Kolchak: The Night Stalker
Casting “The Night Stalker”
Darren McGavin explains: “My representatives called to say that ABC had purchased the right to a book called The Kolchak Papers. They were into a kind of first draft of a script by Richard Matheson, and they called the agency to ask them if I’d be interested in doing it. My representative read it and called me.”
Listen,” the agency representative said, “there’s this crazy story about a reporter and some kind of monster in Las Vegas. You don’t want to do this.”
“Well, send it over.”
Showing the script to his wife, Kathie Browne, she
agreed with his assessment. “You’re right. It’s terrific,” she said.
With those two behind the project, the face, voice,
mannerisms and clothing of Carl Kolchak took a major leap from the printed page to the small screen.
“Well, when you’re working that fast in television,
McGavin said, “you have to draw on yourself. You use who you are to a greater extent than you would in a play or a film.”
Kathie Browne McGavin, the one person who should know, has a stronger and far more direct response.
“He’s very, very close to Kolchak,” she says. The people who really love The Night Stalker love Kolchak because he never gives up. He’s fighting, always fighting. You can take the monsters and take them to be anything you want – the government, big business, corrupt officials. Their hero comes at the end, beaten up but ready to go on fighting another day. I think Darren has a lot of that in his own personality.” (Quotes taken from “The Night Stalker Companion,” by Mark Dawidziak.)
The controversy over who was, and who was not, producer of “The Night Stalker”
In March, 1974, Darren McGavin made a verbal agreement with Sid Sheinberg, President of MCA/Universal TV, to produce “The Night Stalker,” as a TV series.
“I want to own it,” McGavin stated. “I don’t want to play around with someone else producing.”
Their agreement, sealed the next day (or so McGavin thought), called for him to own fifty percent of the series, in co-ownership with Universal and to handle the production responsibilities through his film company, Taurean Productions.
(Quotes taken from “The Night Stalker Companion“,
An announcement, which did not mention any projects by name, ran in Variety on April 11, 1994:
Darn McGavin, U Sign Unique Long-Term Pact “Darren McGavin has signed a long-term contract with Universal, a unique deal covering almost every major area of the film entertainment media, Sid Sheinberg, MCA prexy, disclosed yesterday. Deal covers theatrical, motion pictures and TV, and stipulates that McGavin’s services may be called upon as a writer, producer, director, as well as actor. He also will function in the development of new theatrical and TV projects for the Valley lot.
McGavin’s “The Night Stalker” which was a “Movie Of The Week” on ABC-TV in 1972, scored the highest rating of any feature-for-TV ever made. In 1972 he formed his own company, Taurean Films, for which he has produced and directed theatrical films.”
Because the notice mentioned the McGavin’s company, Taurean, and because it made mention of the fact Darren would be called upon to produce various projects, this seemed in keeping with his agreement with Sid Sheinberg that he would produce “The Night Stalker.”
Then followed a peculiar announcement in Variety, on April 24, 1974. It did not bode well for the “gentleman’s agreement” concerning “The Night Stalker.”
U-TV’s ‘Stalker’ Starring McGavin To Be ABC Series” Universal TV, which sold 8 hours of primetime TV film to NBC-TV and two hours to CBS-TV, yesterday sold another hour to ABC-TV. Universal TV production chief Frank Price, in N.Y. for the annual selling season, closed a deal for Darren McGavin to star in the tentatively titled “Night Stalker,” based on the 90-minute “Movie Of The Week,” in which McGavin originally starred.
Series will deal with McGavin in the role of a newspaperman involved in bizarre adventures, as he was on the first “Stalker.”
No producer has been set on the hour series. (Italics
ours.) Price will confer with Dan Curtis, who produced the original “Stalker,” on the project. ABC-TV had the initial idea for the project.”
Dan Curtis was, in fact, asked to produce the series, in direct conflict to the understanding with McGavin.
“Sure, they approached me about it,” Curtis says. “I thought it was a bad idea. I didn’t see how it could be done.”
