Sunday, February 26, 2006

What A Lousy Day!

I hate doing obituaries.

I had planned to take a quick look at the new contestants in this season of The Apprentice so I could also with good conscience look at the contestants for The Amazing Race, the reality show I really like. Then I heard about the death of Don Knotts. This was followed very quickly by learning of the death of Darren McGavin.

Let's start with Don Knotts. He died late on Friday night of pulmonary and respiratory complications related to lung cancer. Knotts was a TV fixture, and what you knew him as depended on the period in which you saw him. Starting in TV on the soap opera Search For Tomorrow, in 1956 he joined the cast of Steve Allen's Sunday night variety show. This was followed in 1957 by his role as Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show. Knotts and Griffith had first met as part of the cast of the Broadway hit No Time Fo
r Sergeants in which Griffith played hillbilly recruit Will Stockdale and Knotts played Corporal Manual Dexterity. As Griffith described it this was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, and when Griffith got his own show in 1960 he picked Knotts to play the bumbling Deputy Barney Fife. While Barney was scarcely the most effective member of any police force - he got the job of deputy because he was Andy Taylor's cousin - he had an air of a man not exactly corrupted by power but rather one who has allowed power to inflate his sense of importance. This is despite the fact that Andy only allowed him to carry one his shirt pocket. Knotts won five Emmys for playing Barney Fife.

Knotts left the Griffith show in 1965. Reportedly he was under the impression that Griffith intended to end the show after five seasons. They had both signed five year contracts, and by the time Knotts was offered a three year contract to match the one Griffith had signed to continue the show, Knotts was under contract to Universal to do movies. The first part of his movie career included such family films as The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Ghost And Mr. Chicken, The Reluctant Astronaut, and The Love God?. The latter was something of a failure at the box office and Knotts returned to TV in 1970 with The Don Knotts Show. The comedy-variety show only lasted one season despite a cast that included a young Gary Burghoff, and John Dehner. He returned to films in the 1970s, mostly in D
isney films like The Apple Dumpling Gang, Gus, and Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo. In many of these movies he was teamed with Tim Conway.

In 1979 he joined the cast of Three's Company, replacing Audra Lindley and Norman Fell. His character in the show, Ralph Furley, managed the apartment building where Jack, Janet and Chrissy lived for his unseen brother Bart. In some ways Ralph was like Barney Fife, a man who allowed a little power to inflate his sense of self-importance, at least when he wasn't confronte
d on the phone by his brother Bart. Ralph fancied himself a ladies man - but was about the only one who did - and dressed in what he thought would attract the ladies. This included a wide selection of leisure suits and ascots. Knotts stayed with the show until it ended in 1984. Following the end of Three's Company Knotts did a number of guest appearances on TV shows including one on Suzanne Somers' series She's The Sheriff however health concerns limited his involvement. He was added as a recurring character in Andy Griffith's series Matlock but most of his later work was voice work for animation, although he made one memorable cameo in Pleasantville as the TV Repariman. His last credit is as the voice of Mayor Turkey Lurkey in the animated feature Chicken Little, although he made an on screen appearance as himself on a 2005 episode of Las Vegas.

Then there's Darren McGavin. McGavin started his career in the movies primarily in uncredited roles and working in live theatre. In 1951 he replaced Richard Carlyle in the short-lived TV version of the radio series Casey Crime Photographer. He spent much of the 1950s doing parts in anthology series including Tales of Tomorrow, The Philco Television Playhouse, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Robert Montgomery Presents and Studio One. At the same time he was working in movies such as The Man with the Golden Arm. His first series role was in the syndicated Mike Hammer in 1956 playing Mickey Spillane's tough private eye. He followed that with the 1959 series Riverboat in which he appeared opposite Burt Reynolds. During the 1960s he made a lot of guest appearances before playing the loner private eye in The Outsider.

Probably his best known series role was in the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker where he played the somewhat seedy tabloid reporter Carl Kolchak. Kolchak was the perpetually dishevelled protagonist who was continually investigating supernatural events like vampires, werewolves and zombies, all while trying (and failing) to convince his incredulous editor played by Simon Oakland. While Kolchak: The Night Stalker only survived for a single twenty episode season it earned cult favourite status and served as an inspiration for The X-Files as well as the 2005 remake called The Night Stalker. McGavin made two appearances on The X-Files, playing retired FBI Agent Arthur Dales, and more appearances were planned but McGavin's failing health made him unavailable. He also made an appearance in Chris Carter's other series Millenium. Computer sampling from the original Kolchak series was used to allow a young McGavin to make an appearance in the pilot of the new show.

McGavin's last series was the incredibly bad Small & Frye in which he played yet another private eye. Movie and TV movie appearances became a major aspect in his career. This included two Disney films with Don Knotts, No Deposit, No Return and Hot Lead and Cold Feet. Probably his most famous movie role is as "The Old Man" in Christmas Story, a film which has become a Christmas classic. He was 61, old enough to be Melinda Dillon's father and Peter Billingsley's grandfather (they played his wife and son respectively). That and Kolchak are probably the roles he's best known for today. In the late 1980s and early '90s he appeared in guest roles in a number of series, most notably as Candace Bergen's father in Murphy Brown.

According to the AP wire service report of his death McGavin could be difficult to deal with. He said about the Mike Hammer series, "Hammer was a dummy. I made 72 of those shows, and I thought it was a comedy. In fact, I played it camp. He was the kind of guy who would've waved the flag for George Wallace." He also clashed with the network over Riverboat. On the other hand when his role in The Natural expanded to the point where union rules required negotiations over money and billing, he fought over money but was willing to go uncredited to keep the production going.

One interesting thing in the obituary is a statement by McGavin's son Bogart stated that his father was separated from his second wife Kathie Brown. In fact Kathie Brown passed away in April 2003.

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