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A popular character actor whose talent and charm frequently brought him leading man roles, Darren McGavin was one of the more beloved familiar faces on television. After a turbulent youth, McGavin inadvertently turned to acting and after notable work on stage and television, began making appearances alongside some of film's biggest names like Frank Sinatra "The Man with the Golden Arm" (1955) and Jerry Lewis in "The Delicate Delinquent" (1957). With his rugged good looks and streetwise charisma, McGavin was the perfect choice to play pulp novelist Mickey Spillane's skirt-chasing, hard-living private eye in "Mike Hammer" (syndicated, 1986-59). But it was McGavin's role as the tenacious reporter of the macabre, Carl Kolchak, in the made-for-TV horror movie "The Night Stalker" (ABC, 1972) that would forever endear him to an entire generation of young television viewers. When it became ABC's highest-rated TV movie ever at the time, a sequel and a weekly series, "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" (ABC, 1973-74), were quickly put into production. A decade later, McGavin delivered his second indelible character when he played the curmudgeonly yet loving father of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) in the perennial...
A popular character actor whose talent and charm frequently brought him leading man roles, Darren McGavin was one of the more beloved familiar faces on television. After a turbulent youth, McGavin inadvertently turned to acting and after notable work on stage and television, began making appearances alongside some of film's biggest names like Frank Sinatra "The Man with the Golden Arm" (1955) and Jerry Lewis in "The Delicate Delinquent" (1957). With his rugged good looks and streetwise charisma, McGavin was the perfect choice to play pulp novelist Mickey Spillane's skirt-chasing, hard-living private eye in "Mike Hammer" (syndicated, 1986-59). But it was McGavin's role as the tenacious reporter of the macabre, Carl Kolchak, in the made-for-TV horror movie "The Night Stalker" (ABC, 1972) that would forever endear him to an entire generation of young television viewers. When it became ABC's highest-rated TV movie ever at the time, a sequel and a weekly series, "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" (ABC, 1973-74), were quickly put into production. A decade later, McGavin delivered his second indelible character when he played the curmudgeonly yet loving father of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) in the perennial holiday classic, "A Christmas Story" (1983). So influential was the character of Kolchak in the creation of "The X-Files" (Fox, 1993-2002), that series creator Chris Carter later cast McGavin in a pair of episodes. Blessed with impeccable timing and personality plus, McGavin elevated the quality of each and every project on his impressive résumé.
Born William Lyle Richardson on May 7, 1922 in Spokane, WA, McGavin was the son of Grace Watson and Reed Daniel Richardson. Offering scant details in later interviews about his childhood, he did confirm that his parents divorced while he was still quite young. McGavin's father was apparently either ill-equipped or simply not interested in being a single parent, but at some point the young boy began running away from home, spending time on the streets and avoiding police and social workers. Eventually, he was taken into state custody and it was at the Jessie Dyslin Boys Ranch that McGavin spent his formative years. Fortunately, it was, by his own account, a nurturing environment, one that imbued the youngster with a sense of self-worth. He first discovered the stage in performances at Puyallup High School near Tacoma, where a drama teacher once referred to the boisterous, freckle-faced redhead as "a natural." In need of formal theatrical training, he spent a year at College of the Pacific in Stockton, CA, where he studied dramatics and appeared in a student production of "Lady Windermere's Fan" in 1941. Soon he began traveling between the East and West Coasts, making his official stage debut in an off-Broadway production of "No Rhyme, No Reason" in 1944, followed by mountings of "Volpone" and "Liliom" on the stages of Los Angeles the following year.
In an unconventional manner, typical for McGavin, he made his film debut with a single line in the period drama, "A Song to Remember" (1945). Initially hired to paint sets, McGavin quickly cleaned up and auditioned for director Charles Vidor after catching wind of an open role. Upon winning the part, the actor was recognized by the painting foreman and promptly fired. McGavin had no regrets, though, as his screen career had officially begun. The burgeoning young actor further enhanced his natural abilities by studying his craft with famed acting coach Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and Actors Studio in New York. He made his Broadway debut with a small, uncredited appearance in a 1948 production of "The Old Lady Says No!" followed by increasingly prominent roles on The Great White Way in such notable productions as "Death of a Salesman," "My Three Angels" and "The Rainmaker." Other memorable stage work included several performances in the role of the King of Siam in Rogers and Hammerstein's "The King and I," in which McGavin demonstrated surprisingly strong singing abilities.
After making the rounds on television with dozens of guest-starring roles, McGavin's career began to pick up significant heat when he landed his first series lead on "Crime Photographer" (CBS, 1951-52) as Casey, a hard-driving shutterbug for the fictional Morning Express newspaper. Although the show was short-lived, it effectively demonstrated McGavin's appeal as a tough-talking, two-fisted hero. Mostly known for his roles on TV, he had several impressive appearances in such features as director David Lean's romantic drama, "Summertime" (1955), in which he played a young American painter sharing a rental property with Katharine Hepburn. That same year, he enjoyed the well-earned scorn of audiences everywhere as Frank Sinatra's oily drug dealer in Otto Preminger's "The Man with the Golden Arm" (1955). Back on the small screen, McGavin became the first actor to portray "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" (syndication, 1957-58). The fact that the program also met with a quick demise may not have upset McGavin to any large degree, as he reportedly loathed the brutish, chauvinistic private detective, later admitting that he played the role with his tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Proving he was one of the best unsung straight men in the business, he played a local cop trying to put Jerry Lewis on the straight-and-narrow in the slapstick comedy "The Delicate Delinquent" (1957). The busy actor had a bit more success on his next series, "Riverboat" (NBC, 1959-1961). A sort of nautical Western, the show followed the exploits of Capt. Grey Holden (McGavin) and his crew on the riverboat Enterprise as they had adventures up and down the coastline. Continuing his streak of starring on promising but struggling series, he later turned up as ex-convict David Ross, a jaded private eye on "The Outsider" (NBC, 1968-69). As brief as his stint on the latter was, it did allow McGavin to meet actress Kathie Browne, who would become his second wife in 1969. In the years that followed, the pair became inseparable, collaborating on many of their projects, both in front and behind the cameras.
