Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Atta Boy Luther!

The tail end of February threw up a bad weekend for seventies TV stars whose first name started with ‘D’. In the space of 48 hours the Internet Movie Database ruled a line under the entries for Don Knotts, Darren McGavin and Dennis Weaver. Off hand, Little Mr Square Eyes can’t remember a higher rate of attrition amongst actors — even counting the 10 days in October 1985 when Rock Hudson, Yul Brenner and Orson Wells popped their clogs.

A steady stream of tributes have since flowed on to the interwebs — including the whiskery old joke about Hugh Hefner, Dennis Weaver and Mick Jagger — but certain scenes and lines percolate through LMSE’s memory and demand an airing.

After leaving The Andy Griffith Show, Don Knotts started working under contract for Universal Pictures. The Ghost and Mr Chicken (1966), produced in just 17 days, was the first and funniest film he made under this arrangement.

Mild-mannered typesetter Luther Heggs, attempting to break into the newsroom of the Rachel Courier Express, stays overnight in the deserted Simmons place where 20 years before a murder had been committed. Indelible evidence of the crime remains on the blood-stained keys of an ancient pipe organ (“and they used Bon Ami!”).

Despite a woeful inability to deliver an orginal joke (“The electrician must be a Democrat”) Luther solves the crime and wins the girl (“Atta boy Luther!”). Confused? Watch the DVD and discover a time when B-grade movies were made with some thought and a finely-tuned cornball aesthetic rather than an FX budget.

Darren McGavin began working in movies at the end of WWII but is best remembered for his television roles in Mike Hammer (1956-59) and Riverboat (1959 -1961) along side a young Burt Reynolds. McGavin was a guest star in countless television shows and won an Emmy playing Candace Bergman’s father in Murphy Brown however, for Little Mr Square Eyes, it was Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974) that defined his career.

Lasting but a single season (it did better than the ’05 re-make that tanked after nine episodes) Night Stalker’s lasting achievement was scaring the living shit out of small children around the world throughout the seventies. From a distance of 30 years it’s surprisingly easy to recall the mixture of anticipation and anxiety accompanying the start of each episode.

Breezy opening music ushers reporter Carl Kolchak into a darkened newspaper office, then abruptly gives way to some brutal cello work as he starts typing. The word VICTIM is typed out in extreme close-up and then fragments of two lines “— the river. He came at me —“ and finally “— kind of monster”. It finished with a freeze frame of Kolchak’s eyes as he spun round to see whether there was a seven-foot ghoul snuffling up behind him or just Miss Emily checking if he wanted a cup of camomile tea.

Next came a Chandleresque monologue to set the scene and some wonky special effects, all tied together by the grouchy, rumpled relentlessness McGavin brought to the role. Add to this the series helped inspired Chris Carter, creator of the X-files, plus kicked off the career of David Chase, head honcho of The Sopranos and Kolchak: The Night Stalker is rightly a cult favourite.

If you haven’t seen the episode where Kolchak is skittishly sewing up a zombie’s lips when its eyes suddenly open, or you aren’t even a little uneasy when somebody warns “Peremalfait’s gonna get ya”, it’s time to head back to the DVD store (and maybe pick up a bayou gum wood spear while you’re at it).

Dennis Weaver was an actor who also rode the first big wave of international television celebrity with three notable roles during the 50s, 60s and 70s — Gunsmoke (1955 – 1964), Gentle Ben (1967 – 69) and McCloud (1970 – 77), as well as starring in the made for television movie Duel (1971) which marked Steven Spielberg’s feature-length directorial debut.

Using the tried and true ‘fish out of water’ convention McCloud was built around the idea of a Deputy Marshall from New Mexico seconded to the New York Police Department to learn the ways of big city policing. Inevitably McCloud ignored these ‘slicker techniques in favour of more down home methods that always proved more efficient – much to the chagrin of his boss who (you guessed it) wasn’t supposed to like him but deep down really did.

Relying only on the shifting sands of childhood memories I have a strong impression McCloud was partially played for laughs but nothing will erase the excitement of seeing Weaver in one episode ride a horse through the streets of Sydney and across the Harbour Bridge, just a few months after LMSE and his family had visited the city for a holiday. The big, wide world suddenly seemed a little closer that night and really, can you ask any more of television?

Special thanks to Mike Winkel creator of the "Fiction and Reality: The Kolchak Papers" website for additional information on the Night Stalker series.