Darren McGavin had to accept being a tough guy on television

This tough guy on TV went through a rough time before becoming an actor.

Image credit: The Everett Collection

Darren McGavin was one of television's tough guys as Carl Kolchak on Kolchak: The Night Stalker from 1974 to 1975. He could be seen chasing down vampires, creepy crawlers and zombies onscreen, but offscreen, McGavin insisted on not being tough at all.

While McGavin willingly accepted his blood-and-guts image as Kolchak on TV, he said he was usually only tough when he needed to be — which was mostly on camera.

According to a 1974 interview with Daily News, McGavin said it only took one tough guy role for many viewers to expect him to be a certain way in both future roles and in real life. Of course, McGavin did not want to disappoint. 

"What we're trying to do is locate the areas of instinctual and subliminal fears that people have," McGavin said. "People, for instance, are afraid of the dark. They're afraid of a black room. So, suddenly in the middle of the dark, a lady is seen asleep. The blinds are pulled and there is a terrible scratching at the door. She goes to open the door, and that's all we see. We don't know what's there. That's the subliminal reaction we're trying to touch."

McGavin thought that a reporter would make a great television hero. Mainly, because a reporter would be "dumb enough" to get involved with the type of crimes seen in Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

"The trouble with past series is the reporter was always the observer," McGavin said. "For longevity on television, you can't do that. But Kolchak, the poor s-o-b, is always involved in those terrible manifestations that occur."

For McGavin, identification with a personality on TV was important. According to the interview, McGavin insisted that it was the difference between surviving and not surviving in a role.

"People will literally turn on a show because I'm on it," McGavin said. "In the strangest cities, in the strangest places, people stop me and tell me how much they like my work on television. Some tell me it doesn't matter which show I am on. They look at the listings and see my name and tune in."

So, what did McGavin see in The Night Stalker that kept him and viewers coming back to the series week after week?

"I saw a man who is a man with a dream like many others in this country today," McGavin said. "A man beaten down by the stock market, kicked down by his situation, fired from a job, dropped down below his point of acceptance in life and scrambling to get back up. To me he was like the hero of the '30s. Against all the sets of conditions he had to face he was still able to stand up. That kind of guy is a good hero, I think. We need some good affirmations of what American's ideals are, and despite failure, we must survive."

McGavin spent his whole life surviving, and much like his series Kolchak: The Night Stalker, he had to keep fighting in order to see big results. When he was young, McGavin spent time at a boys' ranch for children with no parents in Tacoma, WA. 

McGavin said he decided to be constructive instead of destructive during this rough time in his life.

"This is why I'm a confirmed survivalist and believe in keeping the dream alive," McGavin said. "It's also why I like the character of Carl Kolchak. I saw in him a man fighting for survival."

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6 Comments

LarryJG 7 months ago
I love watching him play kolchak, but Ralphie's dad was the part of a lifetime.
Runeshaper 7 months ago
Darren McGavin was great in every part I've seen him play!
Andybandit 8 months ago
I finally got to watch K:TNS on Svengoolie. It was good. DM reminds me of Tommy Lee Jones little.
cperrynaples 8 months ago
I suspect the tough guy part came from Mike Hammer! He played him more than 20 years before Stacy Keach!
Runeshaper cperrynaples 7 months ago
Mike Hammer was AWESOME! Watched some episodes with my folks a few years back.
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