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.