Saturday, June 11, 2011

Kolchak: The Night Stalker ... "The Ripper"

Darren McGavin as Kolchak
Certainly one of my favorite TV memories, Kolchak: The Night Stalker (hereafter Kolchak) is one of television’s best-remembered and influential detective series. However, it lasted only 20 episodes. Based on a novel by Jeff Rice titled The Kolchak Papers, the TV rights to the story were acquired by ABC before the book was even published. A pilot special was adapted from the novel by Richard Matheson, a marvelous writer of science fiction and thriller stories, as well as one of The Twilight Zone’s most prolific writers. The pilot was released in 1972 as The Night Stalker, and garnered good ratings. In 1973, a second pilot was written by Matheson, The Night Strangler, also well-received by TV audiences. So in 1974, ABC put Kolchak in its Friday night lineup in the 10:00 slot.

Simon Oakland as Vincenzo
Produced by Dan Curtis (of soap opera Dark Shadows fame), Kolchak was considered a risk, certainly completely different than detective stories before it. Carl Kolchak was played by Darren McGavin, best known now as everybody’s favorite holiday Dad in A Christmas Story. Kolchak was not actually a detective, but a newspaperman who worked for Chicago’s Independent News Service. Kolchak would have to work for an independent service because he was anything but a company man. Aggressive, fast-talking, dark-humored, ready with an insult and intolerant of stupidity, Kolchak was the perfect reporter. He drove a yellow mustang convertible (which today would be a coveted item!), and always dressed in a rumpled light blue suit, battered hat and well-worn tennis shoes. And to boot, when Kolchak ran down a story, it always turned out to be something supernatural, from werewolves to vampires, from aliens to the subject of this article, Jack the Ripper. His long-suffering and frustrated boss Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) gave Kolchak rather free rein for his eccentric behavior and wild ideas, but Vincenzo did a lot of shouting when his star reporter ignored his orders and finagled his way out of the office on a chase for the story.

Jack Grinnage as "Uptight"
Other members of the staff included Ron Updyke (Jack Grinnage), not Kolchak’s favorite co-worker. Updyke’s newspaper experience consisted of writing for financial pages, and Kolchak never passed up an opportunity to show his disdain for the nervous little guy, usually referring to him as “Uptight.” Another staff member was sweet, elderly Miss Emily Cowles (Ruth McDevitt) who answered letters for the advice for the lovelorn column. Other regular characters were introduced in later shows: Captain “Mad Dog” Siska (Keenan Wynn); the “Ghoul”, a helpful morgue attendant (John Fiedler Gordy); and rich intern Monique (Carol Ann Susi). Regular appearances were made by Carol Lynley, Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins, Elisha Cook, Jr., Margaret Hamilton and John Carradine. Quite an impressive list of actors. Kolchak was the success of the season, and a great many popular actors appeared in roles or cameos, including Phil Silvers, Scatman Crothers, Hans Conreid, Mary Wickes, Dwayne Hickman and Jim Backus.

Kolchak and Vincenzo as usual
The introductory episode of Kolchak is also my favorite – The Ripper. Only Vincenzo and Updyke were in evidence as INS staff. Actually, Miss Emily did appear, but at this point was not yet a regular. Narrated by McGavin in a style of which Mickey Spillane would be proud, the story begins as Kolchak is being punished by Vincenzo for a previous assignment in which he angered the police commissioner. He is being forced to answer the letters for Miss Emily’s column while she is on vacation. You can probably imagine his reaction to the letters from the lovelorn and his abrupt answers, to say the least. However, women are being murdered and mutilated, and Kolchak is not about to let that kind of a story get by him. He manages to go out on the prowl, putting himself in all kinds of dangerous situations, including a funny scene in a massage parlor. After one murder, the killer is seen on a rooftop and police are chasing and shooting at him. Kolchak arrives in time to see the killer leap from the tall building, land without a scratch, and fight his way through the tactical force in a hail of bullets, escaping into the darkness. As he discovers more about the killer, Kolchak becomes convinced that he is not just a Ripper copycat, but the actual Jack the Ripper who killed 5 women in 1888 London.

