By Mark Dawidziak
"Take my advice," Kolchak says at the end of this episode, "run to the nearest exit."
With these words, after two TV movies and twenty supernatural encounters of the series kind, Darren McGavin's Carl Kolchak ended his prime-time career. Weary of the show, McGavin took his own advice and ran for the nearest exit.
The 1997 evaluation of "The Sentry" from The Night Stalker Companion:
|Kathie Browne and Darren McGavin|
Star Trek fans noticed the resemblance between this finale and the Horta episode, "Devil in the Dark." It was a weak finale with one very strong element -- the presence of Darren McGavin's wife, Kathie Browne. If you're thinking nepotism, forget it. When they married on New Year's Eve 1969, Browne had her own list of acting credits, which included episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ("Bed of Roses" and "Wally the Beard") and Star Trek ("Wink of an Eye"). She also had been a regular on two series: Slattery's People (CBS, 1964-65) and Hondo (ABC, 1967). Far more than a curiosity, her Lieutenant Lamont would have made an interesting recurring character. Obviously ambitious and all steel under that soft exterior, Lamont isn't above using her feminine charms to get what she wants. Now here's an intriguing twist: Carl Kolchak, played by her husband, is the only male in the episode wise to her game and immune to her wiles. "Hey, ease up on her, Kolchak," one moonstruck reporter says, "she’s just doing her job." An amazed Kolchak grumbles back, "Yeah, sure, yeah, so was Adolph Eichmann." If Kolckak: The Night Stalker had remained on the air, this character would have been worth exploring in more of a three-dimensional way -- a strong and smart woman who knows she must play some games to survive on a man's police force.
So, yes, I like the Kolchak-Lamont dynamic. And I sure like the idea of a vast cave system housing a being with raptor-like teeth. If hardly high-caliber Kolchak, "The Sentry" at least tries to shake up the formula a bit. Unlike most Kolchak episodes, it begins with an action sequence, of sorts, involving our hero -- Kolchak racing through the Merrymount Acrhive tunnels in that golf cart. This sequence, the title monster's body suit (lizard head plopped onto stunt man Craig Baxley in a Lost In Space kind of way) and, well, the entire episode are emblematic of the series, creating the eeriest mood possible while cutting every possible budget corner. The lobby of Universal City’s landmark MCA Black Tower office building doubles for the lobby of Merrymount Archive. And this was a typical cost-cutting maneuver with Universal television shows. You can spot the Black Tower lobby and elevator bank in other Kolchak episodes, too (and Columbo mysteries and other Universal series of the period).
Still, the storytelling seems off in this episode, and I definitely miss the grounding that a choice Ron Updyke or Miss Emily scene would have given this. And, for me, some of those golf-cart scenes get rather tedious after a while, if not downright laughable. There's an "all right, enough already" aspect to Carl looking as if, late for his tee time, he's racing to meet the other members of his foursome. Not quite a Mystery Science Theater 3000 moment, but perilously close. Would it have been more satisfying to see Kolchak go out in stronger style? Absolutely. Was this among the very worst episodes of the one-season series? Well, the bottom of the Merrymount caverns isn't the bottom of the barrel, but you can see it from here.
There's something fitting about Kathie Browne's presence in this episode, particularly because she had such great understanding of how much her husband brought to the role of Carl Kolchak: "The people who really love The Night Stalker love Kolchak because he never gives up," she told me. "He's fighting, always fighting. You can take the monsters and take them to be anything you want -- the government, big business, corrupt officials. Their hero comes through at the end, beaten up but ready to go on fighting another day. I think Darren has a lot of that in his own personality."
When I asked Darren what he thought about that, he replied, "Well, when you're working that fast in television, you have to draw on yourself. You use who you are to a greater extent than you would in a play or a film."
And while missing Ron and Miss Emily, some of the guest stars certainly are worth noting: Tom Bosley, best known as Howard Cunningham on Happy Days, as Jack Flaherty; John Hoyt as Dr. Lamar Beckwith; and Margaret Avery as Ruth Van Galen. Hoyt's film credits ranged from Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953) to the science-fiction sex spoof Flesh Gordon (1974). He also was in When Worlds Collide (1951), Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Spartacus (1960), His television roles include Dr. Knox in "The McGregor Affair," a 1964 episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Dr. Philip Boyce in "The Menagerie," the Star Trek pilot turned into a two-part first-season episode. He also was in a 1959 episode of McGavin's Riverboat, two episodes of The Twilight Zone ("Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up" and "The Lateness of the Hour"), three episodes of The Outer Limits ("I, Robot," "The Bellero Shield" and "Don't Open Till Doomsday") and two episodes of The Munsters. Avery was ten years away from her role as Shug in director Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple.
