Guest Post: Spotlight on Darren McGavin – Master Character Actor!

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Greetings all and sundry!

After a few weeks of laying low and perusing vicariously the wares of various film festivals supplied by our Hostess, Ruth. I decided to embrace a wave of nostalgia. Break open a fresh set of digging clothes. Brain bucket, miner’s light, tools. And a few carafes of coffee. To plumb a vein of rich material and grist for conversation.

A memorable chunk of time. From the mid 1950s and the just starting to fade glimmers of the Hollywood System in film. And that young upstart and seat stealing entity known as Television. Whose talented and charismatic legions were but cogs in a slightly less than smoothly operating machine. To this new century. Where decades old procedures are firmly ensconced for generating “product”. And the final visualization of countless writers, cinematographers and directors dreams.

To that end, allow me but a few moments of your time to wax nostalgic. As I excavate, investigate and lay bare a few prime examples of honed and polished talent. Presented by a familiar face for anyone born around 1954. And a sizable number beyond:

Darren McGavin: Master Character Actor!

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I’ll allow you a requisite few seconds to scratch your head and allow the “Who”s and “What?”s to die down, Before noting the first time the actor and I crossed paths was while watching Otto Preminger’s then ground breaking The Man With The Golden Arm from 1955.

A neat little back lot drama awash in Skid Row shabbiness and tackling the then, taboo subject of heroin addiction as experienced through Frankie Machine. Two time loser, card sharp known for dealing “seconds”. And would be, wannabe drummer just returned from prison. And brought to life by Frank Sinatra in his return to the big screen after From Here To Eternity.

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The Man With The Golden Arm

Now. Anyone of Mr. Sinatra’s popularity requires a nemesis of equal or greater lousiness and slimy evil. And Mr. McGavin’s drug dealer and low rent pimp with an elegant “Boston Blackie” mustache more than fills the bill. Patient to a fault and quietly mobile. Seeing all sorts of opportunities along filthy streets and dark allies. Nearly invisible and incredibly confident that Mr. Sinatra’s Frankie Machine will screw up sometime soon. And come knocking at his door for a fix.

Though only having about twenty minutes of the film’s 119. Mr. McGavin makes those scenes, secrets, spoilers, revelations (And this film has more than its share!) and moments his own. While allowing his character to thoroughly despised by any and all!

Now, one may ask from whence does such self deprecating talent arise?… Ten solid years of summer stock, stage and traveling Road Shows, Intermixed with just starting out and unnoticed apprenticeship in small, forgotten films. And being one of thousands standing in line to ply their craft and trade in this just burgeoning thing called “Television”.

At the time and more often than not. Stage plays performed before three cameras, And privy to all of the accidents and mishaps that come with the territory of that form of art. While being lucky enough to catch the lead in a two season series, Crime Photographer. Holding court in a New York greasy spoon diner. While regaling reporters of that paper’s Bulldog (Late Night) edition with tales of past adventurous cases. A format that would be returned to decades later in ABC’s Kolchak: The Night Stalker. And latching onto notable performances with Goodyear Television Playhouse offerings of The Witness, Better Than Walking and The Rainmaker.

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Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Then returning to television for two more years of honing and polishing with many of the heavy hitters of the day. Including Alfred Hitchcock, Armstrong Circle Theater, Robert Montgomery Presents and The Alcoa Hour.

Creating a brief margin in time in 1956 and 57 for Mr. McGavin to show off his stoic “Straight Man” abilities opposite Jerry Lewis in The Delicate Delinquent. A Don McGuire directed, Paramount black lot comedy. Notable in its being the first film for Mr. Lewis after breaking up his full spectrum slapstick comedy teamwork with Dean Martin.

Mr. McGavin plays veteran uniform beat cop, Mike Damon. Who comes across klutzy, bumbling janitor, Sidney L. Pythias (Jerry Lewis). Whose building and home in its basement is in the middle of a “No Man’s Land” between warring street gangs. And being conned, cajoled and other wise persuaded to choose a side. Sight gags and pratfall humor abounds in many scenes. Especially in Sidney’s one room efficiency apartment. As Damon befriends Sidney. Tries to get him away and into the Police academy.