Richard Matheson, credited author of the two Movie Of The Week “Stalker” projects, commented:
“If Dan had done the series, I would have done the series. When I learned that he didn’t have involvement with it, I decided not to have involvement in it. Frankly, I was sort of relieved. We’d had so much trouble coming up with a story for “The Night Strangler.” But that was so tough that I couldn’t imagine how they could come up with a new monster every week.” (Curtis and Matheson quoted from “The Night Stalker Companion.”)
The confusion between Darren’s long-term contract and the promise that he would be the producer of “Night Stalker” caused irreconcilable problems on the series. There never was an executive producer for Night Stalker and Darren McGavin never produced the series.
This did not stop the McGavins from working seven days a week to give “The Night Stalker” the benefit of their creative genius. Contrary to Dan Curtis and Richard Matheson’s personal opinions, “The Night Stalker” was not a “bad idea,” it just fell into the hands of bad people. The characters Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Jack Grinnage and Ruth McDevitt created became legend. In the end, it was their contributions, their faces, their voices, people remember. And this they achieved against all odds.
McGavin vs. Monster of the Week
September 13, 1974 By Charles Witbeck
HOLLYWOOD: Every time Darren McGavin appears on the tube, ratings go up. Someone out there – a lot of someones – simply like to see what the composed and confident freckle-faced actor is going to do next. In front of a camera, energy shoots out of McGavin as he delivers a questioning look and then bursts into laughter. Watching him, you’d like to tap a pint from the man – he wouldn’t miss it.
Over the years, McGavin has acquired a large and loyal following that even surprises Darren. They will buy his as a tough Marine drill sergeant in “Tribes,” a beleaguered businessman ruined by erroneous credit files in “The Bold Ones,” or the cocky, sardonic reporter Kolchak, who corners a Las Vegas vampire in “The Night Stalker.”
Networks want to coin money off blue-chip McGavin and so dozens of series ideas are funneled his way, only to be rejected. After making the wry and humorous high-rated thriller, “Night Stalker,” and a disappointing follow-up, “The Night Strangler,” ABC, which owns the property, extended a plan for eight 90-minute Night Stalker shows a season to run on its Tuesday and Wednesday Movies of the Week.
But McGavin vetoed that and offered to do a series, provided his own company made the product. (Note: these early promises by the network were never fulfilled.)
Can such a premise work on a weekly basis? McGavin had two years to ponder this, and he thinks it can be done. “We can make it fun,” he said. “As for the horror side, we’re not going to show much. I don’t believe papier-mâché masks or rubber fins induce fear, so you’re not going to see much of the monsters, but you’ll see what he’s done, and
the fear he creates in others.”
Mrs. McGavin, actress Kathie Browne, who will turn up on the show and is on the set constantly, put it this way: “Haven’t you known a few vampires in Beverly Hills? Darren is John Wayne chasing a different monster every week.”
“Everything is a little oblique,” said director Alex Gottlieb, eating with cast and crew at 6 p.m. before shooting for the evening.
Since monsters are not known to ply their trade in the daytime, the company works day and night, a schedule that doesn’t ruffle Darren. He will shoot until midnight and be back on the set at 10 the next morning, laughing as he finds another comedy bit not in the script.
Darren McGavin does it all: hunts monsters, produces, directs
August 28, 1974 By: Howard Rosenberg
Darren McGavin sat in his office at Universal Studios, scratched his freckled head and said about his new ABC series, “The Night Stalker,” “It smells like it.”
McGavin has been around long enough and achieved enough success to develop the kind of sniffer that commands respect….
“He (Jack the Ripper) was never officially killed, you know that?” asked the mischief-making McGavin with raised eyebrows.
He ticked off a string of Ripper-type crimes in Europe and chuckled. “Who’s
to say he’s not here now, somewhere in Chicago, killing poor little streakers
and massage parlor girls?”
It’s obvious that “The Night Stalker” will be plump with good, clean…violence.
“What is violence?” McGavin attacked.
“This morning you wake up and you hear the news, a man was stabbed, a
policeman was shot and two children were killed. THAT’S violence.”
Not so the series. “A man jumps off a five-story building, lands on his feet, and runs away, in the meantime destroying a couple of police cars. Well, THAT’S FANTASY. It’s fun. It’s not real.