Curious blue? Curious yellow? This also was the episode in which Kolchak's Mustang convertible picks up its nickname -- "the Yellow Submarine." In The Night Stalker, Kolchak drove a 1968 blue Camaro convertible.
Eight days after this last Kolchak episode aired, McGavin was honored with the Count Dracula Society’s Ann Radcliffe Award. This was the thirteenth year that the society recognized chilling achievement in film, television and literature. One of the hosts for the evening was Janos Skorzeny himself, Barry Atwater.
So, why and how was Kolchak: The Night Stalker canceled? A persistent myth has been that new ABC entertainment chief Fred Silverman killed the show because he didn't like it and he didn't like fantasy. Yes, it is true that the hot young programmer left CBS to become president of ABC Entertainment in 1975. It is also true that under his direction ABC went to number one in the ratings for the first time in television history. If you are looking for cultural crimes to place at Silverman's doorstep, consider that in the late seventies he jumped to NBC, where he tried such masterworks as Pink Lady, Kate Loves a Mystery and Super Train.
But the killing of Kolchak cannot be pinned on him. If Silverman hated science fiction so much, why did schedule Buck Rogers in the 25th Century when he was at NBC? More to the point, however, Silverman didn't join ABC until June 1975, well after Kolchak: The Night Stalker shut down production and accepted a cancellation notice.
What killed Kolchak? Let's be honest. Low ratings certainly had a great deal to do with its demise. Stuck in a poor time slot against fierce NBC competition (all four of NBC's Friday series made that season's top fifteen), Kolchak: The Night Stalker didn't crack the top fifty. Out of eighty-four series aired during the 1974-75 season, Kolchak finished a miserable seventy-fourth. It averaged only 13.6 percent of all television homes (the top show of that season, All in the Family, averaged 30.2 percent). Only one series in the bottom twenty was renewed, and that was a little cop comedy in its first season --Barney Miller. All of the other series with less than a fifteen rating, including The Night Stalker, were canceled. So, whether Silverman liked the show or not, it had almost no chance of seeing a second season.
And whether Silverman had been the new boss or Martin Starger had stayed, a certain amount of cleaning house would have occurred. The 1974-75 season was a total disaster for ABC. Deep in third place, the Alphabet Network couldn't place one series in the season's top fifteen. Only three ABC series made the top thirty.
The last stake in the Silverman legend is driven by Carl Kolchak himself -- Darren McGavin.
"Do you want to know who canceled this series?" the actor told me. "I canceled it. I was tired. I wasn't having any fun. I couldn't face another season of it. So I called [Universal TV boss] Frank Price and said, 'I want out.' He said, 'Well, ABC has to decide. . . ' So I called Marty Starger and said, 'I want out.' He said, 'Well, we need to talk to Universal. . . ' I said, 'Look, will you two get together and cancel this thing.' The next day I got the phone call telling me I was free."
A February 1975 interview with columnist Ward H. Mosby of The Milwaukee Journal confirms McGavin’s disenchantment. “I hope they cancel this show as quickly as they can and get it out of their corporate, pinheaded minds,” he told Mosby. “This is not the show I started out to do, and rather than try to pump life with a hypodermic needle into something that's just dying, I'd rather bury it and put it out of its misery."
Far more detail on this in The Night Stalker Companion.
At Universal, only a few voices of sorrow could be heard.
"When the show was canceled, there was a wrap party," Michael Kozoll said. "Almost nobody attended."
You might be thinking that, after all the fighting and a trip to the hospital, Cy Chermak would have been glad to see Kolchak: The Night Stalker get canceled. You'd be thinking wrong.
"I was relieved to have the all the stress come to an end, but I wasn’t happy to see the series come to an end,” the producer said. “I wanted to make it work. And I thought it deserved a second season to find an audience. I thought it deserved a chance. Most shows need at least two seasons to click with the audience and get things on track.”
He's right, you know. Some of television's most-celebrated series were slow starters on the verge of cancellation after one season. Three notable examples: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Twilight Zone and Hill Street Blues. Many series not facing cancellation after one season still don't hit their creative stride until the second year.
"I don’t like to give up,” Chermak said. "I thought we could have learned a lot from that first season. I felt we would have clicked with the audience in the second season. And in 1997, I think I was right. Look, the show is still running on the Sci-Fi Channel. People are buying the tapes. It's a cult success with only twenty episodes. There are fans all over the world. There's this guy named Dawidziak who's writing a book about it. So, yes, I think I was right. It should have been given another chance."
