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Friday, March 03, 2006

I REMEMBER DARREN McGAVIN

An obituary is an odd animal. To summarize an entire life in a few short paragraphs is a task destined for failure. Yet we routinely expect, accept and forgive that failure, perhaps because we secretly hope that our own lives will be interesting enough that capturing it all in a few hundred words will be an exercise in reduction and not embellishment.

People of public note are subjected to having their lives even further condensed in the dreaded obituary headline. As if the body of the obituary isn't short enough, the headline is the abridged version of the summary – a logline for a life. How can decades of experience be captured in one such brief statement? The subjective nature of our interpretations of each other alone make it impossible to definitively say, "This was Bob and this is what his life meant."

Last Sunday, for example, towards the bottom of the headlines on CNN.com next to the Olympic highlights and the war update, something caught my eye.

McGavin, 'A Christmas Story' father, dies at 83

Darren McGavin, a veteran Hollywood actor for more than 60 years, did indeed star alongside Peter Billingsley and Melinda Dillon as the long suffering father in the 1983 nouveau Christmas classic movie, A Christmas Story.

Now don't get me wrong, I love A Christmas Story. To this day, when UPS delivers a package to my house and it says "Fragile" on the side, I can't help myself but remark to Cindy, "FRA-GEE-LAY! That must be Italian!" in honor of the scene where McGavin's Mr. Parker proudly receives his "major award," a highly disturbing lamp in the shape of a woman's fishnetted leg. Cindy usually laughs at my reference to the scene. Whether out of true appreciation of the humor or just to humor me and my own appreciation, it matters not. And when Mr. Parker battles the heating and electrical systems of his house, it reminds me of my own father's showdowns with the internal workings of our various residences. The recollection ALWAYS makes me smile.

To me, however, and I suspect to many others of my age (15261 days as of today), Darren McGavin will primarily be associated with one particular role, that of Carl Kolchak in the 1974-1975 ABC television series "Kolchak: The Night Stalker." Appearing first in two ABC movies "The Night Stalker" (1972) and the "The Night Strangler" (1973), Kolchak was the unlikely hero, the persistent and bumbling journalist of the second rate and budget-challenged "Independent News" service. Consistently defying the orders of his boss and the police in order to get the to the truth behind one supernatural horror after another (vampires, zombies, demons, etc.), Kolchak was like a nerdy rock star to me. Tooling around Chicago in his '65 Mustang and his wrinkled white suit, bent straw hat and grungy tennis shoes while thumbing his nose to every authority figure he encountered, in his extreme lack of cool he was somehow more real, more accessible than his bigger, tougher television peers like Mannix or Baretta or even Rockford, usually conceded to be the "everyman's crimefighter" of the mid 70s crime drama. Kolchak was dorky cool. Whereas McGarrett would barrel headfirst, snub nose .38 blasting through a killer's door, bolstered by his absolute faith in his self-righteousness, Kolchak fought his doubts and fears every step of the way in pursuit of something much purer and simpler than law enforcement. He just wanted to find the truth so he could tell others a good story.

Especially endearing and believable to me was the abject fear Kolchak brought to his own exploits. When he climbed the stadium stairs in search of the eviscerating Aztec cultists who he believed were responsible for cutting out the hearts of several young Chicagoans, I went along with him. And when, winded from the climb, he turned around at the top of the stairs and saw before him the masked and feathered killer wielding the ceremonial knife, my eyes grew just as wide as Kolchak's. Accompanying him as he inserted himself in the most terrifying situations in pursuit of the truth became a weekly ritual for me. And the fact that the terror was something I could share with the hero made it all the more horrifying. Here's a secret: to this day, a chill runs up my back and radiates into my shoulders at the mere recollection of the vampire's hand emerging from beneath the Las Vegas earth in "The Vampire." To merely say this show affected me is indeed an understatement of terrific proportion.


I think I even wanted to be Kolchak at one point. Then again, I also wanted to be a hermit after I saw Jeremiah Johnson and a garbage man after I saw our local sanitation workers hanging off the back of the garbage truck as it hurtled down Maplewood Road.

In the end, Kolchak succumbed not to the werewolf or the martian or even the devil himself but rather to the same demon that inevitably claims all television heros – poor ratings. Apparently neither was there anything unusual about McGavin's death. Natural causes were given as the cause of death according to the Los Angeles Times obituary, more appropriately entitled than the CNN article for me anyway,

Darren McGavin, 83; Prolific Actor in 'Night Stalker,' 'Christmas Story'.



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