Does the film have a script?… Sort of. By director Don McGuire. More of extended set up foresight and other gags. All footed by producer, Mr. Lewis. When not delving into dramatic encounters with Social Worker, Martha Hyer. A decent enough outing. With huge Kudos to Set Decorators Sam Comer and Ray Moyer arranging and executing eye catching time saving Rube Goldberg gimmicks inside Sidney’s digs. And many comedic blackouts and scenes lifted, updated and reused by Woody Allen and his later film, Take The Money And Run.

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The Delicate Delinquent

Then returning to television for several roles in drama in Studio One in Hollywood. And creating a serviceable episodic Mike Hammer for two seasons and 79 episodes in 1958 and 59. Most tales written by Mickey Spillane. Delivering his character in ways Ralph Meeker, Stacy Keach. Spillane himself and Kevin Dobson ( Sgt. Crocker of’ ‘Kojak’) would approve. Though not so much Armand Assante.

Gaining more and more of the spotlight an Mississippi gambler and later Captain Grey Holden in Riverboat. Offset by former stunt man turned actor, Burt Reynolds for 42 hour long episodes in 1959 and 1960.

When not making the rounds of “Bread & Butter”, B&W and color Westerns. Guest stars and recurring television characters during the 1960s in Route 66, Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock, The Defenders, Ben Casey, The Rogues. Dr. Kildare, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible.

And during this time. Some brilliant minds at NBC (Grant Tinker. Mr. Mary Tyler Moore.) and ABC (Aaron Spelling front and center) were kicking around ideas on how to streamline budget, stories and filming times. To make initial and introductory television tales in an Anthology vein more acceptable for future series. And thus the “Pilot” Concept was created.

Where a topic or story with the potential for a series is decided upon. Scripted and cast while locations and back lots are sought out and reserved. To create a ninety minute or two hour introduction while attention is paid to audience feedback. And Voila!. The basis for a future group of tales is in the works for future consumption!

NBC moved first and bet heavily upon a magazine conglomerate. Its rarely seen CEO and Managing Editor and slick investigative reporter (Tony Franciosa) delving into the private diary of a high end Call Girl and escort with Fame Is The Name Of The Game in November of 1966. The very first “Made For Television Movie”. And oil was struck. A boon created. And a niche created for the talents of many, many actors and actresses. In the form of ABC “Movie(s) Of The Week” and “NBC Mystery Movies”.

Darren_TVGuideMr. McGavin among the first front line shock troops. Signing onto veteran ABC and NBC writer and creator, Roy Huggins’ idea for an orphaned released convict delving into Private Investigation (Mr. McGavin as David Ross). Without a gun due to his criminal record. Trying to make ends meet while avoiding cops and friends of friends he might have angered in prison, alike. In the sunny expanses of Los Angeles and its cities, towns, adult playgrounds and “Cultural Retreats” of Venice Beach and Big Sur of the later 1960s in The Outsider. Which returned as an hour long weekly series less than a year later for 26 episodes…. Sounds familiar? It shouldn’t. Mr. Huggins brought back and reinvigorated the same plot line and lateraled the idea to James Garner and hid Cherokee Television Productions. And The Rockford Filers were born. For a six year, 122 episode run. Along with six later television films.

Dipping his Dramatic Tongs back into the Furnace and Billows as disgraced and soon to be facing Court Martial disgraced for alleged “War Crimes” (Dispatching his own enemy “Kill List” of NVA and VC Officers and collecting their sandals for verification on both sides of the DMZ and Laos in ABC’s The Challenge (1970). With Lt. William Calley and “the My Lai Massacre” still thick in the air. Special Operator. Jacob Gallery is given the opportunity to wage a “Surrogate”. Or “One on One” war on a remote Pacific island. Against an equally well trained and talented Peoples Republic Chinese number. Yuro (Mako).

Photo courtesy of Modcinema.com
The Challenge – screencaps courtesy of Modcinema.com

High Stakes and Winner Takes All. With a fallen out of orbit spy satellite deep beneath the ocean being the Grand Prize! Gallery accepts. Gears up with an overloaded rucksack, jungle fatigues, sundry items and a very cool weapons system. Two 9mm Madsen M-50 Sub machine Guns bracketed side by side. Half of it last seen in ‘The Godfather’. And I had originally mistaken for S&W M-76 at first glance (H/T to Michael and IMFDb.org.)


Both soldiers infiltrate by submarine and rubber raft. Are well trained in Pioneering and living off the land. Stalking and ambushes ensue. With small gains made outside their own perimeters. A battle of wits and guile. That stays dormant. Until Yuro finds Gallery’s tree borne base camp and slips a straight edge razor low into the tree’s massive trunk. Just enough for a quick, not felt medium deep wound to become infected and fester below the knee.

