Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A TIP OF THE HAT TO DON, DARREN AND DENNIS



I’m not sure there’s a lot left to be said that hasn’t already been covered in the papers and by other bloggers regarding the deaths this past week of of Don Knotts, Darren McGavin and Dennis Weaver, but I feel the need to say something anyway. I feel the need to at least acknowledge their place in the foundation of my own awareness, growing up immersed in the relatively new medium of television, an awareness of those certain personalities and faces that stood out amongst the sea of personalities and faces transmitted into my childhood living room, even in pre-cable days when just the two channels we had in rural Oregon felt like a bounty.

But those two channels carried Gunsmoke, The Andy Griffith Show and, later, Dan Curtis’s original TV movie The Night Stalker. Weaver’s Chester Goode and Knotts’s Barney Fife were both iconic and exaggerated comic portraits of the kind of folks I grew up around in my small town—friendly, doggedly enthusiastic, and in Fife’s case, desperate for a bit of respect, responsibility, big-city validation. Knotts’s characterization is truly one for the ages, and he was lucky enough to find himself in a splendid setting—Mayberry and The Andy Griffith Show-- that seems as good-natured and complete a portrait of small-town life, TV fantasy division, as anyone might ever need. Indeed, Griffith and Leave It to Beaver are two of the only shows from the period that fulfill the requirements of that fantasy vision, of viewer nostalgia, and of a high quality of television comedy-- that is, the shows are genuinely funny and remain so, some 50 years after they first aired. In the case of Griffith, that is due in no small measure to the exasperation, the bug-eyed tension, and the very sweet soul of Barney Fife. (I loved him too in The Incredible Mr. Limpet and, perhaps my favorite Don Knotts movie, The Shakiest Gun in the West. In fact, I remember actually wanting to be Don Knotts in that movie, if only for the occasional opportunity to bump up against the lovely Barbara Rhoades.)

Weaver, like Knotts, seemed to always be on the tube when I switched it on. I used to get him mixed up, when I was very young, with comedian Charley Weaver, so that may account for some of his seeming ubiquity. (And, believe it or not, I used to own this toy when I was about three years old—my, how standards have changed!) Gunsmoke was a weekly ritual for our family, but I knew Chester Goode mostly from syndicated repeats—by the time I was a regular prime-time viewer Chester had moved on, replaced by Ken “Festus” Curtis. But Weaver still made an impression on me in those repeats, as a character and an actor—I can always remember thinking I could imaging liking him in real life. (This was one of the first stirrings, I think, of the concept of respect in my tiny little head.) But, of course, Weaver made his biggest impression on those of my generation in Steven Spielberg’s landmark TV-movie Duel, a mean bastard of an efficient, terrifying thriller in which Weaver’s ineffectual protagonist (on a road trip we’re led to believe may be at least in part inspired by a desire to escape a badgering wife at home) is tormented by a truck driver (never seen) and driven (literally) into a primal state of self-defense during some of the whitest-knuckle suspense sequences seen up to that time (1971). It remains a standard bearer for TV movies and theatrical films, many which have tried, and failed, to match its unique temperament and technique. But while Spielberg has gotten the lion’s share of credit for the movie’s success, it may be late now but just as necessary to acknowledge the perfectly pitched, weaselly sort of everyman quality that Weaver, who relished the character’s fear and paranoia, brought to the table.

