If you were Jerry Lewis in 1956, he odds are pretty strong you’d still be trying to wrap your head around the fact that your 10-year partnership with Dean Martin had come to an end. But to deal with whatever he was feeling, he forced himself back into work and his first film as a solo star, The Delicate Delinquent, and was seeking someone to step into Dean’s considerable shoes. In a conversation with Hedda Hopper, the biggest and most influential gossip columnist of the time, he announced that he’d found his man in the form of Darren McGavin.
“I’m terribly excited about him,” he told Hopper. “Saw his face on a player’s directory, phoned him, liked him. Then I learned he’d played in The Rainmaker on TV, also on Broadway. He was the dope pusher in The Man with the Golden Arm with Frank Sinatra. Mark my words, he’s going to be one of our finest stars.”
Hopefully those words were indeed marked, because it wouldn’t be long before McGavin proved him right. Whether he was continuing his acclaimed roles on Broadway, hunting vampires as reporter Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker (which inspired Chris Carter to create The X-Files) or playing the “Old Man,” oh-so-excited about winning “a major award” in A Christmas Story, he was always memorable.
Journalist Mark Dawidziak, author of The Night Stalker Companion: A 25th Anniversary Tribute and The Columbo Phile, among many others, opines, “McGavin was an actor of great energy, imagination and versatility. He was capable of touching our hearts in so many profound ways. If you want proof, check out the 1970 TV movie Tribes in which he plays a tough-as-nails Marine drill instructor confronted with a maverick recruit. It’s yet another stunning performance in a long and remarkable career. You want versatility? Watch Tribes, then The Night Stalker, then A Christmas Story, then The Natural, which features McGavin as shady gambler Gus Sands. And that’s just four of his best roles.”
Not bad for someone who didn’t envision a career for himself as a performer. “Ever since I was a kid,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1958, “I wanted to do something out of the ordinary. I was 20 when I got my start in the entertainment profession. Not as an actor, but as a scenic artist. I was stand-by painter and was permitted on the set while they were working. I was fascinated. Someone asked, ‘Why don’t you try acting?’ I thought about it, went to an agent and three days later I was back on the same set acting instead of painting.”
He was born William Lyle Richardson on May 7, 1922 in Spokane, Washington. His parents divorced when he was 11, impacting his life in some pretty serious ways. For starters, his father — through what he called “quirks in the court system” — ended up with custody of him. “He was a marvelous man,” McGavin told author Peggy Herz for her 1975 book TV Close-Ups, “but he was a traveling salesman. He put me in a Catholic boarding school and I went from there to various foster homes. Those years weren’t terribly happy, but that first summer after the divorce wasn’t so bad. I spent it living with a band of Indians on the Nisqually River in Washington.” Lots of running away would take place, though eventually he’d end up at the ranch his remarried mother was living on.