Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on The Youth Killer

By Mark Dawidziak

Pre-Kolchak Cathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman.
     The series kind of fizzled out, and "The Youth Killer" definitely was a case of infinitely more fizzle than sizzle. The evaluation from The Night Stalker Companion:
     Despite some nice touches, like the lap dissolve sequence that ages a runner from twenty-two to ninety, the episode runs out of gas. The buildup is good. The payoff is weak. And some of the age makeup is poor, even by 1975 standards.

      The most notable aspect of this episode was that it marked the third and final appearance of John Fiedler's Gordon "Gordy the Ghoul" Spangler.  After enduring Gordy the Ghoul wannabes in "Chopper" and "The Knightly Murders," we are treated to Fiedler's long-awaited return as our favorite morgue attendant. With Fiedler back in the fold, this is one of the two episodes that comes closest to having the entire cast of regulars and semi-regulars. Only Carol Ann Susi's Monique Marmelstein is missing. In "They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be . . . ", only Ruth McDevitt's Miss Emily is missing.

     And the guest cast, as always, is intriguing:
     Cathy Lee Crosby,  moving from the realm of the incredible in "The Youth Killer," became one of the hosts of ABC's That's Incredible! (1980-84). The year before this episode ran, she was the pre-Lynda Carter Wonder Woman in a TV movie based on the DC comic book. It was directed by Vincent McEveety, the director of "The Knightly Murders" and featured Andrew Prine (Professor C. Evan Spate of "Demon in Lace").

Dwayne Hickman in Dobie days with Bob Denver.
     Dwayne Hickman, best known as television's Dobie Gillis, became a successful programming executive at CBS. In Cat Ballou (1965), he shared scenes with John Marley (Captain Molnar in "Primal Scream"). On Dobie Gillis, he shared scenes with Steve Franken (the morgue attendent in "Chopper").

     The actor billed as Demosthenes was playing Detective Stavros on Kojak at the time of this Kolchak episode. His real name was George Savalas, brother of series star Telly Savalas.

     Busy character actress Kathleen Freeman had been a guest star on dozens of situation comedies. She also has been a regular on several series, including Sandy Duncan's Funny Face (CBS, 1971). One of her co-stars was Henry Beckman, Senator Stephens in "Mr. R.I.N.G."

      Freeman, Fiedler, Demosthenes and the mayonaisse and Hickman's change-of-pace police sergeant provide some lighthearted diversion throughout "The Youth Killer," but the weak script, plodding pace and many logic lapses relegate this one to the realm of lesser Kolchak.

     So, instead of dwelling on the episode's many failings, let us now praise Jack Grinnage, making his last of eighteen appearances as uptight Ron Updyke. Only Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland appeared in more episodes, of course, so, even though rarely given much to do, Ron was an integral part of Carl's Chicago world.

    What follows are excperts from the profile of Jack that appears in The Night Stalker Companion. Let me set this up by assuring Kolchak fans that while Jack was Ron in eighteen episodes, Ron is not Jack. Hardly. Jack couldn't be more gracious and congenial, and he remained a devoted friend to Darren McGavin and Kathie Browne after the series left the air. You've also got to love the scope of Jack's career. He worked with James Dean, Elvis Presley, Bob Newhart, Rod Serling and the Smothers Brothers. He appeared in episodes of Father Knows Best, Playhouse 90, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (with future Kolchak guest star Dwayne Hickman), The Rifleman, Wagon Train, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, The Munsters, The Beverly Hillbillies and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Post-Kolchak, Jack has appeared in episodes of Lou Grant, Six Feet Under and Scrubs. This interview was done in 1997:

     "Actually, I was just supposed to do the first episode," Grinnage says. "Ron was introduced in 'The Ripper' as a character who throws up at the sight of blood. I think the character was Darren's idea. Well, they liked the character and wanted to keep him, but my grandmother was ninety at the time and I was taking her to Europe. Now I never had turned down a job in my life, but I told them that I had already planned the trip and was going."

     Universal enticed Grinnage to stay by offering him a firm commitment for three episodes.

    "Fine," he replied, "but I'm still going to Europe."

     Then they offered him seven episodes. Then thirteen. He kept saying no until they offered him a guarantee of every episode for the season. And, if they failed to write his character into an episode, Grinnage still would get paid. It was a run-of-the-series contract, and only McGavin and Oakland had that distinction.

