Darren McGavin

By: Adam McGovern
May 7, 2011

I don’t remember the exact line — you never get myth the same way twice — but it went something like paranoid exposé reporter Carl Kolchak’s perpetually sorrowful boss Tony Vincenzo overhearing his office nemesis in an adjoining bar-booth and ruefully asking the man pouring the drinks if, around the corner, there was “A guy in a straw hat and mismatched sportjacket? Looks like he’s from a road company of The Front Page?” That image of defiant unsuitability and anachronism as fashion statement was the emblem of DARREN McGAVIN (1922—2006), my main model for rumpled, bemused masculinity in the gender-cautious 1970s. He would become best-remembered for that role, the muckraking investigative journalist on The Night Stalker revealing a different covered-up vampire or demon attack each week in the era when Watergate made us ready to believe (or disbelieve) anything. There was James Garner’s genial loserishness, but Jim Rockford could actually help push a car or win a fight; for dweebs like me the smartass white-collar Greek Chorus of Kolchak was the target we could aim for and actually hit. He had played Mike Hammer and sailed on riverboats in sit-drams a bit too early for me to be alive to see, but even in the more masculine roles I caught — like the original Oscar Goldman on Six Million Dollar Man and the fathers in A Christmas Story and Murphy Brown — he balanced Rat Pack bonhomie with a sarcasm and/or regret that made you know he knew that authority was a crock, even when he was unlucky enough to be the one holding it. Darren McGavin was a creation — a lot about his hard-knock life story doesn’t add up, including official names and birthplaces — but it was his story. It may all be made up, but if it’s yours, you can make something out of it.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Gypsy Rose Lee.

READ MORE about members of the New Gods generation (1914-23).


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What do you think?

  1. His turn as a *spoiler alert* evil coroner in Dead Heat(1988)nicely captures what you’re talking about- he’s a villain disabused of his villainy’s meaning, schlepping where Vincent Price would ham. Chris Carter’s attempt to feed Saturn to his children by casting McGavin as a pre-Mulder in The X-Files might have shattered the show’s middlebrow sense of authority if he hadn’t been recast for health reasons.

  2. And in the one of two X-Files eps I saw that he did make it onto he was the soul of unreachable mysteries and inconsolable burden; fair enough for a show that admitted it wouldn’t have existed without him, starting and ending in tragedy. But what a middle…

  3. Must… resist… desire to re-watch all of Night Stalker over the next several weeks. Maybe next winter, when things calm down.

  4. Josh, this must mean you already *didn’t* resist picking up some DVD reissue compilation, as I managed to with several salient fragments (six eps’ worth, I think) of a VHS collection in an upstate-New York salvage-shoppe…there’s no use running when it’s already in the house; just ask Karen Black…

  5. I’m old enough to have seen him as MIke Hammer — Stacy Keach eat your heart out. Toughest guy on TV, maybe ever. He played Starbuck in The Rainmaker on Broadway. Burt Lancaster did it in the movie — but I wish I could have seen McGavin — he would have found a lot more layers.

    In the late 70s I saw McGavin on the street in London, coming out of Fortnum and Mason of all places — surprisingly little guy — more on the Cagney size than I would have thought. Unmistakable though. It was a thrill.

  6. Wow, Starbuck — and “110 in the Shade” is my favorite musical, though I’ve never seen it, including the lengthy recent revival (which from what little I heard sounded lacking in urgency) — and speaking of desperation, yeah, McGavin could have brought more of the neediness under the swagger I’m sure. Fortnum and Mason, thanks mate — I googled ’em and now it’s only taken me ten years to understand a joke in Alan Moore’s “Tom Strong”!

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