Ruth McDevitt
Beatrice Colen as Jane Plumb
One of Kolchak’s eyewitnesses, at least to the Ripper’s appearance and possible residence, turns out to be one of the the letter-writers to Miss Emily’s column. The lady is played by Ruth McDevitt, a wonderful character actress who must have made such an impression she was hired to be a regular. A reporter from a competing newspaper, Jane Plumb (Beatrice Colen), is also out for the story. She is a sweet, naïve lady who has received a letter from the Ripper, and believes she can meet with him for an exclusive. Kolchak does not find out until too late about her plan to meet the Ripper. Not only is it sad, but also a lost opportunity for an interesting regular on the show.  Colen would have been the perfect foil for Kolchak's curmudgeonly character.  He then goes to the house reported by the elderly lady as the home of the killer, and comes face to face with the Ripper.

Mickey Gilbert as the Ripper
Mute but menacing
The opening music and credits for Kolchak were memorable.  Composer Gil Melle, also responsible for the music of Night Gallery, wrote the theme.  Kolchak enters the empty office at night, whistles a tune (which he also does through the show), the music begins as a pleasant little tune, then turns darker. Kolchak seats himself at his typewriter, begins to write, the music becomes more sinister, the room darkens, he looks to the side anxiously, and the frame freezes. I found the opening on Youtube, and present it for you here.

Many factors combined to make Kolchak a short-lived series. The main problems were office politics, behind the scenes squabbling over production credits, and McGavin’s increasing disappointment with the progress of the series. He called it “Monster of the Week”, and when the ratings finally dipped, he was able to be released from his contract. I think McGavin had a good point. There is only so much you can do with a limited story type until it gets repetitive and loses the element of surprise.  (A current television series, House, has been called “Disease of the Week”, but it has managed to stay interesting because of great ensemble acting and several side-stories unrelated to the medical issues.)  It is really a shame that Kolchak could not be developed further.  The character was unique, the writing excellent, and it would have been just as good without monsters.  Unfortunately, once it started out that way, there was no turning back.

Despite its short run, Kolchak is well-remembered by many viewers. It was even the major inspiration for X-Files creator Chris Carter. He stated that besides his own creative ideas, it was not Spielberg’s movies or The Twilight Zone that inspired him, but Kolchak, particularly because he admired Richard Matheson's work on the show. Not a bad legacy for a brief but unique television series.


  1. The Night Stalker was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a young tad. It made me a devoted fan of Darren McGavin, who was easily one of the finest actors in the history of the cathode ray tube--anytime I see his name as guest star in the credits of any series I know he's not going to disappoint me.

    I revisited the show when it was reran on the Sci-Fi channel years back and sadly, it didn't hold up as well as I remembered. There are some good episodes in there--I'm particularly fond of the Phil Silvers ("Glad to see ya!") outing, "Horror in the Heights," as well as "Firefall," "The Devil's Platform" and "Demon in Lace"--but the one thing about the show that still holds up is the byplay-chemistry-whathaveya between McGavin and Simon Oakland. People probably don't remember that the sequel to the 1971 Night Stalker movie, The Night Strangler, isn't particularly good (though it was watched by many) but the scene where Oakland and McGavin's characters cross paths again is the clear highlight.

  2. Marvelous review, Becky, of what has become a true cult TV series. When THE NIGHT STALKER was originally broadcast on the ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK, it was the highest rated made-for-TV movie in history. I think the THE DAY AFTER, courtesy of a lot of hype, may have eclipsed that. I enjoyed the sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, too, which I believe featured a city underneather Seattle that served as the villain's lair. The TV series was a lot of fun for the reasons you described. I agree with McGavin that the "Monster of the Week" approach was growing tiresome, so ending the series when they did was not a bad thing. It seems like reruns have popped up on the networks or cable frequently over the years. I remember when THE CBS LATE MOVIE ran repeats on Friday night for several years and SyFy also had success with a KOLCHAK run. Even if some parts of the show date, McGavin's entertaining performance and his scenes with Simon Oakland are timeless. This was a great pick, Becks, and thanks for the link!

