Monday, February 27, 2006

Farewell Carl Kolchak; Farewell Barney Fife

It's with a heavy heart that I write that American television lost two of its greatest actors over the weekends, actors Darren McGavin and Don Knotts, both in their early eighties. These actors gave audiences, nay generations of audiences hours of joy, happiness, and laughs. Their considerable bodies of work live after them, and we know their families will miss them.

I'm going to start with Darren McGavin since this blog usually focuses on horror and sci-fi. This remarkable actor played so many great parts during his long and distinguished career (including private dick Mike Hammer; a series from the 1950s that was condemned for being overly violent...), yet it is for the one-of-a-kind role of Carl Kolchak - that dogged reporter and hunter of things supernatural - that this author will always remember him.

What an odd (and distinctive) bird Carl Kolchak was, in his bright white running shoes (which he wore to catch a good story...), his tatty old hat and seersucker suit. I loved how McGavin, as Kolchak, in the series credits for Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75) would stroll into his run-down office at the INS, whistling a cheery tune...oblivious. Then, as he approached his desk, he'd toss his hat toward the far wall, as if there were a hook there to hang it on. There wasn't, and the hat just hit the floor. But Karl didn't seem to notice, or get bothered by that.

That was a wonderful, individual touch that spoke volumes about the character, and how he viewed his world. There was part of Kolchak who always wanted to return to the world of The New York Times or The Washington Post, - where reporters doubtlessly merited office hat racks - but the pesky truth kept getting in his way. The New York Times didn't want to hear about succubi or werewolves or zombies or vampires, that was for sure.

Mr. McGavin always brought a charming bluster, good humor and fly-in-the-ointment quality to Kolchak. Carl was forever the little man fighting city hall (in the post-Watergate era). My favorite scenes on the short-lived program inevitably involved Kolchak going toe-to-toe with an officious cop or political figure at a press conference. No matter whom he faced, Kolchak would never back down, never soft-pedal the truth...even if it could get him ejected from the event, thrown in jail, or on occasion, roughed up. My secret dream was always to see Carl Kolchak go one-on-one with Scott McClellan or Ari Fleischer in a Presidential Press Briefing. By God, then we'd either get some straight answers, and those guys would be forever "revealed" as dissemblers and apologists.

As we saw recently with the ill-fated remake, not just anybody can play Carl Kolchak. Mr. McGavin inhabited that unique, memorable character in a special way few actors manage today. In our modern culture, we're consumed with the idea of giving characters "back story," and "angst" and the like, but back in the days of the original Kolchak, McGavin created a memorable and individual personality without benefit of such trite writers' hooks. In the process, he made the man a legend.

I watched Kolchak: The Night Stalker again when it was released on DVD late last year, and it holds up well, thirty years later. My wife, Kathryn, had never watched the series before, and she fell madly in love with the show; much more than I expected. She couldn't wait to watch the next episode and judged - quite correctly, I think - that the series was always more about human nature (often, very funny human nature...), than about the monster of the week. So - yeah - the monster costumes may be dated, but McGavin's zeal in that role has prevented the show from aging a day. It's still relevant in today's world. It's easy to see why the actor had such a love affair with the part.

Here's a snippet from an obituary for Mr McGavin by Martin Weil at The Washington Post:

In the "Night Stalker" series, Mr. McGavin wore a porkpie hat to play reporter Carl Kolchak, who revealed the occult forces behind the reality of the Chicago streets. Mr. McGavin is widely remembered as the father in 1983's "A Christmas Story," a classic that reappears every year during the holiday season.

He was also Mike Hammer, the embodiment of the hard-nosed private eye, in the series based on the Mickey Spillane novels.

In dozens of roles in made-for-TV movies, in series, or in episodes of series, Mr. McGavin appeared cynical or curmudgeonly. But even if he was a grouch, he was frequently a grouch with a glint in his eye.

York McGavin said last night that the irascible on-screen figure was not the father he knew. He said, however, that his father was a professional who knew what was demanded of him, "took great pride in his craft" and came to work prepared.

And this, from The New York Times (in a piece by Nadine Brozan):

Spanning almost seven decades, his versatile career took him from "Macbeth" to "Marcus Welby M.D." He played General George S. Patton in the television biography "Ike" and appeared recently in "The "X Files," a show said to have been inspired by "The Night Stalker." He won an Emmy Award in 1990 for playing Candice Bergen's father in "Murphy Brown." He also was the voice for a time on Budweiser's "This Bud's for You" commercials.