As is expected. Both sides watching away from the island cheats. Another Chinese soldier is killed by a very young and fresh faced Sam Elliot. Who, is in turn shot and killed by a suddenly betrayed, Gallery. Setting the stage for a final showdown!

I’ll leave it right here for Spoilers sake.

And move the clock forward only slightly. To a time just after the failed Tet Offensive and siege of Khe Sahn. When the Marine Corp broke long standing tradition through Presidential fiat and began accepting draftees instead of those who volunteer. Not a great time for the Corp. With tales of drug use, race riots and even desertion filtering back eastward across the Pacific. And adding extra impetus for those Masters of Intimidation, Peer Pressure and Fear to inculcate log haired, lackadaisical young men into the Mythos, Mystique and History of the Corps. Before being sent out to fight a war.

That task falls on the shoulders of Drill Instructors Gunnery Sergeant Drake (Mr. McGavin in splendid form!). Aided by a brash and bullying “Good Ol’ Boy”, Staff Sergeant DePayster. (Earl Holliman. Who seems made for the role.) And waste no time belittling and harassing the latest busload of unwary cannon fodder to darken the entrance of the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot, circa early 1968. In Tribes.


A very well written effort from just starting out Tracy Keenan Wynn. Under deft direction from Joseph Sargent. And shot mostly on location. A rather clean cut tale unfolds. With blonde haired, Zen friendly, Hippie, Adrian (Jan Michael Vincent) slowly singles himself out as an outsider. Who doesn’t balk. back or break down in tears. Earning the ire. And later admiration for a very Zen “Mind Over Matter” mindset. If you don’t mind. It don’t matter! Enduring long sessions of PT (Physical Training) which helps break down individuality. And creates the initial building blocks of uniformity, like mindset and instant obedience to the word of God. The D.I..

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Tribes

Drake tries every trick in the book. From seeing how far he can push the brim of his Instructor’s Campaign (Smoky The Bear. For those uninitiated.) Hat just above the bridge of Adrian’s and other slacker’s noses during extended periods of verbal abuse. To standing at Attention. Arms out to the sides at shoulder height to either side. While seeing how long aluminum buckets of sand can be kept aloft before “Boots” (Recruits) collapse. Some tactics work. Some don’t as Drake’s platoon begin to excel in strenuous training, drills and tactics. But remain individuals. With Adrian as their sub rosa leader.

An impasse is sure to happen. Which I’ll keep in my hip pocket.As Mr. McGavin excels in presenting all of the scary elements of a Drill Instructor. With Jack Webb”s rapid fire delivery from his earlier, The D.I. down pat. Offset by far less imaginative, intimidating, vulgar and profane qualities (Television Censors) honed to perfection by R. Lee Ermey in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. While winning a Prime Time Emmy Awards for neophyte Tracy Keenan Wynn and director Joseph Sargent for Outstanding Achievement in Drama-Original Teleplay. And Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Drama. A Single Program among others.

An elusive film nowadays. And well worth the effort of discovery and watching. If you can get past its God Awful theme song!

Garnering Mr. McGavin a bit more credibility and wherewithal to be one of the “Go To Guys” in this new cinematic realm for the next two years. Dropping by NBC’s Hollywood Studio based Bracken’s World. ABC’s “Mobile Shrink”. Matt Lincoln. A return to his earlier Outsider, David Ross character for The Forty Eight Hour Mile and Quinn Martin’s 1930s Los Angeles Private Eye, Banyon United Artists Mrs. Pollifax-Spy. With Rosalind Russell. And NBC/Universal’s The Bold Ones: The Lawyers. Before touching The Holy Grail of episodic television roles in January, 1972 The Night Stalker.

Where Mr. McGavin is given the role on veteran. perpetually down on his luck Las Vegas newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak. Resplendently scruffy in a much used white Seersucker suit. Narrow, uneven tie and woven bamboo Panama Hat. Perpetually on the move. Tracing down leads to offbeat and “Man On The Street” stories. Until stumbling across a secluded Crime Scene. Whose victim seems to have drained of blood!

