Casey, Crime Photographer aired on CBS from 1951 to 1952 and saw McGavin playing Jack “Flashgun” Casey, a photographer/reporter of New York’s The Morning Express newspaper, working with the police to help solve crimes. When the show started, the character was played by Richard Carlyle, who was ultimately replaced by McGavin. This show was filmed live in New York City and had been preceded by a radio drama of the same name. For the actor, Casey was followed by more guest appearances on anthologies as well as a return to the big screen.
He co-starred with Frank Sinatra in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Gary Cooper and Elizabeth Montgomery (in her first film) in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), Jerry Lewis in the previously-mentioned The Delicate Delinquent (1957) and Bob Hope in Beau James (1957). Films would remain a part of his career, but TV was where he really made his reputation.
Next up on the series front for McGavin was Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, the private detective that, besides being featured in Spillane’s novels and short stories, had been on the big screen in I, the Jury (1953), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and My Gun is Quick (1957). The show ran for two seasons from 1958 to 1959 and a total of 78 episodes and garnered a strong audience following. In their book Mickey Spillane on Screen, authors Max Allan Collins and James L. Traylor say of the show, “It would take Darren McGavin’s affable tough guy to make Hammer palatable to TV audiences in the late 1950s. He brought humor to Mike Hammer without compromising either the brutality or the vengeance-seeking ways of Spillane’s famous private eye … Hammer’s debut was greeted with the same critical enthusiasm as his large screen ones; a critical hammering. But revisiting these black and white adventures — or seeing them for the first time — reveals a high degree of pulp artistry and a particularly memorable star turn from Darren McGavin as one of the best screen Hammers.
“McGavin had several things going for him,” they add. “He was a rising stage and screen star, he was masculine, but not a bruiser, he bore a resemblance to Mickey Spillane himself and had the charisma and wry humor required of a leading man for the intimate medium of television … He tempered his roughhouse ways with an affability previously unseen in a screen Hammer.”
Ironically, McGavin himself didn’t seem to be much of a fan of the show for a number of reasons, beginning with the fact that the episodes were shot so quickly and that he didn’t know how to play the character (“I played it for laughs,” he said). Speaking to the San Francisco Examiner in 1959, he expressed, “In the 30-minute format, you either sacrifice plot for character and mood, or character and mood for plot. You don’t have time for both. In the Hammer show, we sacrifice everything for plot on the theory that the character is already well known. But this illustrates why television must enter the area of the hour show if it’s going to achieve the quality that the competition is forcing.”