Prolifici character actor Darren McGavin died of natural causes in Los Angeles this weekend. He was eighty-three.
Although he appeared in numerous movies and television shows (including a 1950s MIKE HAMMER TV show), he was no doubt best known for his starring role in the THE NIGHT STALKER, a made-for-television movie that spawned a sequel and a short-lived series. He also earned an Emmy nomination for playign Candice Bergen’s father on MURPHY BROWN. He appeared in such films as A CHIRSTMAS STORY, THE NATURAL, and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM.
In later years, he traded on his NIGHT STALKER fame by making cameo appearances on THE X-FILES, another “monster of the week” show, playing an old, retired FBI agent who told Mulder of his past exploits (the flashback structure allowed the character to be played for a younger actor for most of the episode, with McGavin providing voice-over narration — an element prominently featured in THE NIGHT STALKER).
The original 1972 NIGHT STALKER film, scripted by veteran fantasy author Richard Matheson from a novel by Jeff Rice, was the most highest rated made-for-TV movie up to that time. It featured McGavin as a reporter in Las Vegas tracking a serial killer who turns out to be a vampire; in the end, an embarrassed policement suppresses the story.
McGavin contributed a lot to the role. The character in the book is less sympathetic — a bit of a self-pitying drunk. McGavin chose to play him as an old-fashioned reporter who dressed terribly out of date but didnt’ seem to notice that fashion had passed him by.
The success of THE NIGHT STALKER led to a sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, which recreated the formula of the first film: reporter Carl Kolchak tracks a serial killer who turns out to be a supernatural immortal; along the way, he argues a lot with the police and with his newspaper editor Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland).
This formula was recreated in the one-hour series, which ran for a single season. Each week, Kolchak uncovered a new monster on the loose; the police deny its existence, and his editor tells him to stop pursuing fairy tales. In fact, the formala was so rigid that each episode was practically a remake of every other episode, the only difference being the details of how to kill the monster. Nevertheless, the series was a decently entertaining excursion into horror during an era when there was little if any on television. And McGavin’s charm made the character of Kolchak worth viewing.
One interesting piece of trivia: In the original tele-film, the title “The Night Stalker” referred to the vampire Janos Skorzeny. In the manner of the old THIN MAN mysteries starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, by the time of the television series, the title came to refer to McGavin’s reporter (the full title of the show was KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER).
I only had the opportunity of meeting McGavin once, on the set of DEAD HEAT, a 1988 film that tried to cobmine the buddy-cop genre with zombies. It was sort of a take-off on this classic film noir D.O.A., in which a detective is stricken with a slow-acting poison and has a limited time to solve his own murder; in DEAD HEAT, the detective (Treat Williams) is actually dead and trying to solve his murder before he decomposes.
In a cast that also included Joe Piscopo, Vincent Price, and Keye Luke, McGavin played the villain of the piece, who was using some scientific process to bring dead criminals back to life and have them rob banks. I got a chance to interview him, but he seemed tired and uncommunicative, and the result was pretty much unusuable. I think McGavin was one of those actors who enjoyed doing his job, like a professional craftsman, but didn’t necessarily want to analyse it. He was just one of those dependable stalwarts who would always be relied upon to delivery a solid performance; even if (as in the case of DEAD HEAT), the project itself turned out to be a bit of a dud, he managed to be good in it.