You might remember him as the dad in A Christmas Story or Murphy Brown’s father, but Darren McGavin had many television and film roles in a long acting career.
It was late in his career that McGavin found those “dad” roles, usually as the harried, excitable father dealing with things gone wrong.
McGavin appeared in a variety of stage productions and films, even one he wrote, but television was his bread and butter.
In the mid 1940s, young McGavin was appearing onstage and working in films, in minor, uncredited parts. In 1951, he landed the lead television in the gritty, pulp character series Crime Photographer.
In 1958, he returned to series television as the hard-boiled Mike Hammer (above) for two seasons. After that, he immediately moved into the Riverboat (below with co-star Burt Reynolds) series for two more years.
McGavin had confidence and swagger, which landed him various action-drama roles. While he was athletic playing cowboys and cops, he also played thinking-man roles. There was a folksy, easygoing quality about him.
In the 1960s, McGavin played in a few films, but most of his work was in episodic television and the emerging made-for-television film. He did accept a series, The Outsider, as a big city private eye, which lasted a season.
In 1970, McGavin starred in two significant TV movies. In The Challenge, he plays Gallory, chosen to battle a Chinese soldier for the rights to an American space capsule, recovered by a third country. Gallory had a reputation for going his own way, not always obeying authority, and perhaps wanted a chance to redeem himself. In this film, McGavin played a man with a past, troubled and his eagerness lets him down. Given the chance to accept help, clearly outside the agreed rules, Gallory refuses. There is very little dialogue in this film, it is mostly action and flashback. By this time, McGavin was 48 years old, normally a bit long in the tooth for a combat soldier, but he was in good shape and just grisled enough for the roguish Gallory.
The same year, he filmed Tribes, a TV movie about a hippie Marine draftee who is at odds with Marine thinking. McGavin is his drill instructor who tries to break him, but ends up understanding him better, just as he goes AWOL. McGavin looked fit in a Marine uniform.
Over the next couple of years, McGavin continued working in both television and film, including several TV movies as Carl Kolchak (below), a newspaper reporter of cases involving the supernatural. These films led to a series that ran for one season, although it still runs in syndication.
In 1983, McGavin stepped into the role as Ralphie’s father (below), in A Christmas Story, based on the Jean Shepherd story. All the old man wanted was his Christmas dinner and his leg lamp. Nothing else McGavin did in his career surpasses this film, which air everywhere at Christmas. McGavin was in his 50s when he played this role, but he usually played younger men.
In the late 1980s, McGavin played Murphy Brown’s dad on the Candice Bergen series, and Adam Sandler’s dad in the Billy Madison (below) film.
His acting career started in theatre and he returned to it throughout his life. He probably could have appeared in more film character roles, but television offered so many diverse lead and featured roles. He was not only a familiar face, he had a distinctive voice and was hired for audiobooks. McGavin kept working right up till his death.