Not bad for someone who didn’t envision a career for himself as a performer. “Ever since I was a kid,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1958, “I wanted to do something out of the ordinary. I was 20 when I got my start in the entertainment profession. Not as an actor, but as a scenic artist. I was stand-by painter and was permitted on the set while they were working. I was fascinated. Someone asked, ‘Why don’t you try acting?’ I thought about it, went to an agent and three days later I was back on the same set acting instead of painting.”
He was born William Lyle Richardson on May 7, 1922 in Spokane, Washington. His parents divorced when he was 11, impacting his life in some pretty serious ways. For starters, his father — through what he called “quirks in the court system” — ended up with custody of him. “He was a marvelous man,” McGavin told author Peggy Herz for her 1975 book TV Close-Ups, “but he was a traveling salesman. He put me in a Catholic boarding school and I went from there to various foster homes. Those years weren’t terribly happy, but that first summer after the divorce wasn’t so bad. I spent it living with a band of Indians on the Nisqually River in Washington.” Lots of running away would take place, though eventually he’d end up at the ranch his remarried mother was living on.
Life settled down a bit as he attended high school and, upon graduation, college. “It was primarily an agricultural school with courses in animal husbandry, crop rotation and so on,” he told Herz, “so I took mechanical drawing instead. I decided I wanted to be an architect. I studied mostly drafting and engineering, which led me to acting. My English teacher also taught drama.
“One day,” he continued, “she came to me and said she needed a good draftsman to help with scenery for the spring play. I didn’t even know what scenery was. She took me to the back of the stage and showed me the flats. I said, ‘Oh, they’re fake walls. Sure, I can do that.’ I went back to drafting class and went to work. I was pretty good and I stayed after school to build the scenery. I graduated from high school without knowing anything about English grammar or math, but I learned about scenery.”
From there he enrolled at Stockton, California’s Pacific University so that he could get the appropriate training for architecture, but things once again took a left turn when he thought he was going right: a local theater group asked if he could build scenery for them and as he watched was going on, he asked if he could have a part in the show if he built the scenery. When asked if he would build it even if he wasn’t, he responded no. Needless to say, he had a part, which he enjoyed.
As noted earlier, it was while doing scenery work that McGavin scored his first role — ultimately uncredited — in 1945’s A Song to Remember. And the experience made one thing absolutely clear to him: “I didn’t know my elbow from my tail bone when it came to acting,” he told The Los Angeles Times. “So I began studying at the Actor’s Lab [in California]. Those were the cold years. I didn’t have much luck in Hollywood, so I moved to New York. There’s a city where an actor has to do nearly everything himself. Out here in the West, you complain to an agent. In the East, you do your own pushing.”
In 1968, the Valley Times of Hollywood, California offered up a profile of the actor, noting, “The young Irishman packed his one suitcase and left for New York. After the classic struggle and dozens of part-time jobs to survive, he was admitted to the famed Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse. That ended shortly thereafter when he and Meisner proved exasperating to each other and McGavin was dis-enrolled. But he joined the Actor’s Studio under the tutelage of Lee Strasberg and soon began landing live television roles in all of the top original playhouse dramas. In the next five years he starred and co-starred in over 100 live shows — just one of the many reasons that today Darren McGavin finds acting easy.”
And through it all he was filled with a drive to succeed, telling the Daily Independent, “I’d go insane if I’m not working. A long time ago when I couldn’t get a job in New York, I learned something important. You are an actor only when you’re working. When you’re not acting, you’re unemployed. Nothing.”
And work he did, on all of those live television shows, more uncredited roles in five more films (as “Paratrooper,” “Tech Sergeant,” “The Kid — Soldier in Hospital,” “Blonde Student” and “Blind Mechanic”) before he had a more substantial role as “Dan” in 1951’s Queen for a Day. More importantly, he found his true passion on the stage.
Between 1949 and 1994 he appeared in a touring production of Death of a Salesman (as Happy Lohman) and in My 3 Angels (1954), The Rainmaker (1955), The Innkeepers (1956), The Lovers (1956), The Tunnel of Love (1956), Two for the Seesaw (1959), Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole (1961), A Thousand Clowns (1964), The King and I (1966), Dinner at Eight (1967) and Greetings (1993 to 1994).
He would also learn that while his heart was on the stage, television absolutely paid the bills. And despite his best efforts, besides guest starring roles over the years he found himself starring in a number of series.
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.”
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!”
McGavin’s next series was The Outsider, which aired on NBC from 1968 to 1969. He portrays an ex-con named David Ross who spent six years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Once he’s freed, he becomes a private detective to deal with his own issues as well as those of his clients. When the media tried to draw parallels between David Ross and Mike Hammer, the actor expressed, “Hammer was close to a superman; a cold, hard individual without much capacity for emotion. I enjoyed portraying him from the standpoint that I could pull out all the stops. Ross is an entirely different type. He’s a loner, because of a bitter past fraught with obstacles and social alienation. Ross can be emotionally hurt, yet he’s still tough. But I think Ross is a much more ‘human’ character than Hammer ever was.” Unfortunately, the audience didn’t go for it the same way they had his take on Spillane’s character.
After The Outsider, McGavin continued shifting back and forth between guest star appearances and a new form in the medium of growing prominence, the TV movie, which took off in a big way. Michael McKenna, author of The ABC Movie of the Week: Big Movies for the Small Screen, points out, “It isn’t long before TV movies become a consistent moneymaker and ratings grabber, and it starts to become a genre for all the networks, some sooner than later.”
“The other thing about the TV movie is that it gave people who were in regular-running TV series something of a second career. You always see the most familiar faces on television, because they are recognizable. You know, the audience watches a clip and they say, ‘Oh, Lou Grant is in a TV movie. I’m going to watch that.’ So it does become very insular in a way. For example, there’s a TV movie in 1971 called Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring and it stars Sally Field as a young girl who runs away with her hippie boyfriend to a commune. The reviews noted that people would tune in to see Sally Field be a hippie and a bit of a drug user when they had known her for Gidget and The Flying Nun.”
So where does Darren McGavin fit in?
“Darren McGavin made some really remarkable movies of the week,” states McKenna. “First of all, he’s in The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler as reporter Carl Kolchak who goes up against a vampire. In another movie called Tribes, he plays a drill instructor and Jan Michael Vincent is a hippie who ends up being drafted and sent to Marine boot camp. It’s really good, because it gets into the generation gap and the culture of the time. But then Darren McGavin is also in the original Six Million Dollar Man movie and he’s the sergeant in The Rookies, which also goes to series. On top of that, in a movie called The Challenge he plays some type of mercenary who has single warrior combat on an island to decide some Cold War dispute. So he’s got a fairly remarkable career on The Movie of the Week.”
There is no question that Darren McGavin created a wide variety of characters over the course of his career, many of them memorable. As noted earlier, “The Old Man” in A Christmas Story is a good example. But there are certain roles that actors seem to have been born to play and the thing is, no matter what else they do, they will always be remembered for that part. Sean Connery had James Bond, Christopher Reeve had Superman and McGavin had reporter Carl Kolchak, who was at the center of the 1972 Movie of the Week, The Night Stalker.
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.”
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.”