McGavin clearly enjoyed himself in the role of a woman-chasing secret agent opposite Rosalind Russell in the comedy adventure, "Mrs. Pollifax-Spy" (1971), but it was as a decidedly less glamorous character the following year that the actor would be forever remembered. In the made-for-TV horror movie "The Night Stalker" (ABC, 1972), McGavin played the irascible Carl Kolchak, a newspaper crime reporter who sinks his teeth into a story about a vampire stalking his prey on the neon-lit streets of modern day Las Vegas. Produced by TV horror maestro Dan Curtis and scripted by renowned genre writer Richard Matheson, "The Night Stalker" became the highest-rated movie in ABC's history. A sequel, "The Night Strangler" (ABC, 1973), was aired the following year, with several more installments planned. McGavin, however, preferred to make it a weekly series and one year later, "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" (ABC, 1974-75) premiered. A victim of a notoriously bad time slot, little network promotion, and a rushed production schedule that allowed no time for the polish or perfection the actor sought, the show failed to live up to its promise and was cancelled - much to the relief of a disillusioned and exhausted McGavin - after one season. Nonetheless, the character of Kolchak, eternally dressed in a rumpled seersucker suit, straw pork-pie hat and tennis shoes, doggedly pursuing the horrifying truth that lay in the dark, left an indelible mark on horror fans of all ages. In the eyes of many, McGavin would forever be Kolchak.
McGavin's one and only effort as a feature film director was the little-seen atmospheric thriller, "Run Stranger Run" (1973), starring Ron Howard and featuring Kathie Browne in a supporting role. Despite his inability to land a starring role on a long-running series, McGavin never lacked for work, landing roles in feature films such as the family comedy "No Deposit, No Return" (1976) opposite funnyman Don Knotts and "Airport '77" (1977), in which he worked closely with Hollywood legend Jack Lemmon. McGavin scripted and starred in the zany cult-comedy "Zero to Sixty" (1978), which his wife also produced. In a pair of TV miniseries, he played Gen. George S. Patton in the military biopic "Ike" (ABC, 1979), then appeared as one of the first humans to colonize the Red Planet in the big budget adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" (NBC, 1980). As the 1980s dawned, McGavin increasingly moved to more comedic roles, playing an old-time private investigator with an eager young partner - who possessed the odd ability to shrink in size - on the exceptionally short-lived sitcom "Small & Frye" (CBS, 1983).
While this latest TV misfire was almost immediately forgotten, another of McGavin's projects that same year would once again be seared into the collective psyche of fans for decades to come. Referred to only as "The Old Man," McGavin brought his own unique brand of gruff humor to the dad of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), a young boy growing up in 1940s middle-America whose most fervent desire is to own a Daisy Rough Ryder BB Gun in "A Christmas Story" (1983). Based on the nostalgic anecdotes of screenwriter Jean Shepherd and directed by Bob Clark, the unabashed love letter to small town childhoods of a bygone era initially garnered little attention upon its theatrical release. Over the years that followed, however, "A Christmas Story" became a perennial holiday tradition on television, with generations of fans gathering to watch McGavin hilariously place his "top prize" - a glowing lamp in the form of a woman's stocking-clad leg - in the window of the family home, much to the horror of his wife (Melinda Dillon), or swear incomprehensibly as a pack of neighborhood hounds devoured their Christmas turkey.
A relentless professional, McGavin continued to appear onscreen in supporting roles in a steady stream of films that included the Robert Redford baseball fable "The Natural" (1984), the Timothy Hutton activist drama "Turk 182!" (1985), the Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-'em-up "Raw Deal" (1986), and the schlocky horror-action flick "Dead Heat" (1988). Still a near constant presence on television, he appeared alongside Jason Robards and Kirk Douglas in an acclaimed TV adaptation of "Inherit the Wind" (1988). McGavin later earned an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Star in 1990 for his recurring role as newspaper publisher Bill Brown, Candice Bergen's curmudgeonly father, on the hit sitcom "Murphy Brown" (CBS, 1988-1998). Although his pace gradually slowed during the 1990s, the venerable actor frequently turned up in mainstream material like the broad comedy "Billy Madison" (1995) as man-child Adam Sandler's wealthy father. In interviews, series creator Chris Carter openly acknowledged Carl Kolchak and "The Night Stalker" as formative influences on his hit paranormal mystery series "The X-Files" (Fox, 1993-2002). Consequently, it came as no surprise to fans when McGavin turned up in a pair of episodes as former FBI agent Arthur Dales, the progenitor of the eponymous files. Unfortunately, McGavin's deteriorating health prevented him from making further planned appearances on "The X-Files." By 1999, the actor was effectively retired. In April 2003, he lost his wife Kathie Browne to natural causes. Fittingly, the actor's last onscreen appearance was a digitally-inserted cameo as a reporter who looked suspiciously like 1970s-era Kolchak in the pilot episode of the short-lived reboot of "Night Stalker" (ABC, 2005-06), starring Stuart Townsend in the role of the intrepid reporter. Months later, the 83-year-old McGavin died of natural causes on Feb. 25, 2006.
By Bryce Coleman
Filmographyclose complete filmography
CAST: (feature film)
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