Monday, January 2, 2012

Mark Dawidziak - The Night Writer

When we chose Kolchak: The Night Stalker for our next daily blog, we immediately sent an invite to Mark Dawidziak, author of The Night Stalker Companion. We were very excited when Mark agreed to come on board It Couldn't Happen Here, as he will be able to provide insight and a historical context to the show to balance our commentary, which will be based on our revisiting of the show, and any historical context we can recall from our original exposure to it. Once again, we thought it would be appropriate to launch the blog with an interview with Mark to understand how he came to be a leading authority on this popular show.

What were the circumstances surrounding your first exposure to Carl Kolchak?

    Growing up in the New York area, I was turned—twisted?—into a horror fan at the tender age of seven. Blame it on regular exposure to classic Universal horror films and Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. I devoured anything and everything that had the merest scent of horror, including The Twilight Zone (yeah, I know it's far more fantasy than actual horror) and The Outer Limits, Dark Shadows, Hammer horror films, Lon Chaney silents, '50s science fiction . . . anything. I had all of the original Aurora monster models (still do). I used money saved from my Long Island Press paper route to buy paperback copies of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula. I'm taking the long way around the moat here to suggest that I was well prepared for my first meeting with Carl Kolchak.
    I was fourteen in late 1971 when WABC Channel 7 started airing commercials for a TV movie called The Night Stalker. Given how much of my previous seven years had spent delighting in the undead companionship of such vampiric gents as Count Dracula and Barnabas Collins, you can bet your last Las Vegas slot machine nickel that these commercials grabbed my attention—by the throat. So on January 11, 1972, ours was one of the 33.2 percent of the nation's TV households watching The Night Stalker. Even with all the horror I'd seen and read at that point, I'd never experienced anything like this Las Vegas adventure with Carl Kolchak. Horror makes special demands on the suspension of disbelief, but that was no problem with The Night Stalker. It seemed like we were watching the account of something that had actually happened—TV was just providing a window onto these events. To say I was enthralled would be an exercise in understatement, but, then again, so was much of the country.
    Yet there may have been other reasons this film knocked me for the proverbial loop. By the age of 14, I was equally intrigued by comedy and mystery. Indeed, it was an airing of Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein that first introduced me to Universal monster movies, which eventually introduced me to Basil Rathbone, who ignited an interest in Sherlock Holmes, which took my love of mystery to a new height. The remarkable thing about The Night Stalker is that it also works as a mystery story and as a comedy—with humor playing a bigger role in The Night Strangler and an even bigger role in the series, which story editor David Chase has pointed out was structured as much as a sitcom as it was a horror show. So, for me, The Night Stalker was a home run on all three fronts. The mystery and humor came along for the wild ride, but I'd be disingenuous if I didn't admit that horror was the main attraction for me. That's what I was expecting when the film started. What I wasn't expecting was that I'd gain a new hero. I've told the tale until it has gone stale, but it's eminently true that I became a newspaper journalist because of Carl Kolchak. He was my idea of what a reporter should be—and still is. And other journalists have told me the same thing—that Carl Kolchak perfectly captures the spirit of what a reporter should be.

What inspired you to write Night Stalking, the original Night Stalker Companion?

