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Soldiering on: Darren McGavin (1922-2006)

Bill Gibron

Darren McGavin's life ended much as he lived his early years, shrouded in mystery.

PopMatters Film and TV Columns Editor

Darren McGavin defied description. Throughout a career that spanned five decades, he played a hard-boiled detective, ace investigative reporter, dapper drug pusher and curmudgeonly father. Showing such range, McGavin remained an enigma until his death from natural causes at 83 on 26 February. His passing seemed sudden and shocking, like the loss of a good friend you'd just spoken to the day before.

This makes it all the more surprising to learn that much of McGavin's early life is clouded in rumor and speculations. By all accounts, he was born on 7 May 1922. Beyond that, details are sketchy: he said he was a runaway, abandoned by his parents before he reached 10 years of age, that he lived in warehouses near Spokane, Washington, which he claimed as his birthplace (some sources list his hometown as San Joaquin, California). He lasted a year at the College of the Pacific. In 1944 he married Melanie York, with whom he had four children before their divorce in 1969. That same year, he married Kathie Brown, and they remained together until her death in 2003.

Painting scenery for Columbia Pictures, McGavin heard of a role opening up on the lot. He left his post, met up with his agent at the front gate, and auditioned. Though his performance as "Student" in A Song to Remember (1945) was uncredited, it was McGavin's first taste of "Hollywood." Several other insignificant roles came his way before he left for New York to study at the Neighborhood Theater and the prestigious Actor's Studio. He found parts in off-Broadway productions and with a National touring company of Death of a Salesman.

But television beckoned. Within months, McGavin was starring in a dramatic series, 1951's Crime Photographer, and throughout the '50s and '60s, he juggled small screen work with occasional big screen roles. He played opposite Jerry Lewis in his first film sans Dean Martin, The Delicate Delinquent (1957). When Frank Sinatra beat out Marlon Brando for the role of an ex-con heroin addict in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), McGavin played the villainous pusher Louie. On television, he played Mickey Spillane's tough-talking gumshoe in Mike Hammer (1958), then went from the gritty streets to the waterways of middle America when he starred as the captain of a 19th-century steamer in the western/adventure Riverboat (1959).

McGavin hated much of his time on the Spillane show, re-envisioning the hard-drinking detective as a campy, almost comic character. On Riverboat, he reportedly feuded with costar Burt Reynolds over attention and salary. When Riverboat started to sink in the ratings, he researched the subject and offered his own considered opinions on how to save it. NBC ignored his advice, and eventually, the show failed.

In 1968, when the PI series The Outsider flopped, he decided to reassess the business. He could either be blackballed as an on-set agitator, or soldier on as a working actor. He chose to work, appearing in dozens of episodic dramas during the late '60s and into the '70s. Occasionally, he would stick around for a multi-part story arc (as with his turn as Felix Holman on Dr. Kildaire) or leave a memorable impression (on Mission: Impossible).

At last Dan Curtis, flush from Dark Shadows, offered McGavin a chance to star in his TV movie adaptation of The Kolchak Papers. Retitled The Night Stalker (1972), the story of an intrepid reporter battling forces of supernatural origin was a broadcast sensation, becoming the highest rated TV movie of its time. A sequel, The Night Strangler (1973), met with similar success.

Though Universal suggested a series, McGavin wasn't eager to reprise his role. He wanted control, and clashed with producers on the direction of the series. Kolchak: The Night Stalker arrived in homes as part of the 1975-'76 fall schedule, but it garnered few, though devoted, fans. The series left out the mystery and horror that made the movies such smashes, and McGavin appeared uncomfortable. The series died quickly.

While he was pleased that Chris Carter name-checked Stalker as the inspiration for The X-Files (the actor would eventually guest star), McGavin never returned to a regular TV gig. He turned up occasionally, receiving an Emmy nod for playing Murphy Brown's father, Bill, and played the Old Man in A Christmas Story (1983). In 1999, he became another memorable dad when he became Frank Black's father on another Carter series, Millennium. That same year, he had a near fatal stroke, more or less ending his acting career. Though he wanted to continue working, his failing health would not let him.

Darren McGavin's life ended much as he lived his early years, shrouded in mystery. There were stories of comebacks and near fatal physical setbacks. When ABC created a new version of Night Stalker, buzz circulated that the original Kolchak would be back, in a cameo appearance. But that was nothing more than a digital mash-up, old footage from the '70s spliced into the moody redux. Even in this form, McGavin was instantly identifiable. His performances on screen always seemed open and obvious. Privately, he remained unknown.

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