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Darren McGavin

By RD Heldenfels Published: February 26, 2006

To me, the great good fortune for an actor is to find a great role somewhere along the way -- a role that sticks in the public imagination, a role that is satisfying to play, a role that other actors can look at with awe. Don Knotts, eulogized below, found that role in ''The Andy Griffith Show.'' Ray Walston, an actor who had done wonderful work along the way, once longed for that kind of role; he looked more than a little enviously at Burgess Meredith, who at the time was enjoying just such a role in ''Rocky.'' Of course, Walston was stuck doing dinner theater at the time, which may have added to his depression; years later, he would have another grand moment in the sun on ''Picket Fences,'' winning Emmys for it.

I'm rambling about this because Darren McGavin has died, and I hope that he has gone to his grave knowing he had had not just one grand role, but two.

The first, of course, is as Carl Kolchak, the intrepid, brash, loud-mouthed reporter in the ''Night Stalker'' movies and TV series. The material was not always what McGavin might have hoped -- especially when it came to the TV series -- but McGavin himself was a joy to watch. He might have inspired a few folks to become reporters, so clear was his ''The Front Page''-style love of scoops and scandal.

His impact -- and I mean HIS impact, not just his show's -- was certainly felt on another generation of thriller writers. When McGavin appeared on ''The X-Files,'' it was not just a guest shot, it was tribute being paid. When his image was edited into the wan, recent updating of ''Night Stalker,'' the homage proved ironic -- a reminder that the new Kolchak had none of the zest of McGavin.

And what was that other great role? If I say ''Christmas,'' does it shake your memory tree?

We could probably argue about the quality of the various ''Night Stalker'' projects. There is no arguing about ''A Christmas Story,'' the big-screen movie that has become a small-screen perennial. And as many good things as there are in the movie, one of the best is McGavin's performance as the Old Man. Think not only of his world-weariness. Think, too, of the way he played a man with a dream, someone who just wanted to have a little well-earned success in his life.

Think of his joy at the leg lamp.

I'm smiling just at the memory.

I have other memories of McGavin over the years, of course, because the man worked steadily. I began to pay attention to him before my age hit double-digits, when he starred in a show called ''Riverboat.'' He had a memorable (though unbilled turn) in ''The Natural.'' But in the end, it did not matter how much he worked. I know the two things that first came to mind when I learned of his passing, and I know those are good enough roles to validate a career.

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