Darren McGavin's biggest hits weren't measured by ratings or box-office grosses, but by something more enduring: Devoted fans.
McGavin, who stalked monsters as rascally reporter Carl Kolchak on the short-lived, but influential 1974-75 TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker and groused as the besieged father in the latter-day Yuletide classic A Christmas Story, died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 83.
Son Bogart McGavin told the Associated Press that his father died of natural causes.
McGavin was a onetime Emmy-winner, claiming his trophy for playing Candice Bergen's TV father on a 1989 episode of Murphy Brown.
In a way, it was atypical of McGavin to be recognized in such a timely fashion. It would take the rise of The X-Files in the 1990s for the greater public to come around to the work that McGavin did on The Night Stalker in the 1970s. And it would take repeated airings on cable TV in the 1980s and 1990s to make a hit of A Christmas Story, a relative underachiever at the box office in its initial 1983 run.
"Basically, [McGavin] was perfect," author Jeff Rice, who gave birth to Carl Kolchak in his novel The Kolchak Papers, said in Night Stalking: A 20th Anniversary Kolchak Companion. "He didn't have the face of the Kolchak I imagined, but he so quickly merged himself with the character...that he very quickly became Kolchak."
Born May 7, 1922, in Spokane, Washington, McGavin's career spanned more than 50 years. His breakthrough role came in the 1955 drug drama, The Man with the Golden Arm.
On TV, McGavin became an irascible leading man when he donned reporter Kolchak's straw hat, white sneakers and seersucker suit (a ensemble McGavin took credit for dreaming up) in The Night Stalker, a 1971 made-for-TV movie about a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas. It was both popular and acclaimed.
The telepic spawned a sequel, 1972's The Night Strangler, pitting Kolchak against an ageless killer in Seattle, and the 1974 series, formally known as Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Up against the juggernaut that was Police Woman, Night Stalker was among the lowest-rated prime-time series of the 1974-75 season. Just 20 episodes aired. If its mix of headless motorcycle riders, killer voodoo zombies and cruise ship roaming werewolves didn't win over Nielsen families, it did win over the likes of Chris Carter. The writer-producer cited the Night Stalker series as the inspiration for his own sci-fi/horror franchise, The X-Files.
The X-Files team did not soon forget their forefather. McGavin appeared on two episodes of The X-Files and cameoed last fall in the pilot for ABC's failed Night Stalker revival, a project hatched by two former X-Files producers.
In the new Night Stalker series, 33-year-old Stuart Townsend played Carl Kolchak minus the straw, seersucker and sneaks. For all the changes, TV critics were most troubled that Kolchak was minus McGavin.
"The reason the original Night Stalker lingers in fans' memories has nothing to do with the monsters and all to do with Darren McGavin's Kolchak," USA Today's Robert Bianco wrote in a review last September. "McGavin created a humorous, completely unglamorous hero."
McGavin's other initially underrated hit was A Christmas Story. Based on the stories of humorist Jean Shepherd, who narrated, the comedy about a boy's Christmas gift dreams in the 1940s starred child actor Peter Billingsley as Red Ryder-obsessed Ralphie, and McGavin as Ralphie's "Old Man." According to Movies.com, the film was the 39th highest-grossing movie of 1983, behind such classics as Staying Alive, High Road to China and Porky's II: The Next Day. The latter was directed by Bob Clark, who in a stunning show of range made A Christmas Story the very same year.
In a 1999 interview with E! Online, Billingsley, now a movie producer, said A Christmas Story became a hit upon repeated viewing because it "crosses the financial board."
"It doesn't matter if people are rich or not," Billingsley said. "It was just sort of one of those movies that grew on you."
McGavin's other credits included two 1970s Disney movies costarring Don Knotts: 1976's No Deposit, No Return; and 1978's Hot Lead and Cold Feet. Knotts died Friday at the age of 81.
McGavin also was preceded in death by his wife of more than 30 years, actress Kathie Browne. Browne, who passed away in 2003 at the age of 63, guest starred on the final Night Stalker episode as aired on Mar. 28, 1975.
In author Mark Dawidziak's Night Stalking, Browne said people loved the series because they loved the unsinkable nature of Kolchak.
"Their hero comes out at the end beaten up but ready to go on fighting another day," Browne said. "I think Darren has a lot of that in his own personality."