By Robert Simonson
27 Feb 2006
Mr. McGavin lent his rugged looks, gravely voice and likeably sly persona to a wide collection of characters, ranging from the disheveled investigative reporter in the cult TV series “The Night Stalker,” Frank Sinatra’s oily dealer in the drug-addiction drama “The Man With the Golden Arm” and an avuncular, regretful bartender in the 1989 Off-Broadway hit The Night Hank Williams Died. While never a household name, his face was widely recognizable to the public, particular fans of the classic holiday comedy, “A Christmas Story,” in which he played Peter Billingsley’s irascible 1940s dad, who daily battled unstable boilers, the hillbilly neighbors’ many smelly hounds and his son’s constant requests for a kiddie air rifle.
In his most famous stage role, he portrayed the original Bill Starbuck in N. Richard Nash’s 1954 dustbowl drama The Rainmaker , opposite the Lizzie of Geraldine Page. He had another hit with the Joseph Fields and Peter DeVries comedy The Tunnel of Love in 1957. He stepped into the Henry Fonda role in William Gibson’s 1959 hit Two for the Seesaw .
His other Broadway credits include the 1961 play Blood, Sweat and Stanley Poole and a 1966 revival of Dinner at Eight , directed by Tyrone Guthrie, in which he played faded movie star Larry Renault.
His theatre debut was in the 1944 Off-Broadway play, No Rhyme, No Reason, during which he met his first wife, Melanie York. Beginning in 1949, he toured as Happy for 18 months in the road company of Death of a Salesman . He also worked extensively in regional and summer stock theatre.
His most famous small-screen role, as reporter Carl Kolchak, began in 1972 with a hit television movie that led to the 1974-75 supernatural thriller series, “The Night Stalker.” In a typical episode, the rumpled, straw-hatted Kolchak was trying unsuccessfully to convince his editor that vampires were terrorizing the city, or swamp creatures infesting the sewer system, only to be sent to cover the flower show instead. The show ran for only a short time, but developed a following and is thought to have influenced “The X-Files” (in which Mr. McGavin made a guest appearance). In recent years, he appeared as Candice Bergen’s father in “Murphy Brown.”
His film appearances were less frequent, but occasionally rewarding. Shortly after his success in The Rainmaker on Broadway, he played a smooth, dapper, dope dealer who kept Frank Sinatra in thrall in Otto Preminger’s then-searing portrait of addiction, “The Man With the Golden Arm.” Around this time, he also played roles in David Lean’s “Summertime,” “The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell” (also directed by Preminger), “Beau James” and “The Case Against Brooklyn.” His film career declined until “A Christmas Story” became a surprise hit in 1983. That was followed by one of his best-known performances, as wily gambler Gus Sands in Robert Redford’s baseball fable “The Natural.” However, Mr. McGavin was reportedly so unhappy about constant haggling over his billing and salary, that he asked not to be listed in the movie’s credits.
According to the AP, he was born in San Joaquin, CA, and spent his youth living in warehouses in Tacoma, WA, after his parents mysteriously disappeared. He studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse under Stanford Meisner.
Living by his wits may have helped him get his start in acting. Hired to wash dishes and paint sets at Columbia studio, he heard there was an opening for a small role in the film "A Song to Remember," director by Charles Vidor. "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 paint foreman fired him instantly. Vidor, however, hired him.