And then there was that other TV movie starring Darren McGavin. As Carl Kolchak, doggedly insistent newspaper reporter who tracked down both The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler in two record-breaking TV movies (before moving on with the character to a disappointingly undercooked ad short-lived series), McGavin brought a new shading of world-weary cynicism to the standard horror film protagonist. Skeptical at every turn, the fun to be had in between bone-chilling scares (at least in the first movie) was in seeing Kolchak’s cynicism slowly stripped away, to watch him becoming a true believer in the bared fangs and sinister seductive power of Barry Atwater’s elusive vampire. Of course, once that cynicism had fallen away, the second movie (and the series) became less fun because Kolchak was already predisposed to believe the most outlandish explanations for the shocking events that seemed to follow him around wherever he went. But there was always McGavin’s exasperation at his boss, Simon Oakland, at Oakland’s refusal to accept Kolchak’s wild stories, which both actors milked for as much comedy as possible, usually with success. And the way he wore that rumpled khaki suit and straw hat, you just knew he was a TV icon in the making. (McGavin has a small role in David Lean’s 1955 romance set in Venice called Summertime, starring Katherine Hepburn and Rosanno Brazzi, and there’s a shot of him waiting for his wife to board a gondola that made me rub my eyes—he’s wearing an almost perfect match of Kolchak’s uniform, sans hat, and I suddenly feared that a giant sea serpent might rise out of the canal and swallow him whole.) But McGavin was almost as memorable as Ralphie’s forever-swearing (in beautifully rendered mock cusses) dad in Bob Clark’s rumpled and hilarious A Christmas Story-- his symphony of obscenity inspired by poor Ralphie spilling a hub cap full of lug nuts into the snow while trying to help Dad change a tire is as gaspingly funny as anything I saw on a movie screen in the beleaguered ‘80s.

A friend of mine commented to me the other day that it’s strange, being of a certain baby boomer age, to see these people we grew up with on TV starting to reach old age and death. It’s different than seeing the old guard of movie stars, whom we perceive as being from a different age, passing on. And it’s different too from seeing people like John Belushi and River Phoenix, who passed away too young from excesses of lifestyle to which we might not all be able to relate. Folks like Knotts, Weaver and McGavin were three faces who we literally grew up watching, seeing them grow older in much the same way we might watch an uncle or a grandparent age. I think we can forgive ourselves, then, our lapses into a certain sentimentality, our feelings of sadness that men whom we never really knew, men who gave us Barney Fife, Chester Goode and Carl Kolchak, are no longer with us.

8 comments:

blaaagh said...

Nice tribute, Dennis! It is rough to lose three big Ds who are so much a part of our TV-watching youth. I've been having fond memories of not only The Andy Griffith Show, but also The Ghost and Mr. Chicken...I never could stand to watch a whole episode of Three's Company, but I recently caught an old Griffith episode and was impressed with how funny and good it was! McGavin was a warm and sarcastic presence all over the TV landscape, and the original NIGHT STALKER movie was so scary, I had to go to bed; I couldn't stand it anymore...until it was re-run and I screwed up my courage. And yes, A CHRISTMAS STORY is one of his unforgettable ones. Weaver always reminded me of my dad, especially in DUEL and in McCloud (I was a big Mystery Movie fan, and McCloud always seemed like the least popular but very likable one of the bunch).

Anonymous said...

Nicely written, Dennis. And thank you, Blaagh, for reminding me of "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken," a movie that frightened me as a kid, as impossible as that might seem when looking at it today. It might have been the unnatural way that Don Knotts's eyes bulged outward when he was frightened on screen that had a lot to do with it.

For me, "The Night Stalker" is one of the best made-for-TV movies from that era, and McGavin's performance is very good comic performance amidst all of the supernatural goings-on. I don't know if it was the first "vampire in Las Vegas" movie, but it's the first one that I can recollect, and the setting made it creepy (loved the fight scene in the pool). And McGavin had a marvelous cast to work with (thanks to IMDb)-- the aforementioned Atwater and Oakland, Carol Lynley, Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins, Charles McGraw, Kent Smith, Elisha Cook Jr., Larry Linville and Virginia Gregg. And you are absolutely right about that suit and hat McGavin wore, Dennis. Very cheesy.

I had the pleasure of working on some of the old half-hour episodes of "Gunsmoke" (including an episode that aired just days before I was born), and it was then that I had a chance to see more of Dennis Weaver as Chester Goode, Marshal Dillon's deputy who spent a good deal of time broke, so he was constantly asking the marshal for his wages or for an advance on his wages. Or Chester was always trying to improve on the coffee he made at the sheriff's office, and judging by Dillon's reaction, he was never very successful. And his byplay with Milburn Stone's Doc Adams was sensational. It's also worth mentioning that Weaver played the motel night manager in Orson Welles's "Touch of Evil," a bespectacled bundle of raw nerves who could have easily been Norman Bates from "Psycho" under a different set of circumstances (or maybe it was the presence of Janet Leigh in both films that is making me think of this).

