Monday, January 30, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on The Knightly Murders

By Mark Dawidziak

The Dehner Factor
Maybe we've stumbled on something wonderfully mystical here, and I don't mean the plot. I'm calling it the Dehner Factor. Think about this. Late in the fifth season, The Twilight Zone clearly was out of gas. Some of the classic anthology show's weakest episodes are in this wheezy home stretch. For the most part, the scripts are repetitive, uninspired and not all that imaginative for a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. But in the midst of this mediocrity, one delightful episode stands out: "Mr. Garrity and the Graves," with John Dehner as an Old West con man who claims he can bring back the departed citizens in a town cemetery. It's not a great episode. It has a few basic problems, and certainly no one would rank it with the very finest Twilight Zone gems. You wouldn't even mention it in the same breath as the early fifth-season episodes penned by Richard Matheson, notably "Steel" and "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." But "Mr. Garrity and the Graves" does show that the dying series still had some kick, and much of that kick is provided by Dehner's magnificently droll performance while surrounded by several other future Kolchak players: Stanley Adams (Fred Hurley in The Night Stalker and Louie the Bartender in "The Devil's Platform"), Kate Murtaugh (Janie Watkins in The Night Strangler), J. Pat O'Malley (the cemetery caretaker in "The Zombie"), John Mitchum (the janitor in "The Energy Eater"). It stands out in this last batch of Zone stories, and it's that rarity among Rod Serling scripts -- a comedy that works.

"Mr. Garrity and the Graves" aired in May 1964. Flash forward about eleven years, to March 1975. Here again is John Dehner giving a magnificently droll performance in a final batch of otherwise uninspired episodes. Preceded by "Legacy of Terror" and followed by "The Youth Killer," "The Knightly Murders" charts way up and demonstrates in high-spirited fashion that Kolchak still had some kick left as the end was drawing near. And, again, Dehner is a tremendous part of that kick. He is in typically fine form as the flattering, grandiloquent Captain Vernon Rausch, a police officer who is all style and no substance. And there you have it: the Dehner Factor.

But, to be sure, many things go splendidly right in this knight stalker caper, which, if not in the same class as "Horror in the Heights" and "The Spanish Moss Murders," ranks with "Chopper" and "The Vampire" in the second tier of memorable episodes (those with some obvious flaws, and yet, the fright-and-fun elements far outweigh the flaws). This remains one of my favorite episodes . . . because of Dehner, because of Dehner and McGavin working together so well, because of Hans Conried, because of Conried and McGavin working together so well, and because the Michael Kozoll-David Chase script, despite the familiar ending, gleams like a freshly polished suit of armor. The boys were having a good time, and it shows in scene after scene.

Dehner's television resume is a packed one, of course, but he got his Hollywood start as a Disney animator, working on both Fantasia and Bambi. His mellifluous voice yielded jobs as a disc jockey, and the versatile Dehner also was a good enough musician to work as a professional pianist. Just a few of his memorable TV credits: two more episodes of The Twilight Zone (Captain Allenby in "The Lonely" and engineer Alan Richards in "The Jungle"), two Columbo mysteries (aviation investigator Roland Pangborn in "Swan Song" and the title murder victim in "Last Salute to the Commodore"), four episodes of The Rifelman, two episodes of Bonanza, twelves episodes of Gunsmoke, three episodes of Hogan's Heroes, one of The Andy Griffith Show (con man Colonel Harvey in “Aunt Bee’s Medicine Man”) and a  Mission: Impossible two-parter (“The Contender”). Between 1960 and 1983, he was a regular on ten network series.

Hans Conried in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
Conried also adds several moments of fun, making the most of his screen time as museum curator Mendel Boggs (a name that might be suggesting mental and bugs as possible character traits). TV fans know Conried as Uncle Tonoose on The Danny Thomas Show (Make Room for Daddy), the English tutor and aspiring songwriter in a 1952 episode of I Love Lucy and Wrongway Feldman on two episodes of Gilligan's Island, . Animation fans know him as the voice behind Captain Hook in Disney's Peter Pan (1953) and Snidley Whiplash on Rocky and His Friends. Dr. Seuss fans know him as the cruel music teacher in the film version of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953) and the narrator of the TV version of Horton Hears a Who.

And it was in this episode that Carl Kolchak made his most definite statements about being Polish. In Jeff Rice's original book, Kolchak tells us that his paternal grandfather, Anton Mihail Kolchak (nicknmaed Mike), was Rumanian with an endless supply of folk tales. Darren McGavin decided that Kolchak was a Polish name, and moved the Kolchak family point of origin in north-westerly direction. Strolling into a coat-of-arms store, Carl is attacked by the smooth-talking proprietors. Oh, they say after he tells them that Kolchak is Polish, "you must be descended from Archbishop Kolchak of Cracow." Kolchak doesn't think that's likely. Well, they say, maybe you're a descendant of Baron Kolchak, "the Lion of Warsaw." He ends up buying a "Kolchak" coat of arms. Polish or Rumanian, it's one of several mirthful scenes (given a merry push by busy character actor Robert Emhardt).

This was the only episode directed by Vincent McEveety, the television veteran whose long list of credits includes several episodes of The Untouchables, Star Trek, Gunsmoke and Murder, She Wrote. He was the helm of seven of the twenty-four Columbo mysteries that Peter Falk did for ABC between 1989 and 2003. He also directed such Disney comedies as The Strongest Man in the World (1975), Gus (1976) and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979). His cast for The Strongest Man in the World included Phil Silvers, Dick Van Patten and James Gregory, all of whom appeared in episodes of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. 

"The Knightly Murders" also contains one of my favorite Tony Vincenzo lines, perfectly delivered by Simon Oakland. Surveying the madness that is the INS bureau, Tony asks, "Why do I always feel like I don't belong here?"


  1. I had no idea that John Dehner started out as an animator.

    And I know Disney's Peter Pan so badly (though I wish I didn't) that I had no idea that Hans Conried played Captain Hook.

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  3. **edit for spelling error - Man, I wish you could EDIT your posts here!

    I'll always think of this episode as being like a SCOOBY DOO cartoon episode because there was a similar knight in shining armor "monster" in the Scooby episode "What A Night For A Knight!".

    I like this episode a lot, for all the reasons mentioned above and below.

  4. Too bad Darren McGavin was never a guest star on those Scooby Doo celebrity episodes. Be a hell of a lot more entertaining seeing Kolchak and the gang solving some monster caper together than Davey Jones or Mama Cass.

  5. Dehner also appeared in one of the scariest radio episodes ever: "Three Skeleton Key" on SUSPENSE, along with Vincent Price (it was performed several times, only once with Dehner).

  6. John Dehner was also the voice of Paladin for the HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL radio episodes. Coincidentally he showed up on an episode of the Richard Boone TV series.

  7. Dehner's radio resume also includes a fine (short-lived) radio western called "Frontier Gentleman." He plays a British reporter covering the old West. It's been replayed on SiriusXM's "Radio Classics" and there are some episodes on You Tube.