Had the show gone into a second season, we know some of the stories that would have been tried. Start with the two that might have been in the first season. On March 12, 1975, Daily Variety reported that ABC and Universal had agreed to cut the twenty-two episode Kolchak: The Night Stalker order by two. At this point, the production team had two more completed scripts, another well on the way to being finished and several others in various stages of development.
"There was over $75,000 in unproduced material," Darren McGavin said. "There were unproduced scripts, story outlines, story ideas. There were about ten ideas in some form of development when we shut down."
If there had been a twenty-first episode, it probably would have been "Eve of Terror," a script taken to final draft by Stephen Lord and Michael Kozoll in early March. The two writers had collaborated on "Demon in Lace." Kozoll was one of the writers on "The Knightly Murders." "Eve of Terror" opens in the audio control room of an acoustics laboratory. Behavioral researcher Myra Deckbar and technician Wayne Franks are studying the effects of high-frequency sound on guinea pigs. The sonic stimulation experiment goes tragically wrong when Myra is mistakenly trapped in the sound chamber. One hazardous frequency unleashes a murderous alter ego in the mild-mannered scientist. Her first victim is Wayne Franks. One might describe the unproduced episode as Dr. Deckbar and Ms. Hyde. How about Kolchak meets She-Hulk? While the influences might be obvious (they usually were in Kolchak episodes), the writers' motives were sensational.
"That was our statement on noise pollution," Kozoll said. "You could do that kind of thing on The Night Stalker. I don't think you saw much of that on television at that time."
The other completed script was "The Get of Belial," which Donn Mullally submitted in early January. Mullally was one of the six writers who had worked on "The Devil's Platform," and, like that episode, this one involved the prince of darkness.
In "The Get of Belial," Kolchak is covering a miners' strike at the Associated Anthracite Building in West Virginia. Glenn Maynard, the president of Associated, is considered the prince of darkness by picketing union miners. When Maynard is killed, the union is suspected. But the real culprit is Sonny Blackshear, possessed son of faith healer Sarah Blackshear. A beautiful child, Sonny was turned into a beast by the devil, "Old Belial." Belial offered Sarah a deal. She could have her beautiful child back if she would stop preaching and healing. She refused, and only her mother's love can temporarily bring out the good in Sonny. The climactic confrontation takes place in a coal mine. After nearly killing Kolchak, Sonny falls to his death in a deep shaft. In death, the beast is gone. There remains only the smooth features of Sarah Blackshear's beautiful boy. When Carl tries to get the story printed, he asks Tony if he's ready to accept a living devil. "I have to, Kolchak," the editor answers. "I hired you, didn't I?"
If "The Get of Belial" had been placed on the production schedule, story editors David Chase and Rudolph Borchert probably would have put it through a final-draft rewrite. Mullally's script was in five acts instead of the usual four. Chase says there were other why "The Get of Belial" was moved back on the order of scripts.
"It was a good story," Chase said. "But, as I recall, most of it took place in West Virginia. That would have required expensive location shooting of some kind. We always faked Chicago by using the Universal backlot sets. That helped to keep costs down on an expensive show. We were always looking for ways to keep costs down."
To that end, Chase was writing a script that would be very cheap to shoot.
"I was working on what's called a bottle show," he recalled. "That's when you never have to leave the studio. You can do the whole thing on the lot. Everything is in the bottle. My idea was to have Carl Kolchak on assignment in Hollywood, and there's a monster hiding out on the old Phantom of the Opera set. Everything could have been done at Universal, which was the studio where Lon Chaney shot The Phantom of the Opera."
In interviews granted during the 1974-75 season, McGavin, who maintained a strong creative input, told reporters that the writers were working on stories involving Bigfoot and the Medusa of Greek mythology.
"You name a monster or legend from any culture," Chase said, "and we probably talked about using it. If there had been a second season, sooner or later, we'd have gotten around to Bigfoot."
"Bigfoot was the other idea Bob Gale and I pitched to them,” Bob Zemeckis recalled. “That was the one they rejected. I think we just took it to story. I don't there ever was a full script."
A Russell Bates story titled "The Piasa Bird," supposedly would have launched the second season. "The Executioners" was a script pitched by writer Max Hodge. Bates was the co-author (with David Wise) of “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth,” an October 1974 episode of the animated Star Trek series. A Native American writer, Bates had taken "The Piasa Bird" to the treatment stage. It would have dealt with a militant Native American leader who could summon an ancient bird creature. There's more, but this gives you some idea of what a second season of Kolchak: The Night Stalker might have resembled.