I received an e-mail from my friend and fellow McGavin admirer, Howard Margolin - the host of Destinies: the Voice of Science Fiction, yesterday, making me aware of Mr. McGavin's passing. I was devastated by the loss, and then - suddenly - saddened all over again to learn that Don Knotts had passed away as well. It was a bad, bad weekend for cult TV lovers.

Mr. Knotts will always be remembered for The Andy Griffith Show, and the role of a lifetime, bumbler deputy Barney Fife. Even the name "Barney Fife" has come into the cultural lexicon as a short-hand reference to an inept cop. Knotts made that self-important but ultimately sweet character his own, and here in North Carolina, he (and Griffith too) are positively revered for their time in Mayberry. And with good reason.

Yet, growing up in New Jersey - far from Mayberry, my first acquaintance with Don Knotts' came through some childrens' movies he made for Walt Disney Studios in the 1970s, The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975) and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979).

I also always watched Mr. Knotts TV work on the jiggle-fest Three's Company. He played Mr. Furley, the building landlord, in the final years (1979-84) of that John Ritter sitcom, after the Ropers left the series. Even there, in that disco era relic (and even garbed in the most ridiculous 70s-style outfits imaginable), Knotts was incredibly funny. I'll never forget some of the comedic facial expressions he produced in that part. They were, to use an overrused term - classic.

In the genre, Don Knotts made a name for himself in some ridiculous comedies from the 1960s too, including The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966) and The Reluctant Astronaut (1967). Those movies all boast a cult following, even today.

This is from The New York Times piece on Mr. Knotts, by Virginia Heffernan:

He was a generous performer who liked to share the stage, and he thrived in duets, teams, variety shows, ensembles. Back in New York, he noticed a man whose hands shook and who spilled water; he combined that with Robert Benchley's famous apologetic speaker from the monologue "Treasurer's Report," and the nervous character, who went on to fame on "The Steve Allen Show," was born. Mr. Knotts plainly stole stuff, and other comics didn't mind lending him material. He was wonderfully unthreatening to other male comics, all of whom could think of themselves as one step closer to leading men than Mr. Knotts was. It's hard to think of an actor, in fact, who got more helping hands than Mr. Knotts in his early days. Male actors were forever offering him parts, trying to get him to join their acts. Sharing the stage with this skinny, spazzy guy could only make them look more commanding.

Among these mentors was Andy Griffith, whom he met when they were both cast in the play "No Time for Sergeants" in 1955. Mr. Griffith and Mr. Knotts cracked each other up. A few years later, when Mr. Knotts proposed himself as a deputy to Andy Taylor on Mr. Griffith's sitcom, Mr. Griffith went for it. Andy's crinkly, deep-set eyes conveyed calm and sagacity, while Barney's popped ones expressed pure anxiety and something akin to horror at the demands of ordinary life.

Mr. Knotts's popular movies, "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," "The Incredible Mr. Limpet," "The Reluctant Astronaut" and "The Shakiest Gun in the West," put him on a winning streak. To comedy geeks, especially the preteen kind, his send-up of 60's superheroism came as a delight and a relief.

Hollywood, the movie and TV world, and most of all, audiences, are truly going to miss Darren McGavin and Don Knotts. They were - purely and simply - the best. This blog wishes their respective families well during a difficult time of grief, and mourns with them.


  1. Darren McGavin was FABULOUS in the incredibly underrated mini-series THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1980) starring Rock Hudson. This is my favorite TV mini-series of all time!!!) Worth getting on DVD!!! (Trivia Note: Part 1 of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES premiered the same night as GALACTICA: 1980-"Galactica Discovers Earth"-Part 1)---Take care!--FRED

  2. Anonymous11:34 AM

    I have to admit that I have never seen any episodes of Kolchak and I have never understood the appeal of A Christmas Story. I am sad though to hear about the death of a great character actor from an era when it was ok to have adults as leads on TV shows. I would love for a show nowadays to have a lead this charismatic.

    Don Knotts, I am much more familiar with. I used to watch Andy Griffith every day when I was a kid. I love silly slapstick humor and he was a master of it. Barney Fife is one of the greatest characters in American TV history. He will be missed as well.

    This past week also saw the death of Paul Carr. He is best known for playinf Lt. Lee Kelso in "Where No man Has Gone Before." I hate to see us losing all of these people.


  3. It's sad to lose both Mr. Knotts and Mr. McGavin. And now I lean of Paul Carr's passing too! In addition to his turn as Kelso, he also had a recurring role (as Devlin, I think, was the name...), in the second season of Buck Rogers. He was an officer aboard the Searcher.

    I too wish our society would be willing to cast "adults" again in roles like these, instead of clothes horses from the WB.