McGavin, Dawidziak says, essentially merged his own personality with that of Kolchak’s. “As a result,” he points out, “it has bits and pieces of Jeff, it has all of the essential DNA of Jeff’s character, but is now a Kolchak who is unforgettable, because of this. So what Darren brought to the part is just incalculable. Kolchak is an incredibly watchable, vibrant character even in the lousiest episodes of the series, and that’s because of Darren. Darren always was able to make that character stand up and dance. It’s like the later Columbo episodes; some of them were not very well written, but it was always a kick to see Peter in that raincoat. Well, it was a kick to see Darren in that seersucker suit.”
“I remember a story that was told about, of all people, Jack Dempsey, and long after he’d been heavyweight champion,” says Dawidziak. “When he was in his 40’s and 50’s, he would do boxing exhibitions and people would just line up to see Dempsey in the boxing ring. You know, he was not fighting for any title. He was long past his prime, but just to be able to tell the grandchildren they saw Jack Dempsey in a ring with boxing gloves on was pretty darn special. It’s kind of a crazy comparison to me, but anytime Peter put on that raincoat, it was like Dempsey putting on the gloves. Any time Darren was in the seersucker suit, it was like Dempsey putting on the gloves.”
The final episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker in 1975 was the last time McGavin put on that seersucker suit, though, obviously, the audience’s memory of it has never faded. After that show, he starred in quite a number of additional TV movies, made guest appearances and starred in 1983’s short-lived (six episodes) Small & Frye,in which he and Jack Blessing play the title detectives, though a strange lab experiment results in Frye shrinking to six inches in height (and returning to normal) at the most inopportune of times. The show didn’t make much of an impression, but Darren’s role as “The Old Man” in that same year’s A Christmas Story did.
Set in the 1940s, this instant Christmas classic is all about young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) doing his best to convince his parents (played by McGavin and Melinda Dillon), Santa Claus and everyone else that he needs a Red Ryder BB gun for the holidays. It beautifully captures the era and the family dynamic is wonderful. In 2003, The Hanford Sentinel did a retrospective piece on the film, commenting on McGavin, “Although he was not the first choice, [he] proved he was the best choice, bringing a boyish musicality to the character of the Old Man, crossed with the grumpy scowling of a well-practiced curmudgeon. His daughter, Graemm Bridget McGavin, says, ‘I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, ‘You know, he’s just like my dad.’ This is the closest to him of any of his roles. He was tough.’”
The hits kept on coming, when, in 1984, he played Gus Sands in Robert Redford’s The Natural. In a move that seemed to have brought him back to the beginning of his career, McGavin wasn’t credited on the film and his name didn’t appear in any publicity for it. But this was his choice. “Most of us who have survived have sought out those roles that will grant us the greatest personal gratification allowable under the system,” he related to The Californian. “The business of show business often interferes with that process. Sometimes the only answer to the system is to eliminate it. The true pleasure in acting, after all, is in the doing of it, not in the results that may emerge from the success or failure. After all, I didn’t need the billing as a boost to my career, for the money or for reassurance of my status. I just wanted to perform the role.”
And as if this wasn’t enough, between 1989 and 1992 he appeared in five episodes of Candice Bergen’s sitcom Murphy Brown, playing her father, Bill Brown. It’s a role for which he was nominated for a Primetime Emmy in the category of Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series.
In his private life, the actor was married three times, to Anita Marie Williams from 1942 to 1943, Melanie York from 1944 to 1969 and Kathie Brown (who also became his producing partner) from 1969 until her death in 2003. He’s the father of four children.
In 1999, McGavin filmed a pair of guest appearances on The X-Files, a TV show created by Chris Carter, who freely admitted that one of his influences from childhood in creating the series was The Night Stalker. His character, Arthur Dales, was more or less a founder of the X-Files itself. McGavin was filming a third appearance when he suffered a debilitating stroke. He would die on February 25, 2006 of cardiovascular disease.
Looking back at his career, and drawing comparisons to Kolchak, McGavin related to the New York Daily News, “In Kolchak I saw a man with a dream like many others in this country today. A man beaten by the stock market, kicked down by his situation, fired from a job, dropped down below his point of acceptance in life and scrambling to get back up. I saw a man who is good in his business and proved he was good through the story he uncovered, yet ended up a failure because he could not publish what he found out. To me, he was like the heroes of the ‘30s. Against all of the sets of conditions he had to face, he was still able to stand up. That kind of a guy is a good hero, I think. It’s the kind we need now. We need some good affirmation of what American ideals are and, despite failure, we must survive.
“Survival,” he observed, “both in my profession and in life, is a significant word to me. It doesn’t have to do with success per se, but with the continuation of work, with the resolution to go on, with the determination to keep the dream alive. By the dream I mean the dream you want for yourself, where you set your sights in life, where you want to go. That’s what I’m talking about.”