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Classic TV

Darren McGavin: ‘Kolchak’ to ‘A Christmas Story,’ 10 of His Most Famous Roles

Through his 50-year career on stage, the big screen and television, the actor proved to be one-of-a-kind

It was 50 years ago that actor Darren McGavin did his part in terrifying TV viewers with the arrival of the television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. And while it was a part that became inextricably linked to the actor of film, stage and TV, it was only one character that he so memorably brought to life (portraying “The Old Man” in A Christmas Story being just one other).

Born William Lyle Richardson on May 7, 1922 in Spokane, Washington, he got his start in show business working as a scenic artist and then, following a suggestion that he give acting a shot, three days later he was performing on the sets he had actually worked on.

The Valley Times of California offered up a look at the actor in 1968, and described his journey to stardom this way: “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.”

Darren McGavin and Jerry Lewis
Darren McGavin as Mike Damon, Jerry Lewis as Sidney Pythias in the 1957 film The Delicate DelinquentGetty

Live television anthologies in the 1950s and early 1960s — and McGavin did more many of them — proved to be a tremendous training ground for many actors who took their craft seriously. And all of it just filled him with the desire to push further. “I’d go insane if I’m not working,” he said. “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 actually working. If you’re not acting, you’re unemployed and nothing.”

That didn’t seem to be a problem.

Throughout his career, there were 12 stage shows between 1949’s Death of a Salesman and 1993’s Greetings; 45 movies between 1945’s A Song to Remember and 1999’s Pros and Cons; and 140 television appearances in TV movies, guest starring roles and his own series between 1949’s Mr. I-Magination and a 1999 episode of The X-Files 50 years later. Based on his own views, since he was acting and he was constantly employed, he was definitely something.

What follows is a look back at 10 of Darren McGavin’s memorable roles.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1958 to 1959 TV Series)

Darren McGavin in Mike Hammer
Darren McGavin in Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in 1958©Revus Studios

Despite enjoying success on the stage, Darren McGavin was one of those actors who would happily go where the work was. When it came to television, he had starred in the 1951 to 1952 series Casey, Crime Photographer, a reporter for The Morning Express of New York who helped the police solve crimes.

Then, in 1958, he signed on for 78 episodes of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, portraying the author’s famous private detective. Although he received good critical notices for his portrayal, he himself was not a fan of the show, explaining to the San Francisco Examiner at the time, “In the 30-minute format, you either sacrifice plot for character and mood, or character and mood for plot. In the Hammer show, we sacrifice everything for plot on theory that the characters are well known.”

He would follow Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer with 1959 to 1961’s Riverboat, on which (in the first season) he would co-star with Burt Reynolds.

The Outsider (1968 to 1970 TV Series)

Darren McGavin in The Ousider
Darren McGavin in The Outsider, 1968©NBCUniversal/IMDb

Airing on NBC from 1968 to 1969, Darren McGavin played a private detective of a very different kind from Mike Hammer. This time he’s ex-con David Ross, who had been spent to prison for six years for a murder he didn’t commit. He becomes a private detective to help his clients deal with their issues, allowing him to deal with his own along the way. The show lasted a single season of 26 episodes.

Tribes (1970 TV Movie)

Darren McGavin and Jan-Michael Vincent
Darren McGavin and Jan-Michael Vincent in 1970’s Tribes©ABC/IMDb

Michael McKenna’s book The ABC Movie of the Week: Big Movies for the Small Screen charts the rise and success of made-for-TV movies in the 1970s. Insofar as Darren McGavin is concerned, McKenna notes that the actor made some “remarkable” films, both The Outsiders and The Night Stalker (more on that shortly) becoming series.

He also points to 1970’s Tribes in which he co-stars with Jan-Michael Vincent as a prime example. “McGavin plays a drill instructor,” he says, “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 culture of the time.”

The Six Million Dollar Man (1973 TV Pilot)

Lee Majors and Darren McGavin
Lee Majors and Darren McGavin in the 1973 pilot for The Six Million Dollar Man©NBCUniversal/IMDb

The Six Million Dollar Man was one of the big hits of the 1970s, and it, too, began as a TV movie that was so popular that it spawned a series. Anyone who has watched the show, knows that Lee Majors is former astronaut Steve Austin, who, survives a horrible accident and in the process is transformed into a bionic man, whose abilities are put to use by the government. Co-starring on the show is Richard Anderson as his boss at the OSI, Oscar Goldman.

But as originally conceived, Darren McGavin was in the role of Oliver Spencer, a cold-hearted man forced to walk with a cane who would prefer to keep Austin asleep between assignments (but is overruled). What’s interesting is that at the end of the movie there’s a moment that suggests relations would thaw in the future between the characters.

(RELATED: Head to our sister site for ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ Cast: What Happened After the 1970s Bionics)

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974 to 1975 TV Series)

Darren McGavin
Darren McGavin as reporter Carl Kolchak in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, 1974©NBCUniversal/courtesy

The odds are that most people who remember Carl Kolchak these days, do so largely through the single season (1974 to 1975) television series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. He actually first played the down-on-his-luck reporter in the 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker, in which Kolchak investigates a series of murders in Las Vegas and finds that it’s the work of vampire Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater).