Weird, right?… Ridiculous?… Absolutely! Yet taken with a grain of salt. With words, mood and setting derived from a screenplay by Richard Matheson. A distinct, eerie, shadowy, vibe courtesy of Producer, Dan Curtis of ABC’s afternoon Gothic Soap Opera, Dark Shadows fame. And under the deft touch of John Llewellyn Moxie. A New Sheriff has just rode into town. As Kolchak follows leads and missed evidence. And starts whittling down rumors between arguments with his boss, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland, Bullitt). On and Off again girlfriend, Gail Foster (Carol Lynley). And a Rogues Gallery of secondary talent. Including Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins and Elisha Cook. Jr. Kolchak get closer to his mysterious nemesis, Janos Skorzeny (Barry Attwater).

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Photo courtesy of Tumblr

A Nielsen Ratings Slam Dunk overnight, by 1972 standards. With more than enough creepy and eerie to offset the occasional humor. And keep an audience coming back for more. Specifically, another 74 minute jaunt a year later. After a shift in locales to Seattle. Where an ancient Alchemist (John Carradine) striving to remain young through the blood of young women in The Night Strangler. And then getting the full blown treatment in Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Moved to Chicago and an independent newspaper. Kolchak uncovers all sorts of explainable, though eerie close to supernatural happenings. Each episode introduced by Kolchak’s voice dictating possibilities and questions into his trademarked portable tape recorder. Pens and notebooks being so passe though useful. Subtly setting up the plot before the actions begins. Then returning for a quick epilogue. In lieu of today’s more cliche “Hugs and Happy Endings”.

The series is also unique in providing an early test bed for mysterious and paranormal activities which would be plunged into more deeply in FOX’s The X Files just shy of two decades later. With Mr. McGavin portraying veteran FBI Agent Arthur Dales. One of the first agents assigned to the files. And impromptu guide and mentor to Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) for two adventures in 1998 and 1999.

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In the interim. Mr. McGavin indulged in a tale of three generations of Irish American NYC cops for NBC. Law & Order (1976). Based on the novel by former detective Dorothy Uhnak. The story is meticulous in 1940s to 1970s flash back details. Where small incidents may grow into major career destroying scandals later on. And what goes on in the day to day workings of police officers. From uniformed beat cop. To plain clothes detectives. To the higher strata where Mr. McGavin’s Deputy Chief Brian O’Malley resides and rides herd. Clocking in at just under two and a half hours. Shot almost entirely on back lots. Directed by Marvin Chomsky. And shown in two parts. The film is a grittier, more virulent version of today’s ‘Blue Bloods’. Though both casts are equally rich and up to the task!


Allowing more time to check in with characters for Mr. McGavin to fill in Airport ’77. Three different heroic characters during the last gasps of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Ike: The War Years. With Mr. McGavin delivering a fairly decent General George S. Patton opposite Robert Duvall’s General Eisenhower, The Martian Chronicles. The far inferior, 1981 William Conrad and Lee Horsley Nero Wolf and Tom Sellick’s Magnum, P.I. Before catching lightning in a bottle again. As Ralphie Parker’s (Peter Billingsley) “Old Man” in Bob Clark’s 1983 multi award winning 1947 centered, A Christmas Story.

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Trailer:


Though Mr. McGavin is not on the screen a lot. And in the majority of those scenes, he’s a secondary character. When he is there. He is GOLD! With just enough back story through young Ralphie’s older voice overs “He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.” and “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.” filling in the gaps. Several have squabbled that Mr. McGavin may have been too old to play the part. While I believe it adds to the wear and tear of Old Man Parker. Whose facial expressions, timing with a gift wrapped bowling ball dropped in his lap. And refusal to verbalize often mentioned profanities is a cool, piquant move. That places this film in the sometimes Marathons of “Holiday Heavy Hitters”. It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas and most recently, Elf.

Not a bad collection of work. 183 roles. With time and money to spare to as Executive Producer for four episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Producer of film, Happy Mother’s day. Love George in the early 1970s. Cranking out the screen play for Zero To Sixty and the Documentary, American Reunion a few years later. And arranging the soundtrack for the TV movie, The Night Stalker.


Overall Consensus:

Yes, I may have gone a bit long in this dissertation. Though considering the talents, consistent availability and superb luck and timing through the progression of cinematic and trail blazing and cost cutting improvements. Consistently working and turning in memorable performance in roles small to large. Contentedly staying in the realm of television. Though always available for the larger screen and delivering more than asked for required.

All in all. The definition of A Character Actor!


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