Life settled down a bit as he attended high school and, upon graduation, college. “It was primarily an agricultural school with courses in animal husbandry, crop rotation and so on,” he told Herz, “so I took mechanical drawing instead. I decided I wanted to be an architect. I studied mostly drafting and engineering, which led me to acting. My English teacher also taught drama.
“One day,” he continued, “she came to me and said she needed a good draftsman to help with scenery for the spring play. I didn’t even know what scenery was. She took me to the back of the stage and showed me the flats. I said, ‘Oh, they’re fake walls. Sure, I can do that.’ I went back to drafting class and went to work. I was pretty good and I stayed after school to build the scenery. I graduated from high school without knowing anything about English grammar or math, but I learned about scenery.”
From there he enrolled at Stockton, California’s Pacific University so that he could get the appropriate training for architecture, but things once again took a left turn when he thought he was going right: a local theater group asked if he could build scenery for them and as he watched was going on, he asked if he could have a part in the show if he built the scenery. When asked if he would build it even if he wasn’t, he responded no. Needless to say, he had a part, which he enjoyed.
As noted earlier, it was while doing scenery work that McGavin scored his first role — ultimately uncredited — in 1945’s A Song to Remember. And the experience made one thing absolutely clear to him: “I didn’t know my elbow from my tail bone when it came to acting,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “So I began studying at the Actor’s Lab [in California]. Those were the cold years. I didn’t have much luck in Hollywood, so I moved to New York. There’s a city where an actor has to do nearly everything himself. Out here in the West, you complain to an agent. In the East, you do your own pushing.”
In 1968, the Valley Times of Hollywood, California offered up a profile of the actor, noting, “The young Irishman packed his one suitcase and left for New York. After the classic struggle and dozens of part-time jobs to survive, he was admitted to the famed Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. That ended shortly thereafter when he and Meisner proved exasperating to each other and McGavin was dis-enrolled. But he joined the Actor’s Studio under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg and soon began landing live television roles in all of the top original playhouse dramas. In the next five years he starred and co-starred in over 100 live shows — just one of the many reasons that today Darren McGavin finds acting easy.”
And through it all he was filled with a drive to succeed, telling the Daily Independent, “I’d go insane if I’m not working. A long time ago when I couldn’t get a job in New York, I learned something important. You are an actor only when you’re working. When you’re not acting, you’re unemployed. Nothing.”
And work he did, on all of those live television shows, more uncredited roles in five more films (as “Paratrooper,” “Tech Sergeant,” “The Kid — Soldier in Hospital,” “Blonde Student” and “Blind Mechanic”) before he had a more substantial role as “Dan” in 1951’s Queen for a Day. More importantly, he found his true passion on the stage.
Between 1949 and 1994 he appeared in a touring production of Death of a Salesman (as Happy Lohman) and in My 3 Angels (1954), The Rainmaker (1955), The Innkeepers (1956), The Lovers (1956), The Tunnel of Love (1956), Two for the Seesaw (1959), Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole (1961), A Thousand Clowns (1964), The King and I (1966), Dinner at Eight (1967) and Greetings (1993 to 1994).
He would also learn that while his heart was on the stage, television absolutely paid the bills. And despite his best efforts, besides guest starring roles over the years he found himself starring in a number of series.