Actor Darren McGavin; Starred in 'Night Stalker'

Darren McGavin is remembered as the father in the 1983 film
Darren McGavin is remembered as the father in the 1983 film "A Christmas Story," a holiday classic shown each year. In this undated photo, he is shown with co-stars Peter Billingsley, left, Ian Petrella and Melinda Dillon. (Reuters)
By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 27, 2006

Darren McGavin, 83, who played gruff, grumpy but often goodhearted characters in a profusion of fondly recalled television series and shows, died Feb. 25 in Los Angeles.

He died of multiple organ failure at Olympia Hospital, his son York McGavin said.

In the "Night Stalker" series, Mr. McGavin wore a porkpie hat to play reporter Carl Kolchak, who revealed the occult forces behind the reality of the Chicago streets. Mr. McGavin is widely remembered as the father in 1983's "A Christmas Story," a classic that reappears every year during the holiday season.

He was also Mike Hammer, the embodiment of the hard-nosed private eye, in the series based on the Mickey Spillane novels.

In dozens of roles in made-for-TV movies, in series, or in episodes of series, Mr. McGavin appeared cynical or curmudgeonly. But even if he was a grouch, he was frequently a grouch with a glint in his eye.

York McGavin said last night that the irascible on-screen figure was not the father he knew. He said, however, that his father was a professional who knew what was demanded of him, "took great pride in his craft" and came to work prepared.

That apparently helped account for one of the busiest careers in television. It spanned more than a half-century, beginning with a part in the 1945 film "A Song to Remember" and continuing into 1999. That year, his son said, Mr. McGavin suffered a stroke while filming an episode of the TV series "The X Files."

Demand for his services was great enough in the 1950s to involve him in the almost unheard-of feat of making two television series simultaneously.

"He would change personas in a day," his son said. He would transform himself from the trench-coated Mike Hammer into the more refined Grey Holden, the steamboat captain in "Riverboat."

Among the films for which he will be remembered is "The Man With the Golden Arm," in which he plays a drug pusher.

He performed in westerns, crime stories and military dramas. In one movie, "Raw Deal," his character was shot in the back by the character played by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Mr. McGavin was born May 7, 1922, in Spokane, Wash. He was the child of a troubled marriage and as a boy spent time in an orphanage. That experience, his son said, gave Mr. McGavin the desire to "pull himself up by his own bootstraps."

He spent a year at the University of the Pacific, where his interest in the stage showed itself in his work as a skilled painter of scenery.

Later, he studied in New York at the Actors Studio. "The theater was his first love," his son said. He played on the Broadway stage and on tour, with appearances in such works as "Death of a Salesman."

His first marriage ended in divorce; his second wife died.

Besides his son York, three other children survive.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company