Kolchak will be nonviolent. “He may have to incinerate a
zombie or something,” said McGavin, “but what the hell, a zombie’s dead anyway, right?”
While conceding that networks have an obligation to be “responsible,” McGavin complains about their “nitpicking.” “They come back and they say, ‘Delete this and delete that,’ Writers try their damnedest. They say, ‘How the hell do we avoid showing violence? How do we avoid showing a knife being driven into a poor darling girl’s… uh… you know what?’
“So the writer gets very imaginative. You see the guy grab the girl and take her off camera, and you see the mirror is covered with blood. Okay, the network says you can’t have the blood on the mirror. I mean, what the hell are you gonna do?”
Meanwhile, McGavin lights up like Macy’s at
Christmas when talking about his contract with Universal at act, develop series and produce and direct theatrical films. He is doing everything but taking out the garbage at night. His wife of five years, a tall slender blonde actress named Kathie Browne, is his executive associate.
“I’m really functioning at a whole bunch of different levels,” said McGavin. ‘IT’S MARVELOUS!” He was still high from the previous day’s music scoring session for a movie he is producing and directing. (“Run Stranger Run”). “Pa-pump CHA! It’s TERRIFIC!
RIGHT on cue.”
“The Night Stalker”
And Contemporary Commentary
- 09/13/1974 “The Ripper”
Carl Kolchak determines that the death of three women were caused by Jack the
Ripper, alive and well after his success in Europe. The episode had great
characterization with Tony, who assigned Carl the task of answering Miss Emily’s lovelorn column. This was the only episode where writers established a
friendship for Carl, in the character of Jane Plumb. Her death was as
close to poignancy as Night Stalker came, which was a tragedy in itself.
Ruth McDevitt (Playing an Elderly Woman, NOT Miss Emily)
“Darren and Kathie are working seven days a week on “Night Stalker.” When not in front of the cameras, they can be found together at their Universal Studios offices on weekends and with writers of the series.” (09/17/74).
2) 09/20/1974 “The Zombie”
While covering the deaths of several number’s runners associated with
warring mob factions, Kolchak discovers one of the bodies had already been
buried before at state expense. This leads him into an investigation of
zombies, nearly being killed himself by the mother of Francois Edmonds, the
zombie set on revenge. This was Gordie, the ghoul’s first appearance in a
semi-recurring role as the morgue attendant.
3) 09/27/1974 “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be” (Shooting title: “U.F.O.”)
While not going to the World Series, featuring the Chicago Cubs (which, in
itself, was a bigger story than anything else happening in the Windy City), Carl
becomes inexplicably interested in investigating missing zoo animals and the theft of electronic equipment. Prior to this assignment, he had
extorted tickets from Ron, in a scene lowlighted by a bit of cruel
characterization over female roller-bladers which did not play well. Carl
determines the thefts were committed by aliens, who drained off bone marrow from zoo animals. A weak episode with few redeeming points.
Dick Van Patten
4) 10/04/1974 “Vampire”
After getting a hot tip from an old pal, Cark wrangles his way to Los
Angeles, where he investigates the suspicious deaths of several people who
perished from a loss of blood. A classic example of how good Night Stalker
could be, combining a good story with good guest stars and classic confrontation
between Carl and Tony. Carl eats chocolate mousse?
*****”Although Kathie Browne is not acting with husband Darren McGavin regularly in his new series, she’s just as busy behind the scenes, working on the production of the show, with and for him – just as she did during their movie-making, prior to the series. These two also pooled their talents in decorating and reviving old houses and selling them for profit.” (10/74)*******
5) 11/01/1974 “The Werewolf”
When Tony is prevented from covering the last voyage of an aging luxury liner by
the unexpected appearance of INS auditors, Carl gets the assignment. On the first night of the full moon, passengers start dying in suspicious
ways. When Carl determines the killer is a werewolf, he elicits help from one of the passengers, then sets out to destroy the beast using traditional silver bullets. Great scenes in the newsroom highlight this superior
6) 11/08/1974 “The Doppelganger” (aka “Fire Fall”)
When people connected with a symphony conductor are inexplicably engulfed in
flame, Kolchak’s investigations lead him to believe the deaths are the result of
a restless ghost seeking revenge. An odd episode with an interesting
premise which never quite came off.
