhide, to Ben Casey, Gunsmoke, and Mission: Impossible; and appear in films such as The Great Sioux Massacre (1965) and African Gold (1966). In 1967, he took on the role of ex-con-turned-private-eye Dave Ross in The Outsider, the pilot for what was subsequently picked up as a one-year, 26-episode TV crime series created by the legendary Roy Huggins (who, in the mid-1970s, would give television a far better remembered ex-con P.I., Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files). McGavin wasn’t wanting for TV employment after that, doing a short stint as one of the rotating leads on The Name of the Game; playing a police lieutenant in the pilot to what would be the sadly fleeting Robert Forster series Banyon; and showing up in Love, American Style, Mannix, and other series and movies-of-the-week. But it was in 1972 that he first portrayed the character with whom he has since been best associated: Carl Kolchak. Introduced in that year’s wildly popular ABC-TV flick The Night Stalker, Kolchak was a seersucker-draped, camera-hung, loose-limbed and dogged reporter who, in the course of his work, managed to dig up--sometimes quite literally--monsters of increasingly bizarre stripe. In the ’72 film, he went after a modern-day vampire who was putting the chill on Las Vegas. A year later, in the sequel, The Night Strangler, Kolchak sought to run to earth a century-old alchemist who’s been murdering women and stealing their blood in Seattle. The concept was as campy as it was horrific, and TV Guide opined at the time that it was necessary to take the Kolchak yarns with a grain of salt, if not also a clove of garlic. However, the success of those two movies convinced ABC to launch Kolchak: The Night Stalker as a series (see a promo spot here). It lasted 20 episodes (with others never produced), before the network finally drove a stake through its heart. However, it has since been reported that Kolchak inspired the creation of a later and much more successful supernatural series, The X Files.
After Kolchak, McGavin split his time between silver-screen and small-screen assignments. He captured roles in the films Airport ’77 (1977), Dead Heat (1988), and Billy Madison (1995), and guested on series such as Magnum, P.I., Highway to Heaven, Sisters, and The Commish. McGavin tried his hand, too, at a half-hour comedy series, the eminently forgettable Small & Frye (1983), in which he played a gumshoe partnered with a detective who could--wait for it--shrink himself down to only six inches in height. In 1976 he portrayed a would-be safecracker in the Disney film No Deposit, No Return opposite Don Knotts (who also died this weekend), and in 1980, McGavin played opposite Rock Hudson in the TV miniseries version of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Three years later, he delivered the memorable part of testy, profanity-spouting “Old Man” Parker in what’s now considered a holiday comedy classic, the film A Christmas Story. And in 1990, he won the only Emmy Award of his career, for playing the part of Candice Bergen’s opinionated father on the TV series Murphy Brown.
McGavin was wed twice, the first time (in 1944) to a woman named Melanie York--a union that produced all four of his children, but ended in divorce in 1969. Soon after that split, the actor swapped “I dos” with a fellow TV regular 15 years his junior, Kathie Browne, who had guest starred in myriad series, from 77 Sunset Strip to The Wild, Wild West to Banacek. She even appeared opposite her husband in an installment of Kolchak, yet might still be most recognizable for her role as a beautiful, strangely “accelerated” alien in an episode of the original Star Trek series titled “Wink of an Eye.” Browne McGavin, who had survived breast cancer, died in April 2003 of natural causes.
It’s sad that someone as gifted in the acting field as Darren McGavin was should have disappeared from our world. Equally unsettling, perhaps, is the realization that the character he once brought to life, Carl Kolchak--a man who, with his straw boater hat, tennis shoes, and Minox camera, was willing to go mano-a-monster with vampires, werewolves, belligerent aliens, and headless motorcycle crazies--is also now missing from our midst. We might all rest just a wee bit less easy tonight, as a result.
Below: The Kolchak opening, with theme by Gil Mellé.
READ MORE: “Darren McGavin--The Lost Interview”
(It Couldn’t Happen Here ...).