    My second book, The Columbo Phile: A Casebook, was published in 1989 by the Mysterious Press, an imprint of Warner Books. I absolutely knew what my third book was going to be—a tome about Dashiell Hammett. The people at the Mysterious Press liked the concept, and we all agreed it would be a dandy follow-up book to The Columbo Phile. I was deep into the writing when Warner Books cut back the non-fiction list for the Mysterious Press, leaving me, for lack of a better term, at liberty. Just one of many, many book projects that didn't work out.
    I was kicking around some other ideas when Ed Gross, a fledgling publisher with a small press, tracked me down at the Akron Beacon Journal, where I'd been the TV critic since 1983. He told me he was a big fan of The Columbo Phile and asked if I'd ever considered doing a similar book on The Night Stalker. I told him, yup, I sure had, but I didn't think there was a publisher crazy enough to print it. He said, "Well, I'm crazy enough." So I said, "Well, okay, but first let me see if this is feasible. If I can get Jeff Rice, Dan Curtis, Richard Matheson and Darren McGavin to cooperate with such a book, I'll give it a swing." Each quickly signed on and, pre-Internet and home computer, I set out on the research and interview trail. I was completely and not-so-secretly delighted, by the way, because my first book was a slice of theater history and the second was about a mystery series, and I'd never let go of my childhood obsession with horror. This was the ideal opportunity to step into the horror field, writing about a character that meant so much to me. But if Ed hadn't called and suggested the book that became Night Stalking, I'm not sure it would have been something I would have pursued. In fact, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have, simply because I wasn't sure how many people shared my Kolchak brand of insanity. Even though I was a TV critic, I wasn't necessarily thinking about another TV book, either. If anything, I was thinking about another book in the mystery field. But Night Stalking altered the course a bit, allowing me to creep into the horror realm.

One might think that everything to be said would have been in the original book. What led to the The Night Stalker Companion: A 25th Anniversary Tribute?

    As tickled as I was with Night Stalking, I realized almost immediately that I should have dug deeper in certain areas. The book was envisioned as a 20th anniversary celebration of the original movie, and that's how I approached it. So I thought I'd done a fairly good job with the two TV movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, but that I'd treated the 1974-75 series as almost an afterthought. And certain key aspects of the movies and the series, like the music, were completely ignored. The chance to revise and expand Night Stalking into The Night Stalker Companion: A 25th Anniversary Tribute, gave me the opportunity to correct those oversights. It also gave me the chance to put more people on the record, including such delightful contributors as producer Cy Chermak and series regulars Jack Grinnage and Carol Ann Susi—good people all. Getting to know Jack and Carol Ann was a tremendous side benefit of this new version. The three of us shared a Night Stalker table at a horror convention a few years ago (Carol Lynley and Richard Kiel were at separate tables), and we just had a blast.
    It's amazing how many rewards have come my way through this ongoing association with Carl Kolchak. The publisher of The Night Stalker Companion was Pomegranate Press, started by Kathryn Leigh Scott, who played Maggie Evans on Dark Shadows. Kathryn has remained a dear friend over the years.
    Another reason for The Night Stalker Companion was that Night Stalking did not have the best design or distribution. It was a fairly limited run, and between its publication in 1991 and the The Night Stalker Companion in 1997, The X-Files had become a phenomenon with series creator Chris Carter telling anyone who would listen that it was inspired by The Night Stalker. That provided some pop-culture juice for a new edition.

Why do you think the show is still appealing to audiences, almost 40 years later?

    Two words: Carl Kolchak. From the standpoint of horror technology, the movies and the series obviously look dated. With the first movie, much of what seemed so fresh and startling in 1972 doesn't seem all that innovative almost 40 years later. Vampire storytelling in particular has been such a constant throughout those four decades, and vampire special effects have traveled light years past The Night Stalker. Don't get me wrong. It was and is a great basic idea—a hard-nosed reporter tracking down a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas of all places. Everybody immediately recognized the strength of Jeff Rice's original concept, combining the feel of Stoker's Dracula with that of a 1930s Hollywood newspaper comedy. Richard Matheson recognized it (and the man is not easily impressed). Darren McGavin recognized it. Dan Curtis recognized it. But what gives this great idea its vitality, its believability, its irresistible appeal is Darren McGavin's portrayal of Carl Kolchak. It's as essential to this film as Bela Lugosi's portrayal of the title character is to Dracula (1931). Much of the Lugosi film seems dated, too, but commitment to that character is what draws you back time and again. I think the same is true of McGavin's work in The Night Stalker, even as we acknowledge the splendid contributions of Jeff Rice, Richard Matheson, John Llewellyn Moxey and Dan Curtis. Secondarily, what has kept the original film so appealing is the mistrust of power and authority that runs through it. Horror almost always has some profound metaphoric basis, and here's this government corruption story that actually airs before the Watergate scandal broke. That's a theme that has grown in resonance over the last 40 years. How many people feel betrayed by those in power? How many feel let down by our institutions? Carl Kolchak is the reporter as hero before anyone knew the names Woodward and Bernstein. McGavin's Kolchak is Van Helsing for the Watergate era. He is Prof. Van Helsing's spiritual son and Buffy Summers' spiritual father.
    But throughout the original film, the sequel movie and the series, the constant is McGavin as Kolchak—the ideal blending of actor and character. TV is a character-driven medium, and, before anything else can work, the connection between the character and the audience must be strong. McGavin made that magic work in 1972, and it still works today. I know because The Night Stalker is the only thing I show students in both the classes I teach each semester at Kent State University (albeit for very different reasons): Reviewing Film and Television and Vampires on Film and Television. Almost no one in these classes has seen it before, but the magic still works on a generation brought up on Supernatural and True Blood.        
You're also responsible for the first Kolchak fiction published following the TV show. Tell us about the origin of Grave Secrets

