Actor Darren McGavin died this Saturday of natural causes at age 83. Older viewers probably remember him as monster hunting reporter Carl Kolchak. Younger viewers more likely remember him as the irascible father in A Christmas Story. Regardless, McGavin had a long and prolific career.
McGavin was born William Lyle Richardson in Spokane, Washington. He was working as a painter in 1945 at Columbia Pictures when he tried out for a bit part in A Song to Remember. McGavin appeared in a few more bit parts before moving to New York City. There he studied acting with both the Neighbourhood Playhouse and the Actor's Studio. It was in 1951 that he played in his first TV show, the lead role in Crime Reporter.
Although he appeared in movies and played on Broadway, it would be in television that McGavin would do most of his work. He was the lead in such shows as Mike Hammer (1956), Riverboat, The Outsider, Banyon, The Rookies, and Kolchak: the Night Stalker. It was the last series that would be his greatest claim to fame in television. The show revolved around Carl Kolchak, a reporter with a knack for encountering supernatural menaces. The series was a spin off of two TV movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. While it lasted only one season, it became a cult series and McGavin was forever identified with the role. On Murphy Brown he played Murphy's father in many episodes. McGavin also made numerous guest apperances, on shows including Dr. Kildare, Gunsmoke, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The X-Files. He also has a major role in the mini-series adaptation of The Martian Chronicles.
While the bulk of McGavin's work was in television, he did appear in a good number of movies. He played the pusher Louie in The Man With the Golden Arm, Jerry Lewis's parole officer in The Delicate Delinquent, and the father in A Christmas Story. He also appeared in films ranging from Beau James to No Deposit, No Return (alongside Don Knotts, who just died Friday) to Billy Madison.
McGavin also appeared on Broadway. He made his first apperance there in the play My 3 Angels. He would go onto appear in such plays as The Rainmaker, The Lovers, and Tunnel of Love.
As a child I must confess that I was a loyal viewer of Kolchak: the Night Stalker. As an adult I must also admit that I find the series a bit goofy. I mean, how many times can a reporter just happen upon a vampire or a werewolf or some other monster every week? I do still enjoy the show, and I must admit that much of it is due to McGavin as Kolchak. Kolchak was a grumpy, curmudgeonly, wisecracking reporter who would have been at home in any number of films noir. Or detective magazines published in the mid-20th Century. No matter how absurd any given episode might be, McGavin always played Kolchak straight. Quite frankly, I think the show would not have worked if he'd played it tounge in cheek. Of course, I also must say that A Christmas Story is one of my favourite movies of all time. Much of that is because of McGavin's performance as the Old Man. Indeed, no one can fake cussing as well as McGavin could!
As the man who played Kolchak, I must say that his death makes me sad. He was a very talented actor who played a large number of varied roles. In some respects it seems a shame that he will be primarily remembered as Carl Kolchak and the Old Man, as he had a number of other great parts as well. At any rate, I don't think Darren McGavin will soon be forgotten.