The Night Stalker introduced the character of Kolchak, a newspaper reporter whose investigation of a series of murders in Las Vegas leads him to a vampire. Due to the popularity of both the film and the character, created by the late Jeff Rice (himself a former reporter), Kolchak returned the following year for another TV movie, The Night Strangler, and then again in 1974 for the short-lived weekly series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. In the show, Kolchak relocated to Chicago, where he took on werewolves, mummies, zombies, Indian demons, sewer-roaming creatures and, of course, aliens.
As Rice explained in an exclusive interview, the (then) unpublished novel all of this sprang from was originally called The Kolchak Papers, and it was the first to blend the newsroom and horror fiction genres. “That wasn’t my main consideration when I started the actually drafting,” he said. “All I wanted to do was create a ‘good read’ of the type that I thought I would find entertaining; something for people to use to kill time in airports, on planes or in hotels when stuck overnight in a strange town. Of course, I also felt I could use the book as a vehicle to say a few serious things about my town — to use it as an intrinsic part of the story rather than as a mere background setting — and to make a few pithy comments about the misuse of power, the latter being an underlying theme in the novel.”
In The Night Stalker, Kolchak is the sole believer against a world of skeptics, and it’s his battle to get the truth out despite the odds that made viewers root for him. But while audiences always cheer those who endure ridicule and worse in their fight against conventional wisdom — be it Galileo or the 1969 Mets — that isn’t the only source of the show’s enduring popularity. “Maybe its appeal remains because it was then, and remains now, a very different kind of show,” Rice suggested. “Maybe people see, in the monsters and the way public knowledge and discussion are stopped, symbols for all those things various government entities wish the people not to know about. Maybe people — fans — admire Kolchak because he just keeps on trying to do what he sees as work that has value; trying to keep the public informed about what is going on.”
All true. But then there was the addition into the mix of McGavin.
Mark Dawidziak, who was friends with both Rice and McGavin, points out, “If you were to read Jeff’s original book, you would not picture Darren McGavin as the character. The book Kolchak was more hulking; based on a reporter Jeff had known in Las Vegas. And when the script was written by Richard Matheson, again you would not have necessarily pictured Darren McGavin. But then when Darren comes in, it’s the perfect fusion of actor and part, with the actor making the part completely his own. You know, I don’t think it’s any mistake that two of the characters I’ve written books about are Columbo and Kolchak.”
“They have a lot of similarities,” he continues, speaking of the detective famously brought to life by Peter Falk. “They’re both shabbily dressed, sons of immigrants with European surnames who drive dilapidated cars and get there through sheer determination. And in our minds, these characters were brought to life in a way we can never imagine any other actors in the roles. With Columbo, Richard Levinson and William Link did not picture a younger actor looking like Peter Falk playing the part. They pictured an older Irish actor. And the same thing happens with Kolchak in that Darren shows up, Darren looks at it and says, ‘This is the motivation for this, this is how the character would dress.’ Darren was the one who put him in the seersucker suit; he came up with the hat and the sneakers, he’s the one who came up with the reporter’s tie, because he remembered that’s what reporters wore in New York in the summer when he was an actor there.”
In the pages of The Night Stalker Companion, McGavin explained, “In the first draft of the script, Kolchak was wearing Bermuda shorts, socks and brown shoes, a Hawaiian shirt and a golf cap. Apparently somebody thought that was the uniform for a newspaperman in Las Vegas. But there was a line in there about him wanting to get back to New York, so I got this image of a New York newspaperman who had been fired in the summer of 1962 when he was wearing a seersucker suit, his straw hat, button-down Brooks Brothers shirt and reporter’s tie, and he hasn’t bought any clothes since. Well, I knew that was the summer uniform of reporters in New York of that time, so that’s how the wardrobe came about. I added the white tennis shoes and that was Kolchak. It might have been totally at odds with what everybody else was wearing in Las Vegas, but he hasn’t bought any clothes since then. You need goals for a character and Kolchak’s goal is to get back to the big time. He always wanted to get back to New York and work on the Daily News.”