    Night Stalking was printed in 1991 by Image Publishing. The publisher, Ed Gross, had started a sister imprint, Cinemaker Books, for licensed novels based on TV shows. I think he started with Beauty and the Beast. After the publication of Night Stalking, he asked Jeff Rice about writing a new Kolchak novel. When Jeff passed, Ed asked if he'd let someone else write an original Kolchak novel. Jeff was pleased with how Night Stalking turned out, so he said, yes, I'll let Mark Dawidziak do one. So Ed calls me up and says, "Guess what? You're going to write the first new Kolchak novel in about 20 years." And my response was, "Whoa, hold on. I'm flattered, but I don't even know if I can do this." I thought about it and told Ed and Jeff, "How about I work up four ideas for a Kolchak novel. If there's one we all like, I'll give it a try." Jeff liked all four ideas, but Grave Secrets was the one we all liked the best, maybe because I managed to come up with a supernatural idea that hadn't been done to death (so to speak). That was my fourth book and the last one I wrote on a typewriter—the same Olympia portable I've used since I started college in September 1974 (the same month ABC premiered the Kolchak: The Night Stalker series on Friday the 13th). It was the most fun I'd ever had writing a book. It also was challenging but fun to blend the sensibilities of Jeff's novels, the two TV movies and the series—sensibilities that obviously are closely related, yet different. I've written other Kolchak stories for the anthologies printed by Moonstone, and each one is a pinch-me moment. I'm getting to write horror stories about Kolchak? Got to know that's a complete gift.

You've edited a couple of Richard Matheson books for Gauntlet Press, including his Kolchak scripts, including the first publication of Matheson and William F. Nolan's third proposed telefilm, The Night Killers. How did you get involved in those projects?

    Well, I guess I was the obvious choice. Barry Hoffman, the publisher at Gauntlet, got in touch and asked me if I would be interested. Simple as that. What wasn't simple was the clearing of the complicated rights involved with these three scripts. All honor to Barry on that triumph. He was tenacious and kept at it until all parties agreed to the 2003 book that became Richard Matheson's Kolchak Scripts. The kick here was that my name was going to end up on the cover of book with Richard Matheson's name. Another gift from the universe. It also gave me the chance to get to know Richard better and to chat with the incredibly gracious William F. Nolan. I wrote long essay-like introductions for that book, and I used those introductions to say everything I've always wanted to say about Richard Matheson, or so I thought at the time. Bloodlines: Richard Matheson's Dracula, I Am Legend, and Other Vampire Stories (2006) was my idea, but not necessarily for me to do. I called up Barry and said he should do a collection of Richard's vampire stories because here was a writer who had penned I Am Legend, the most important vampire novel between the publications of Dracula (1897) and Interview with the Vampire (1976), as well as screenplays for Dracula and The Night Stalker. His name is associated with three of the most well-known vampire stories of all time. Barry encouraged me to convince Richard, who, at first, was not that enthusiastic. "It's not that much," he said. "Yes," I told him, reeling off the titles, "it is." A few days later, he called me back and said he was poking around the garage and found his screenplay for I Am Legend. I said, "What screenplay for I Am Legend?" He said, "The one I wrote for Hammer Studios." Now I knew we had a book, and Barry insisted I edit this one, too. So there are two collaborations with Richard, and you've got to know that's a gift that just keeps on giving.

