Kolchak: The Night Stalker Is The Obscure ‘70s Sci-Fi Show That Influenced a Whole Generation
You’ve probably never heard of the quirky horror/sci-fi oddity Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which lasted only one season on ABC back in the mid ‘70s. You’re probably more familiar with its star, Darren McGavin. His face is very familiar, no? Can’t quite place it? Well, let me tell you how you know him.
He’s The Old Man, the cranky Dad to Ralphie, the Red Ryder BB gun coveting tot in the classic holiday movie, A Christmas Story. Yep, the guy who won the legendary “major award” leg lamp, cursed the broken furnace into submission, and had his Christmas turkey eaten by the infamous Bumpus hounds. For most, he will be forever attached to that iconic role but for me, and a lot of genre fans, he will always be the scruffy, never say die newspaper reporter who reluctantly fights monsters.
Made-for-TV Movie Beginnings
In the mid ‘70s, ABC was deeply mired in last place in the TV wars. A reminder: this was decades before cable, satellite, and streaming. Hell, Fox TV wasn’t even around. The TV landscape back then: ABC, CBS, NBC, and whatever PBS station was in your area. That’s it. Oh, and no Blockbuster, no DVDs, no VHS cassettes, nada. Wrap your mind around that: only four choices of TV to watch on any given night. And one more thing: broadcast stations usually signed off every night about 1 AM until the next morning. Wouldn't it drive you nuts ?
An unpublished novel by Jeffrey Grant Rice called "The Kolchak Papers” was optioned by ABC for the purpose of producing a made-for-TV movie. Legendary genre writer Richard Matheson (Twilight Zone, I Am Legend) was hired to adapt the novel into a screenplay titled The Night Stalker, about a disheveled, wise-cracking Las Vegas newspaper reporter tracking a serial murderer, only to find the killer is actually a vampire. McGavin was perfectly cast as Kolchak, and the film shocked the world by becoming the highest rated TV movie in the history of any network at the time, with a phenomenal 33.2 rating/54 share. For some reference, the highest rated broadcast show nowadays averages about a 3 rating and a 12 share. Granted, there are many more choices now, but that disparity. WOW.
Needless to say, ABC was beside themselves with joy, and immediately commissioned Matheson to write a sequel, and carried over most of the cast for the new movie. The sequel was titled The Night Strangler, and relocated Kolchak to Seattle, where he investigated a series of grisly murders in the creepy Seattle Underground area. The baddie in this one was a centuries old maniac, who used his victim’s blood to stay alive.
The Night Strangler was also a ratings winner, which gave ABC something to think about. ABC originally intended to make a third Kolchak movie, but decided instead to take the plunge, and do a weekly TV series. So Kolchak: The Night Stalker was born.
Darren McGavin VS. ABC
McGavin was very excited to reprendre his role, but also wanted more creative control of the final product, negotiating Executive Producer duties even though he never received an on-air credit for such work.
The show didn’t have an overarching mythology: rather, it was basically an episodic “Monster of the Week” series. Kolchak was relocated once again, this time to Chicago, where he worked for the Independent News Service or INS for short. Simon Oakland remained as Tony Vincenzo, his bellicose boss. The comedic chemistry between the two actors was amazing, and gave a welcome counterpoint to the otherwise creepy goings on.
Only 20 episodes were made due to the fact that McGavin was tired of the interference with his vision from the ABC suits. Here’s a sample of his mindset from a 1975 interview with Wade Mosby.
"I hope they cancel this show as quickly as they can, and get it out of their corporate, pinheaded minds. We started out with expectations of where we were going and what we were going to do. Now we don’t seem to know either answer, so I’d be more happy if they’d dump it. Quick."
Mosby: But what specifically is the matter?
McGavin: "There’s a huge pool of mediocrity that I’m trying to extricate from. It’s not the bosses. It’s the system. It’s group decisions….it’s the structure. That, and a certain amount of what’s really contempt for the audience."
Mosby: What contempt? Trying to make the viewers believe in monsters and ghosts?
McGavin: "We don’t necessarily challenge the audience on tricks and monsters – they don’t have to believe. This show has to be tracked from the standpoint of fun and games. And that hasn’t been done. This is not the show I started out to do, and rather than try and pump life with a hypodermic needle into something that’s just dying, I’d rather bury it and put it out of its misery."
Why The Series Was So Influential
Even though it only lasted one season, Kolchak: The Night Stalker was one of the most influential TV series ever, and here are a couple of reasons why.
First, one of the staff writers was none other than David Chase, who just happens to be the same man who created the HBO mega-hit The Sopranos.
Chase penned 8 episodes, but the one with the strongest connection was “The Zombie,” which pitted a Chicago organized crime family against a grieving mother. The mob killed her son, and she used Voodoo to resurrect him to make the family pay for its misdeeds. The Soprano family was going to be used in the story, but Chase decided to keep that idea in his back pocket for later use, which turned out to be a very lucrative choice.
The second, and by far the most relevant reason to this discussion, is the influence the show had on Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files. Carter has said repeatedly, the show was a huge influence in his creation of The X-Files. Here’s what he said in an interview with Lisa Maccarillo in 1994:
"I was inspired by the show Kolchak: The Night Stalker. It had really scared me as a kid, and I wanted to do something as dark and mysterious as I remembered it to be. So, I was able to say to Fox, when they hired me to an exclusive deal, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I had the track record and the know-how to develop the show, cast it properly, and produce it the way I wanted it to be produced. Although there's no Kolchak character in The X-Files, the spirit of the show is in many ways the same."
Carter wanted McGavin to reprendre the role of Kolchak for The X-Files, but he refused. Instead, he was cast in two episodes, as retired agent Arthur Dales, dubbed the “Father of the X-Files.”
McGavin was also honored during the current X-Files reboot cycle, with a character from the episode “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” looking VERY much like old Carl Kolchak himself. Check it out:
Darin Morgan, a veteran writer/Director for The X-Files, said this to the New York Post:
“Night Stalker and X-Files have always been intertwined. I just thought it would be funny to have the guy dressed as Kolchak, because he was basically the inspiration for Fox Mulder.”
Disney even announced a few years ago that a Kolchak movie was in the works with Johnny Depp attached; however the current progress of that project is unknown.
So there you have it. I would urge any genre fan to seek out and experience the mastery of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. It is currently available to stream on Amazon.
Photo credit: cover A Kolchak A Day, first photo MGM, second photo Universal, third photo ABC, and fourth photo Fox