Darren McGavin hated TV before Kolchak: The Night Stalker
It wasn't always smooth sailing for the television star.
In 1974, actors had four alternatives for how they spent their careers: The options included theater, film, television, or unemployment. Plenty of actors created a hierarchy out of those choices, with film at the top and unemployment, naturally, dead last. Among those actors was Darren McGavin, who was on record as stating television was, to him, only marginally better than not working at all.
"Television has got worse and worse," McGavin told Vernon Scott of United Press International. "The medium is all boxed in. There's no freedom in it... no originality and few, if any, fresh ideas for anyone to work with."
McGavin would know. At the time of those comments, he'd just taken a year off after a string of soul-crushing television experiences. Four TV series in a row fizzled unceremoniously, offering very little creative fulfillment. The bad luck began with Casey, Crime Photographer, a CBS drama that aired from April 19, 1951, to June 5, 1952. The show's second season replaced lead Richard Carlyle with McGavin, giving him his television debut. McGavin, though, couldn't save Casey, Crime Photographer, and it was subsequently canceled after just a few episodes with McGavin as the lead.
Next up for McGavin was Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, a syndicated detective series based on Spillane's hard-boiled crime novels. The show was met with mixed reviews; while McGavin said in the press that the show was an "instant success," TV Guide disagreed, calling it "the worst series on television." Even with the less-than-stellar reception, Mike Hammer had two full seasons, each with 39 half-hour episodes.
Following Hammer, McGavin was once again at the whims of television executives. This time, the powers-that-be at Universal Studios were amidst an infatuation with an old boat on the property's lake. Thus, Riverboat was born, and McGavin found himself starring in a series because some guy in a suit liked a boat. It's tough enough to stand out among the landscape of prime-time TV. It's even harder when your co-star is Burt Reynolds.
McGavin sailed that boat up and down the fake lake at Universal Studios for 44 episodes. The experience pushed him out of television lead contention for six years. During that time, Darren McGavin had a few movie roles and guest-starred in some TV series, each of which he was more than happy to leave after a day.
His next stop came in The Outsider, another detective series in which he starred for part of 1968 and '69. Over its 26 episodes, The Outsider featured McGavin as David Ross, an ex-convict, fresh out of prison for a crime he did not commit. McGavin briefly enjoyed playing the role, his time as Ross started with a role in a TV movie, with a big budget, and great special effects. However, the love affair ended as the show progressed to a full series, losing much of what made the character interesting in his debut. The Outsider was canceled, and McGavin was once again left high-and-dry by television work.
Further bad luck was brought by a continued string of failed pilots. However, McGavin's fortunes were reversed with the premiere of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, an ABC made-for-TV movie, which aired on January 11, 1972, with an impressive 33.2 rating. This time, McGavin played a newspaper reporter who might be investigating a series of vampire murders. It was a surprise success and McGavin was given an offer to reprise the role in a full series. Kolchak aired twenty influential episodes and impacted forever the history of horror and science fiction television.