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Reviewed by Will Harris
here’s a generation who only knows actor Darren McGavin for his role as Ralphie’s dad in the timeless holiday film from the ‘80s, “A Christmas Story”...and, frankly, if you’ve got to be beloved by millions for one gig, that’s a helluva one to have under your belt. McGavin had, however, already secured pop culture immortality in the ‘70s via the small screen when he created the role of Carl Kolchak, everyone’s favorite rumpled, straw-hat-sporting writer.
Kolchak first appeared in two made-for-TV movies: “The Night Strangler” and “The Night Stalker,” the latter resulting in the subtitle for the ongoing weekly series. McGavin played Kolchak as a haggard, seen-it-all reporter for the Independent News Service, and one with little time for his fellow writers, let alone his editor, Tony Vincenzo, played by Simon Oakland. The gimmick of the show, if you can call it that, was Kolchak’s unerring ability to find elements of the paranormal hiding in various corners of the Windy City; throughout the 20 hour-long episodes, Kolchak met up with vampires, werevolves, ghosts, and zombies, as well as aliens, robots, and other strange goings-on. If this sounds like Fox Mulder as a reporter, but without a Scully to drag down the limits of his imagination, you won’t be surprised to learn that Chris Carter has rarely failed to note how much of an inspiration “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” was for “The X-Files.” (In fact, scheduling conflicts prevented McGavin from playing the role of Mulder’s father on the show...though he did later pop up as a retired FBI agent.) Like Mulder, Kolchak has a penchant for a sarcastic aside or a quick quip (“You should meet my boss. He'd turn Buddha into a chain smoker”) and a streak for disobeying authority in favor of satisfying his own curiosity. In one episode, Vincenzo yells, “I'm tired of it, Kolchak. I'm fed up! I've got a brother-in-law who's got a fourteen-year-old kid he's always bailing out of juvenile hall, but I've got you, and you're worse!”
The definitive “Kolchak” episode, at least in this writer’s humble opinion, is “The Vampire.” With a summary that reads, “The victim of a vampire is accidentally resurrected outside Las Vegas, and she makes her way to the City of Angels where she becomes part of the world’s oldest profession,” it’s equal parts hilarious and horrifying; it also provides Kolchak with a great nemesis in the L.A. police department in the form of Lt. Jack Matteo, played by the ever-sardonic William Daniels (“St. Elsewhere”).
As with many of Universal’s “Classic Television” sets, there’s precisely nil in the way of special features. In this case, however, it’s unlikely that McGavin would’ve been able to participate in any of them, anyway; he turned 83 in 2005, has been ill for some time and, although someone maintains an official website for him, he no longer accepts autograph requests due to his illness. Still, surely, there were some writers or producers of the show, even some of those who were inspired by it, who could’ve contributed to a retrospective. But no matter; the greatest boon to classic TV fans is that the series has been released on video in its entirety. If you caught any episodes of the horrid, Stuart-Townsend-starring remake that was briefly on ABC earlier this season, just pretend you didn’t; the producers of that new version left their senses of humor on the cutting room floor. Do yourself a favor and check out the original.
Darren McGavin is Carl Kolchak. Accept no substitutes.