So popular was the film that it spawned the 1973 sequel The Night Strangler and then the weekly show, which saw Kolchak going up against different supernatural threats each week.

Peter Falk and Darren McGavin
Peter Falk as Columbo and Darren McGavin as Kolchak in the 1970sL-R: ©NBCUniversal

Kolchak is, without doubt, Darren McGavin’s most popular character, the two of them going together in the same way that Peter Falk’s Columbo does. “Columbo and Kolchak have a lot in common,” offers author Mark Dawidziak, who has written companion books for both characters. “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.

Dawidziak continues, “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.”

Tom Skerritt and Darren McGavin
Tom Skerritt and Darren McGavin in an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker©NBCUniversal/courtesy

He also feels that what Darren McGavin did was to take Kolchak as created by Jeff Rice and merged it with his own personality. “As a result,” Dawidizak says, “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.”

Kolchak: The Night Stalker is currently streaming on Peacock.

Small & Frye (1983 TV Series)

Darren McGavin and Jack Blessing
Darren McGavin and Jack Blessing in Small & Frye©Disney/IMDb

At least Kolchak: The Night Stalker got 20 episodes. Darren McGavin’s next series was Small & Frye, which only lasted six. In it, he and Jack Blessing play the show’s title detectives, though Blessing’s was a little bit different than you might expect: a bizarre experiment transforms him in the sense that he has the ability (albeit one he can’t control) to shrink to six inches in height. The show didn’t make much of an impression, but McGavin, as always, did.

A Christmas Story (1983 Film)

Cast of A Christmas Story, 1993
Cast of 1993’s A Christmas Story©MGM/courtesy

Next to Kolchak, it would be difficult to point to a Darren McGavin role that has had more of an impact than his role as “The Old Man” in perennial holiday favorite, A Christmas Story. Set in the 1940s, young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) is doing his best to convince mom and dad (played by McGavin and the late Melinda Dillon), Santa Claus and anyone who will listen that life cannot go on unless he gets his hands on a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. What the film does so wonderfully is capture the era as well as a strong family dynamic.

The Hanford Sentinel did a retrospective on it in 2003, saying of 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 Natural (1984 Film)

Darren McGavin in The Natural
Darren McGavin in 1984’s The Natural, which he didn’t take credit for©TriStar Pictures/IMDb

Robert Redford portrays Roy Hobbs, someone with “natural” baseball talent, the film chronicling his career. Darren McGavin, who went uncredited (the reasons for it aren’t exactly clear), portrayed gambler Gus Sands to much acclaim. The actor gave an interview to The Californian, pointing out that actors who have had longevity in the industry seek out roles that will give them personal satisfaction above everything else.

“The business of show business,” he said, “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.”

Murphy Brown (1989 to 1992 TV Series Recurring Role)

Candice Bergen's Murphy Brown with her estranged father
Darren McGavin and Candice Bergen. He appeared in four episodes of Murphy Brown between 1989 and 1992©CBS/IMDb

A perfect example of quality over quantity: Darren McGavin appeared in only four episodes of the Candice Bergen sitcom Murphy Brown, but made a hell of an impression. He portrayed Murphy’s estranged dad, Bill Brown, a newspaper publisher. McGavin’s performance really enlightened the Murphy character, and earned him an Emmy nomination in 1990.

Billy Madison (1995 Film)

Billy Madison
Adam Sandler and Darren McGavin in 1995’s Billy Madison©Universal Pictures/IMDb

Typical Adam Sandler silliness in Billy Madison, but what this film has that his others do not is Darren McGavin. This time he’s the father of Adam’s Billy character, hotel magnate Brian Madison, who’s tired of his son’s lack of direction in life and gives him an ultimatum: because Brian got Billy through school with a variety of bribes and influence, he demands that his son retake and pass every grade in just 24 weeks or the hotel business will be turned over to somebody else. Let the insanity begin.

In Darren McGavin’s Private Life …

Darren and wife Kathy Browne
American actress Kathie Browne (1930 – 2003) and American actor Darren McGavin (1922 – 2006) attend an event circa 1988 Getty

Following Billy Madison, Darren McGavin appeared in the films Small Town (1996), Pros and Cons (1999) and Still Waters Burn (2008, though it was filmed in 1996); and his final TV role was as Arthur Dale in two episodes of The X-Files, which series creator Chris Carter claims was inspired by Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Carl Kolchak, his most famous role
Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak©NBCUniversal/courtesy

McGavin was married to Anita Williams from 1942 to 1943, Melanie York from 1944 to 1969, and actress Kathie Browne from 1969 until her death in 2003; and had four children. He died on February 25, 2006 of cardiovascular disease at the age of 83.

Interestingly, the actor offered up his personal view of life, both professionally and personally, to the New York Daily News, saying it was all about survival. “That’s a significant word to me,” he said. “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.”

Enjoy further trips to classic TV of the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s

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