LOS ANGELES — Darren McGavin, the husky, tough-talking actor who starred in the TV series “Mike Hammer,” played a grouchy dad in the holiday classic “A Christmas Story” and had other strong roles in such films as “The Man with the Golden Arm” and “The Natural,” died Saturday. He was 83.
McGavin died of natural causes at a Los Angeles-area hospital with his family at his side, said his son Bogart McGavin.
McGavin made his film debut in 1945 when he switched from painter of movie sets to bit actor in “A Song to Remember.” After a decade of learning his craft in New York, he returned to Hollywood and became one of the busiest actors in television and films.
He starred in five series, including cult favorite “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” and “Riverboat,” and became a prolific actor in TV movies. Among his memorable portrayals was Gen. George Patton in the 1979 TV biography “Ike.”
Despite his busy career in television, McGavin was awarded only one Emmy: in 1990 for an appearance as Candice Bergen’s opinionated father in an episode of “Murphy Brown.”
He may be best recognized for his role as the hot-tempered father of a boy yearning for the gift of a BB gun in the 1983 comedy “A Christmas Story.” The film has become a holiday-season staple on TV.
Strong supporting roles in film
McGavin lacked the prominence in films he enjoyed in television, but he registered strongly in featured roles such as the young artist in Venice in “Summertime,” David Lean’s 1955 film with Katharine Hepburn and Rosanno Brazzi; Frank Sinatra’s crafty drug supplier in “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955); and Jerry Lewis’s parole officer in “The Delicate Delinquent.”
McGavin’s other films include “The Court-martial of Billy Mitchell,” “Airport ’77” and “Billy Madison.”
Throughout his television career, McGavin gained a reputation as a curmudgeon willing to bad-mouth his series and combat studio bosses.
Of the private eye series “Mike Hammer,” he told a reporter in 1968: “Hammer was a dummy. I made 72 of those shows, and I thought it was a comedy. In fact, I played it camp. He was the kind of guy who would’ve waved the flag for George Wallace.”
McGavin’s other series: “Crime Photographer,” “The Outsider” and a short-lived sitcom, “Small & Frye.”
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Childhood on the run
Born in Spokane, Wash., McGavin was sketchy in interviews about his childhood. He told TV Guide in 1973 that he was a constant runaway at 10 and 11, and as a teen lived in warehouses in Tacoma, Wash., and dodged the police and welfare workers. His parents disappeared, he said.
He spent a year at College of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., taking part in dramatics, then landed in Los Angeles. He washed dishes and was hired to paint sets at Columbia studio. He was working on “A Song to Remember” when an agent told him of an opening for a small role.
“I climbed off a painter’s ladder and washed up at a nearby gas station,” McGavin said. “I returned through Columbia’s front gate with the agent.” The director, Charles Vidor, hired him. No one recognized him but the paint foreman, who said, “You’re fired.”
McGavin studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio and began working in live TV drama and on Broadway. He appeared with Charlton Heston in “Macbeth” on TV and played Happy in “Death of a Salesman” in New York and on the road. His strong presence and assertiveness made him an ideal star for TV drama series.
He is survived by his four children York, Megan, Bridget and Bogart.
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