Saturday, February 25, 2006
Kolchak, Barney Fife portrayers depart
One of the old bad jokes I used to do was to make a remark about that television show from the 1970s that told journalism like it really was.
Someone would invariably say, "Lou Grant," and I would immediately respond, "No, 'Kolchak, the Night Stalker.'"
Only 20 episodes were made of that show, which ran during the 1974-75 season. It was a follow-up to highly successful TV-movies, "The Night Stalker" and "The Night Strangler." The movies and the series starred veteran actor Darren McGavin as Carl Kolchak, a newspaper reporter with a penchant for wearing a beat up hat, rumpled clothes, and ignoring his editor's assignments to chase down the latest vampire, werewolf or headless motorcycle rider that happened to be terrorizing the city.
The TV series was not too successful during its initial run, but has become a staple in reruns, running several times on the Sci-Fi Channel. The production values were nearly non-existent, and the scripts weren't much better sometimes, but McGavin's characterization of Carl Kolchak made them memorable. The show was the inspiration for the later science fiction series, "The X-Files," which had its best episodes when it forgot about conspiracy theories and simply had its FBI agents investigating the kind of horrors that made "Kolchak, the Night Stalker" such fun.
ABC made a horrific attempt to revive the series last fall, but the only things that were similar were the name of the series, its lead character, and the concept of a monster-of-the-week. What was missing was the humor, the heart and above all, the acting of Darren McGavin.
McGavin died today at age 83 after a long illness. His death won't receive as much attention as the death of Don Knotts, but both men created distinctive, memorable characters that will live long in viewers' memories.
As different generations grew to appreciate McGavin's characterization of Carl Kolchak, there probably is no television character as beloved as Knotts' bumbling Deputy Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show." Both viewers and critics loved Knotts in that role, for which he received five Emmy awards in five years.
Even my eighth grade students recognize the name Barney Fife, which has become synonymous for any less-than-capable small town police officer.
Knotts left the Griffith show after those five years for a movie career that some have described as a failure, but he made several movies that still appeal to those who loved his Fife characterization. I was never a big fan of most of his movies, but he made two that have stood the test of time. His "Shakiest Gun in the West," is one of the best comic westerns of all time, while his underrated 1972 movie, "How to Frame a Figg," is one of the best satires on small town corruption has ever been filmed.
Knotts is gone, but considering that America's love affair with "The Andy Griffith Show" has continued to grow over the past four decades, it's safe to say that he will continue to entertain for generations to come.