Virgil Hilts

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Blaaagh: I can't say I never saw a complete episode of Three's Comapny, but I'm working very hard to forget that I did. And that was certainly not the work for which I'll remember Don Knotts. I too had forgotten about The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, which certainly deserves recognition right up there with Shakiest Gun and Mr. Limpet-- and while we're at it, I remember getting awfully excited whenever The Reluctant Astronaut showed up on Sunday-afternoon TV. (But the less said about The Love God?, I think, the better...)

Virg: I'd forgotten about how good the cast of The Night Stalker was! Ralph Meeker? Kent Smith? Claude Akins? Virginia Gregg? Elisha Cook, Jr. It's a film noir who's-who! And thanks for the reminder about Dennis Weaver and Touch of Evil. I think he probably was Bates' cousin or something. It's funny to think that if Janet Leigh thought she had a hard time in that motel, well, she really did have another thing coming, didn't she?

(Tangentially, do you remember that old Josef von Sternberg movie Jet Pilot, with John Wayne as an American flyer and Leigh as his accentless Russian (!!!) counterpart? It's in the office right now, and oh, how Ms. Leigh has cast a spell over the boys in our room here. She sports a very attractive brown dye job (what, no platinum blondes in the USSR?), tight cashmere sweaters and the most spectacular bullet bra in the history of cinema. As Slim Pickens once said, "Holy mother o' peral, I am impressed!")

Robert said...

I never got to see Weaver in his Chester incarnation until really late (in the last 4 years or so, when Hallmark would syndicate those old GUNSMOKE's as MARSHALL DILLON), so most of my memories of him are of his MCCLOUD character, and the neurotic victims of DUEL, TERROR ON THE BEACH (where he and his family are terrorized by biker scum), and a mid-80's tv-movie ripoff of POLTERGEIST (the title which currently escapes my memory) where he, Valerie Harper, the kid in POLTERGEIST who's almost eaten by a tree, and Ruth Gordon are systematically knocked off by the vengeful spirit of their dead daughter - and his role as the Night Man in TOUCH OF EVIL (which almost is a bizarre alternate of PSYCHO in the motel sequences). A very underrated, if well-liked, performer, and he'll be missed.

Just happened to be watching the entire KOLCHAK saga on disc (the movies and the series) when news of McGavin's death hit... made it very whistful as Kolchak walks into the dark, tape recorder in hand.

Having Don Knotts die is like having a favorite (but dotty) uncle die.

So many great character actors passing on - and with no one of equal caliber to even attempt to fill their shoes.

Maya said...

You must have grown up just down the block from me, Dennis!! That post speaks right to my early 50s and my nostalgia for those media-formative years.

I love the bit about the Charley Weaver / Dennis Weaver mix-up and the toy!! Do you still have that? It must be worth somethin'!!

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Damn! "Mother o' peral," for all you Blazing Saddles fans, should obviously be "Mother o' pearl!"

blaaagh said...

Guys, thanks for giving me another excuse not to work (really!)--I'm glad to hear others remember THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN fondly. I remember being SCARED of the blood on the organ keys (you may remember that it seemed to play all by itself, or by unseen ghostly hands).

I'd also forgotten, Virgil, that all those great actors were in THE NIGHT STALKER! And about the pool scene...yikes. Dennis, I saw JET PILOT, or most of it, on, of all places, AMC recently. What a strange movie! But I definitely concur about Janet Leigh...yowza. And Robert, thanks for the reminder about TERROR ON THE BEACH--I'd totally forgotten about that one! I can't remember the POLTERGEIST rip-off, but jeez, it sounds too campy to miss if ever I get the chance to see it.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Maya: The Charley Weaver toy is, I'm sure, several levels down in some Southern Oregon landfill project by now, working its way into the Earth's crust. (My parents were never very sentimental about keeping our toys around past their usefulness to us.) What an odd love-hate relationship I had with that toy. It used to terrify me and enthrall me with its whirring cogs and simple mechanical movement, and I remember that I would sit at stare at it for what seemed like hours, but were probably only minutes (a minute seems like an hour to a toddler-- I remember at least that much!) Can you imagine a toy company producing such an item, or a parent giving such an item to a child, in this day and age? Oh, but the lawsuits would be a-flyin'!