Riverboat, set in the 1830s, was his next series, a one-hour show that aired between 1959 and 1961 on NBC. In it, he plays Captain Grey Holden, captain of the riverboat Enterprise sailing along the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio Rivers, encountering a variety of people — some fictional, some historical — along the way. In 20 episodes, Burt Reynolds was given one of his early roles as Ben Frazer. One of the key things for McGavin is the fact that he was a partial owner of the show.
“I have a family,” he told the Democrat and Chronicle at the time, “and I see nothing wrong with an actor trying to establish a little security when he gets the chance. And I see nothing wrong with trying to do it in television so long as you feel you are working with people who are seeking to do a good job with material you can respect. The object in any so-called art medium is to try to refine and improve it, and there’s no reason that can’t be done with television.”
His enthusiasm was certainly there early on, with him adding, “The material is fantastic and almost limitless. We can tie into historical personages whenever we want to and we can ignore them if we want to. One of our big points is that in addition to myself and Burt Reynolds, playing my pilot, we’ll have guest stars in each episode and we try to get the finest players we can. Oh, and there’s one thing about the set up that pleases me especially. Now that Hammer is out of the way, I work on Riverboat only every other week. That week off is really appreciated by me, but not just for loafing. Gives me a chance to plan and do other things.”
Behind the scenes, things were not quite so copasetic. For starters, he and Reynolds did not get along, with the Reynolds telling The Times Record, “My first assignment was playing the dumb-dumb whistle blower for Darren McGavin. After a few weeks, I told MCA and Revue Productions that I wanted out.” Years later he elaborated, “It’s no secret that Darren and I didn’t like each other on that show. I guess Darren thought of me as a threat, which is a compliment. But no matter what happened on a personal basis, I still think Darren McGavin is an interesting actor. And if if I’ve learned anything in this business, it’s that an actor had better be interesting.”
On Westernclippings.com, an exhaustive site devoted to TV Westerns, in an interview with Riverboat producer Gordon Kay, he said, “Darren McGavin was a nut. A wonderful Irishman. A very good actor. I liked him very much as a person. He was, if anything, too honest for his own good. Burt Reynolds was brought in at studio head Lew Wasserman’s request, who said, ‘This is a new actor we just hired. Please use him.’ They even wanted some lines. We were halfway through filming and didn’t know where the hell we were going to use him. Darren said, ‘We gotta shoot me up in the wheelhouse. Put him in as the helmsman. I’ll tell him to come right full rudder and let him say, ‘Aye, aye, sir.’
“From the get-go,” he added, “there was an acrimonious relationship between established star McGavin and newcomer Reynolds. McGavin assumed he was hired as the star of the show while Reynolds hoped the series would give him an opportunity to ultimately make a name for himself. it was an immediate clashing of egos.”
For his part, McGavin admitted to the Independent Press-Telegram, “The show was a failure. Originally the idea came from a man at Revue Studios who passed by the artificial lake on the back lot every day where the riverboat was moored. Seeing the old boat sitting there idle bugged him, so he suggested to higher-ups that they build a series around the boat. When I was approached to play the captain, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to capture the feeing of a great era on the Mississippi River just before and during the Civil War, but we never once went on location and they tried to pattern the show after the highly successful Wagon Train series.
“When Dennis the Menace made a big splash, they added a kid to the cast. Then they threw in a dog and a monkey for laughs. Because Vincent Price was big in horror movies, they put him in one episode complete with a man in a gorilla suit. Brother, what a mess. I’m glad NBC decided to drop it. It was the kindest thing the network could do.” And when he was asked if he’d be interested in another series, he snapped, “Never!”