7) 11/15/1974 “The Devil’s Platform”
While covering a predictably boring senatorial campaign, Carl discovers the leading candidate, who came out of total obscurity, has sold his soul to the devil for political power. Good acting, a good script and an excellent
climatic scene between Carl and the devil’s advocate, Robert Palmer, make this
one of the best episodes.
8) 1/29/1974 Diablero” (aka: “Bad Medicine”)
The “diablero,” a legend out of Indian folklore, assumes the shape of animals to kill in his quest for precious gems. Another episode which did not quite work. The first of two back-to-back episodes featuring Richard Kiel as the monster – a poor scheduling choice.
Richard Kiel as the monster
9) 12/06/1974 “The Spanish Moss Murders”
Spanish moss, left at the scene of a murder, gives Carl a lead on the
murderer. While interviewing street musicians, one fiddler gives him the
background of an old Louisiana legend about “Peremalfait.”
Kolchak links this childhood legend to another Cajun musician, who, as part of a
university experiment, has been kept asleep for six weeks without being allowed
to dream. A better-than-average episode with some interesting scenes cut from it (see the “Scripts” link to read them.)
10) 12/13/1974 “Machemondo” (aka “The Energy Eater”)
A fascinating idea, poorly scripted, characterized this episode about a hospital
built on the ancestral site of an ancient and powerful Indian deity. As
the hospital crumbles under the pressure of the angry god’s wrath, hospital
officials try to keep a lid on the story.
11) 12/20/1974 “Horror in the Heights” (aka “The Rakshasa”)
Sole writing credit and major hoopla went to Jimmy Sangster, (British
horror writer from the Hammer stable), for scripting this episode. The work went through numerous re-writes, with story consultant David Chase being credited, on the script, for his significant contribution. His name was not included on the film in order to make it appear the work was original to Sangster. Anyone who believes Miss Emily was the only person Carl trusted, totally missed the chemistry between Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland. A five-minute idea stretched out into an hour, with uncomfortable performances by all.
12) 01/10/1975 “Mr. R.I.N.G.”
Reluctantly doing obit work, Carl investigates the death of a noted
scientist. He discovers there was a massive government cover-up over the
man’s top-secret work and subsequent death. Great teaser and tag scenes
highlight this well-done and interesting episode. Craig Baxley is outstanding as the robot.
Kolchak Vows to Fight for Audience
January 12, 1975 By: Dan Lewis
Darren McGavin, who stars as Kolchak, said the network was partially to blame (for the low ratings), because it didn’t want to give up air time to promote the show.
“The networks make their dollars selling air time,” McGavin declared. “They didn’t want to give up valuable prime-time minutes to promote the show. They were more interested in selling time.”
There were other problems. Friday night at 9-10 has never been the most popular time slot in prime-time. In fact, it has been more of a death row, as, as McGavin preferred to call it, “It’s the armpit of the world. Everybody dies in that hour, on all networks.”
To compound Kolchak’s problem at the start of the season, ABC programmers came up with an ineffective schedule for Fridays.
But something has happened along the way, and Kolchak’s ratings started to improve. It took a few months, but in recent weeks, the audience share has jumped into the more respectable area of the 20’s.
That increase saved it from a midseason cancellation. Now, the network feels it will do even better leading off Friday nights, although the competition will be rougher – NBC’s Sanford and Son and Chico combine for the highest-rated hour on TV during the week.
“You can’t do a horror show on network time,” McGavin explained. “They (the networks) don’t want to scare people out of their pants.” McGavin suggested the network attitude is a concession to pressure groups.
13) 01/17/1975 “Primal Scream” (aka “The Humanoids”)
Another fascinating idea, poorly scripted, makes this a lost opportunity.
