Sunday, February 26, 2006

Darren McGavin, R.I.P.

In a long and varied career, Darren McGavin may not have had a true breakout role. But read any of the many appreciations of the man’s life and you’ll find two performances singled out.

I’ve spoken before about my affection for the TV series Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I would race home from seven o’clock mass on Saturday nights to watch McGavin’s intrepid, irascible reporter take on vampires and headless motorcyclists. For a show that barely lasted a season, it’s had a remarkable impact. Chris Carter cites it as a huge influence on The X-Files, reruns of the original air to this day, and Kolchak returned to the airwaves in a new incarnation earlier this season.

Then there’s his work as “The Old Man” in A Christmas Story. When the movie was released in 1983, it sank without a trace. Repeated television broadcasts transformed it into a holiday staple.

Which brings me to another favorite McGavin performance. In ‘Distant Signals,’ an episode of the anthology series Tales from the Darkside, he played Van Conway, an alcoholic has-been actor. His closest brush with stardom came when he starred in a short-lived TV show clearly modeled on The Fugitive. Conway’s character is on the run, wanted for a murder he didn’t commit. Twenty years after its cancellation, the show’s creator and star are approached by a representative of a foreign TV network (Lenny von Dohlen), one that wants to fund the series’ final episodes. With the representative’s help, Conway sobers up and miraculously regains his youthful vigor.

The representative leaves with the episodes in hand, and Conway offers his theory about what really happened: von Dohlen is in fact an emissary of an alien race, one that has lost its home and is doomed to wander the universe. During their travels they picked up broadcasts of Conway’s series and identified with his character, a man drifting from place to place. They simply wanted to know how his story ended.

In a strange way, ‘Distant Signals’ encapsulates Darren McGavin’s career and the actor’s lot in life. Do good work. You never know who’s watching and how much it means to them.