     "When I told my grandmother," Grinnage recalls, "she said, 'Dear, I'm not dead yet, we'll go next year.' "

     Born and raised in Southern California, Grinnage attended Los Angeles City College, where he became an active member of the drama department. A friend recommended him to an agent, who got him a job on Father Knows Best. He played Bud’s friend, Claude, for about five episodes, then learned that the role had been recast. Welcome to show business.

     But he soon found cause for celebration. Director Nicholas Ray cast him as one of the young hoods in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which starred James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and future Kolchak: The Night Stalker guest star Jim Backus. Three years later, he had another supporting role in another film starring a rebel icon of the ‘50s, King Creole, with Elvis Presley and future Kolchak: The Night Stalker guest star Carolyn Jones. The director was Michael Curtiz, whose credits included The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942).

     "And when I worked with Elvis Presley," Grinnage says, "he just wanted to know about James Dean."

     In 1961, Grinnage was a regular on NBC's The Bob Newhart Show. That same year, he appeared in "The Mind and the Matter," a second-season episode of The Twilight Zone. Seven years and several TV roles later, he was playing a gay hairdresser trying to pick up Darren McGavin's David Ross on NBC's The Outsider. So Grinnage had been an actor for about twenty years when the role of Ron Updyke came his way.

     "One of the two casting people at Universal was Ralph Winters, who had once been my agent," Grinnage says. "I think he was instrumental in getting me the role on Night Stalker. There were six people reading for Ron when I auditioned. I have to think that knowing Ralph helped. That and the fact that Darren and I had had such a great time working on The Outsider. Both those things had to help."

     When cast as Ron, Grinnage was working for the Los Angeles Board of Education. Running the board’s drama unit, he took various programs into schools.

     "I went to my supervisor and told him I had a series," Grinnage remembers, "and he said, 'Well, let's see what happens.' And what happened was that most of my scenes were shot at night, so I was able to keep my full-time day job while doing the series. That turned out to be a good thing because the series went off the air and I still had to make a living."

     Grinnage views his Night Stalker experience with great fondness. His co-stars are what made the show special for him.

     "Darren couldn't have been nicer," he says. "He'd help you with your lines or anything. He was always there for you. Ruth McDevitt was a dear, as was Carol Ann Susi. I still see Carol Ann, who doesn't live too far from me. We get together for lunch every now and then. She's very funny. We'd get our fan mail delivered on the set, and Carol Ann and I would open our two letters.

     "And it was a great honor to work with Simon Oakland. When I was in college, I saw a play called The Great Sebastian, with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. And Simon Oakland was in the cast. That was really my introduction to theater. So it was an incredible thrill to be actually working with him."

     Ron Updyke was supposed to appear in the final episode. Scenes were written for the character, but Grinnage had an offer to do another series. Sure they were going to lose him, the writers cut him out of "The Sentry."

     "Then I ended up turning down the other series, anyway," Grinnage says. "After the show left the air, I remained with the Board of Education until Proposition 13 took that job away. But I'd always made props, and I was offered a job at prop house. So now I do a couple of soap episodes, a commercial, voice-overs, go out on auditions, and then go back to making props. If you saw In the Line of Fire with Clint Eastwood and remember the rabbit's foot with the bullets in it, well, I made that!

     "I’ve worked a lot, and I've been lucky that many of the things I was in became cult favorites, like Rebel Without a Cause or an Elvis Presley picture. So The Night Stalker fits right in with that.


  1. Nice work, as always, Mark. Going to miss your erudite offerings when this is all over...

  2. Thanks for the excerpt from the Night Stalker Companion! That was a wonderful insight on Jack Grinnage and the role he brought to life. I also love the thought of the character being Darren's idea.

    And it's just so wonderful that he has nothing but praise for his co-stars.

    --Crystal Rose

  3. They don't make 'em much nicer than Jack.

  4. Hey! "All over" isn't "done," and "done" isn't "finished!" Anybody think just because we ran out of episodes, there's nothing left to discuss? Think again.

    (Insert seriocomic EVIL CHUCKLE here.)

  5. No brief mention of Reb Brown in this episode? The helmeted CAPTAIN AMERICA of 70's TV watching youth..the time addled futuristic caveman YOR...the indifferent werewolf slayer in HOWLING II and a bunch of other entertaining drivel!

    Never noticed him at all years and years ago but the last time i watched the show,he stuck out like a sore thumb.

  6. I love the scene where Savalas is back in the news room and Carl goes running off. Tony starts conversing with Savalas when all of the sudden he asks "Who are you?!", like it just then dawned on him that he's chit chatting with a complete stranger in his own news room. Oh man, I died laughing at that little bit of business when I re-watched this episode earlier today.