Characterized by a “man in a monkey suit,” (exactly the type of
“monster” Darren McGavin had fought so hard to avoid), the story revolves
around 100,000 year-old cells, brought back from Arctic soil,
developing into a pre-human, ape-like, murderous creature. The
Monster-of-the-Week format at its worst. A better idea would have been to
resurrect Ed Wood to act as consultant for the series. He couldn’t have done
14) 01/24/1974 “The Trevi Collection”
A vengeful witch (played by “Dark Shadows” alumni Lara Parker) brings
fashion mannequins to life in order to murder those who stand in her way as she
strives to become a top fashion model. Question: Why would Carl
lecture Tony about sprucing up his wardrobe when Simon Oakland’s suits were
clearly custom-designed, making him the best-dressed series regular on
television. Didn’t the writers ever watch the show?
15) 01/31/1975 “Chopper”
When aging members of a 1950’s motorcycle gang are mysteriously murdered,
Kolchak learns the assassin is a former member, accidentally killed in a stunt
years before. In order to stop the killings, he must reunite the biker’s head with his skeleton, which became separated during a cemetery relocation. One of the better episodes, marred by the tasteless inclusion of the name “Backus” on one of the disinterred coffins.
16) 02/07/1975 “Demon In Lace”
A fifteen-minute idea mercilessly dragged out for an hour, this poor episode
centered around a female succubus, brought to life by the translation of an
ancient tablet by a college professor. The monster goes around killing
male jocks. Carl should have let this one escape. Carolyn Jones was
wasted in a small, meaningless role. If the producer had thrown away the
script and let her dialogue with Darren, ad-libbing scenes as they went, Night
Stalker might have had a classic on their hands.
17) 02/14/1975 “Legacy of Terror”
Odd, uncomfortable characterization between the regulars set this episode
apart. Otherwise, the flat script deals with (yet another) ancient legend,
this time one concerning Aztec sun worshippers.
Please visit Jack Grinnage’s (Ron Updyke) web page at: www.jackgrinnage.com
Darren McGavin Interview
February 16, 1975
By: Wade H. Mosby
“I found Darren McGavin backstage on a Universal set, having his breakfast of fire and brimstone, snorting and growling. His wife, actress Kathie Browne, was at his side, seconding everything he said.
McGavin used to be an affable sort. A little outspoken, maybe. But hardly pugnacious enough to tilt at windmills. So naturally, you ask him why he’s so ticked off.
“I hope they cancel this show as quickly as they can and get it out of their corporate, pinheaded minds,” he said. And that was just the opening volley.
“We started out with expectations of where we were going and what we were going to do. No we don’t seen to know either answer, so I’d be more happy if they’d dump it. Quick.”
But what specifically is the matter?
“There’s a huge pool of mediocrity that I’m trying to extricate from. It’s not the bosses. It’s the system. It’s group decisions….it’s the structure. That, and a certain amount of what’s really contempt for the audience.”
What contempt? Trying to make the viewers believe in monsters and ghosts?
“We don’t necessarily challenge the audience on tricks and monsters – they don’t have to believe. This show has to be tracked from the standpoint of fun and games. And that hasn’t been done.
“This is not the show I started out to do, and rather than try and pump life with a hypodermic needle into something that’s just dying, I’d rather bury it and put it out of its misery.”
There’s something else you’d rather work on?
“Don’t you like the scripts?
“Here,” he said, tossing a mimeographed package into my lap. “That was delivered to me this morning.”
“That’s what we’re shooting right now.”
When did your disenchantment set in?
“About the third show. From then on, it goes steadily downhill. You’re seeing about 60% of its potential. I’m fearful they’ll pick up this show for next year. If they do, they’re in for a rude shock.”
But don’t you have a contract?
“Oh, they’ll probably sue my bleep off. Look. Scripts should be ready five days before shooting. Not just for the actors. But to get the scenery together, the props, the locations, all the disparate parts.”
“There’s something about TV. A lethargy.” That was Mrs. McGavin.
“It’s a contempt.” That was McGavin.
(It must be said that at the time of the interview, most TV series were completing work for the season. “Night Stalker” had four more to go.)
