If you were Jerry Lewis in 1956, he odds are pretty strong you’d still be trying to wrap your head around the fact that your 10-year partnership with Dean Martin had come to an end. But to deal with whatever he was feeling, he forced himself back into work and his first film as a solo star, The Delicate Delinquent, and was seeking someone to step into Dean’s considerable shoes. In a conversation with Hedda Hopper, the biggest and most influential gossip columnist of the time, he announced that he’d found his man in the form of Darren McGavin.
“I’m terribly excited about him,” he told Hopper. “Saw his face on a player’s directory, phoned him, liked him. Then I learned he’d played in The Rainmaker on TV, also on Broadway. He was the dope pusher in The Man with the Golden Arm with Frank Sinatra. Mark my words, he’s going to be one of our finest stars.”
Hopefully those words were indeed marked, because it wouldn’t be long before McGavin proved him right. Whether he was continuing his acclaimed roles on Broadway, hunting vampires as reporter Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker (which inspired Chris Carter to create The X-Files) or playing the “Old Man,” oh-so-excited about winning “a major award” in A Christmas Story, he was always memorable.
Journalist Mark Dawidziak, author of The Night Stalker Companion: A 25th Anniversary Tribute and The Columbo Phile, among many others, opines, “McGavin was an actor of great energy, imagination and versatility. He was capable of touching our hearts in so many profound ways. If you want proof, check out the 1970 TV movie Tribes in which he plays a tough-as-nails Marine drill instructor confronted with a maverick recruit. It’s yet another stunning performance in a long and remarkable career. You want versatility? Watch Tribes, then The Night Stalker, then A Christmas Story, then The Natural, which features McGavin as shady gambler Gus Sands. And that’s just four of his best roles.”