  3. Splendid review, Becky, of a wonderful series (which, thanks to Netflix, is easily accessible for me). Darren McGavin will always be The Old Man to me, as I've seen A CHRISTMAS STORY about 287 times, but he was an exceptional actor, and quite prolific as well. I think the "Monster of the Week" formula worked well and could have worked as a prelude to just about any storyline or character development the writers wished to pursue. THE X-FILES basically had the same thing. There was the arc of Mulder's sister and the Smoking Man, etc., but all of that was so confusing and inconsistent that the most fondly remembered episodes are each an "X-File of the Week", such as "Clyde Bruckman's Final Respose", "Home" and "Ice". The currently running SUPERNATURAL began as a "Monster of the Week" but has since spawned engaging plots and arcs and recurring characters, which I think would have happened with KOLCHAK if it had more time. Every series has a formula. Changing things about a particular show certainly keeps it fresh, but, sadly, it also causes numerous viewers to turn the channel (even some of the ones who complain about the formulaic element). A much appreciated post, Becky, for sparking a lively discussion and waking up my sleepy brain!

  4. Becky, this is one of my favorite TV series. I loved how he was only armed only with a camera. Carl Kolchak, doesn't seem very brave and yet, somehow, this news reporter in his beat-up straw hat can stand up to any vampire or blood-thirsty creature of the night. This unlikely hero is one of the most unique characters in the history of television.


  5. Thanks so much, guys. 4 comments are plenty for me when they are from favorite people, with interesting, thoughtful info and opinions! Kolchak is just one of those shows that I always remembered -- I love suspense, the supernatural and the wonderful character of Kolchak as done by McGavin!

  6. Becky, it has been a long time since I have seen "Kolchak" (back to high school years) but I enjoyed it a lot, too. Richard Matheson penned some very creative works including "I am Legend" and its film counterpart "The Last Man on Earth," and "Bid Time Return" and its film "Somewhere in Time." He also seemed to be intrigued with L. Frank Baum, describing him appropriately as "The Dreamer of Oz."

    You did a great job analyzing why "Kolchak" may have been short-lived and how it inspired Chris Carter's "The X-Files." Like you, I think that the character Jane Plumb would have made a great counterpoint to Kolchak. There can be strength in numbers. This was a great tribute to the very talented Darren McGavin. Excellent work, Becky!

  7. Hi Toto! Great to hear from you! I'm a big Richard Matheson fan as well, and whenever I see his name I know it will be something good. Darren McGavin was such a good actor -- lots of people anymore only know him as Ralphie's Dad (LOL), but he was so versatile, and could play nasty as well as endearing. Thanks for your nice comment!

  8. Loved THE NIGHT STALKER. Even the weakest of episodes are lifted by McGavin's laconic narration. I'm glad to see that the series is finally receiving its due. Re: McGavin's versatility...did you ever see the pilot episode of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN? He plays Steve Austin's cynical, ruthless boss, and he's a million miles away from nice old Richard Anderson in the regular series.

  9. I must not have seen that pilot. McGavin would have been a great deal for that series - wonder why he didn't stay on? Or if they didn't want him?

    I'm such a Kolchak film too, and as you saw, I wish they could have figured out a way to keep the series going by seguing away from monsters. McGavin was wonderful. Thanks so much for your comments Sextonblake. You are really going through posts here! Good to see you again after your viist of yesterday!

  10. Hello Becky. I love that you're giving acknowledgement to one of the great forgotten television shows of the 70's. I still have fond memories of waiting all day Fridays for a new episode of 'The Night Stalker'. The other day I was watching 'Lawrence of Arabia',
    and couldn't help but notice the similarity between the clothes the reporter in that movie was wearing and that worn by Darren McGavin in 'Kolchak: The Night Stalker'.
    The resemblance struck me as more than a mere coincidence. Was the costume designer or whomever came up with the outfit inspired by the film? That 'getup' was an intrinsic aspect of McGavins charactor. Do you have any idea if that was the case. Thank you.