“We don’t have the next script,” McGavin said. “Many people should have the script for production, meetings with key people. By delaying, all those people are going crazy. Same with the directors.
No time to think.”
Could the producer get the scripts on time?
“If he so chooses,” said McGavin.
An associate showed up.
“Darren? We’d like to rehearse the next
“Rehearse it! I haven’t even read it!”
He hastily scanned the typewritten pages.
“They’re kidding!” he roared. “Six pages of recap – stuff we already did!” He stomped off for an impromptu script conference.”
“The Knightly Murders”
Easily the best directed Night Stalker episode (by Vincent McEveety), and the
brilliant characterization by John Dehner as the “almost a legend”
police captain, overcomes the questionable merits of the script. A
medieval knight is resurrected to wreak havoc on modern-day Chicagoans because he has sworn to kill all those who would derive pleasure from life. Today, he’d be the CEO of an HMO. The best of the later episodes.
19) 03/14/1975 “The Youth Killer”
After an old man is found dead from jogging, Carl discovers a bizarre dating service which seeks those of perfect body. Behind it all is the modern-day Helen of Troy, who sucks life out of youth to preserve her own beauty. Forgettable.
Cathy Lee Crosby
“Whatever trouble there was,” Jack Grinnage said, “Darren never brought into rehearsal or performance. Judging just on that, you wouldn’t know there ever was trouble.”
“It was wonderful and awful at the same time,” says Kathie Browne McGavin. “Everything was so frantic. There was so much to do and so little time. Everybody always was under a lot of pressure. There was lots of location shooting – out at the airport, out in the Valley, out in Pasadena, always some place. I remember the speed, the pace, the energy.” (Quoted from “The Night Stalker
20) 03/28/1975 “Sentry”
No doubt Mrs. McGavin was pleased to read, in an early draft of the
script, that her character, Lt. Irene Lamont, is described as “Not a
dyke.” This was changed, in a later draft, to “a very attractive
young woman,” with a “fetching smile.” The script and the
monster (man-in-a-rubber-suit), are embarrassments from start to finish, being an unabashed rip-off of Star Trek episodes, “Arena” (Gorn
costume) and “The Devil in the Dark” (script). Kathie Browne
shines as the police lieutenant slapping the handcuffs on Carl. Her scenes
with Darren are a prime example of screen chemistry overcoming poor
material. With episodes like this, who could bear a second
Interview with Darren McGavin, written by Susan Lerner; from the Calgary Herald TV Times, March 31, 1983
McGavin’s disillusionment with network television began to sprout in 1974 when he was starring in The Night Stalker series for ABC.
“The Night Stalker only lasted one year because I didn’t want to do it any more,” he says. “The pain in doing that show was excruciating. It was shot from 4:00 in the afternoon until 5:00 in the morning.
“At the time, no one knew ABC was on the air. It was last in the ratings. I asked Barry Dill, when he was president of ABC, to please take some commercials on NBC and CBS so viewers would know we were doing a series that was on the air. Barry Dill said: ‘All right, Darren I’ll take care of it. Trust me, kid.’
“That was on Friday and on Monday he became chairman of Paramount Pictures. Where was all that ‘Trust me, kid’? You wonder why you don’t trust the networks.”
Castle, McGavin Among Winners of Ann Radcliffe Awards
“Producer-director William Castle and actor Darren McGavin are
among the winners of this year’s Ann Radcliffe Awards from the Count Dracula
Awards, named for the 18th Century gothic novelist, will honor
Castle for a career of mystery pix and McGavin for his role in ABC’s
‘The Night Stalker.’” (03/26/75)
Darren McGavin makes a special-guest appearance at Spectrum Con ’76,
proving what the series and Carl Kolchak meant to him, while honoring those who loved the show. For anyone who’s ever gone to a Star Trek or a
science fiction convention, they know the greatest acknowledgment an actor can
make – or the most meaningful “thank you” he can give – is to appear
in public and gracefully accept the praise and adoration of his fans, while
speaking well of the character he immortalized. It’s a rare trait, but one
fans of Darren McGavin would expect him to possess. And never be