You've also written a book on Columbo. Are there other shows you have a similar passion for?

    Favorite show of all time: The Twilight Zone. Incredibly formative stuff for me. That was the series I wanted to write a book about, but Marc Scott Zicree beat me to it with The Twilight Zone Companion, and I couldn't even be angry about it, because Marc did such landmark work, setting the standard for TV companion books in the 1980s. Also fanatical about the other two fantasy anthology series of that era, Thriller and The Outer Limits (which got the companion book it deserved when David J. Schow took on that formidable challenge). On the classic comedies front, favorite shows include The Odd Couple, Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Some favorite current shows range from Justified to True Blood.
    Back to Columbo for a second . . . make of this what you will, but the two histories of TV characters I've written are about scruffy, tenacious, badly dressed working-class fellows with European surnames. Imagine that. Columbo obviously is Italian. And McGavin decided that Kolchak was Polish. I'm part Italian and part Polish (also part Swedish, so I guess my next book should be about Kenneth Branagh's detective, Wallander).

You've been writing on television and other subjects for more than 30 years. Clearly there's more to Mark Dawidziak than just The Night Stalker. Can you give us a brief bio?
Mark Dawidziak as Charles Dickens
     It is, without question, a deeply schizophrenic resume. If I could stick to one thing, I might be successful. Quick bio: Born in Huntington, New York . . . grew up on Long Island . . . journalism degree from George Washington University . . . started journalism career in Washington, D.C., news bureaus, moving on to small newspapers in Virginia and Tennessee, where I could write about theater, movies and television . . . became the TV critic at the Akron Beacon Journal in 1983, moving to the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1999. First book, The Barter Theatre Story: Love Made Visible, published in 1982. The other non-horror books include two about Mark Twain: Mark My Words: Mark Twain on Writing (1996) and Horton Foote's The Shape of the River: The Lost Teleplay About Mark Twain (2003). In another part of my life, I'm known as something of a Mark Twain scholar. I frequently lecture on Mark Twain and give academic papers at major Twain gatherings, and my Mark Twain friends are astonished to learn that my day job is working for a newspaper or that I have one foot in the horror field. I have another circle of friends who primarily know me as a theater guy. That's because in 2001, my wife, actress Sara Showman, and I founded the Largely Literary Theater Company, a touring troupe that promotes literacy, literature and live theater. In this capacity, I frequently portray Mark Twain and Charles Dickens (don't believe me, see attached pictures). We've staged several of my plays, including a three-person version of A Christmas Carol. In 2008, Continuum published my Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Dracula, and my most recent book, written with Paul J. Bauer, is Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, a biography of the "hobo author" who was a literary superstar in the 1920s but largely forgotten today. He was quite a character, working his way up from mud poverty and six years in an orphanage, becoming a vagabond, chain maker, boxer and itinerant tree surgeon before making it as a writer. Paul and I also have edited new editions of four Tully works: Beggars of Life, Circus Parade, Shanty Irish and The Bruiser. There also the adjunct professor job at Kent State University. And a favorite pastime is sharing the love of reading and writing with our daughter, Becky. 
Mark Dawidziak as Mark Twain
While supplies last, you can order Mark's Night Stalker books directly from him in The Night Stalker Book Shop!

You can check out Mark's TV blog here. Come back tomorrow as Carl Kolchak faces The Night Stalker!


  1. That was GREAT! I am the proud owner of both versions of Mark's Night Stalker companion books (got the first one way back in 1991/92 at a store called STARLOG in Ridgewood, NJ, a store which no longer exists). It should be noted that Mark also penned the synopsis and fun-fact blurbs for the Columbia House VHS run of KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER in the mid 1990's. This was the first time the series was available on home video (cost me over $200 to obtain them all at the time). Cheers ~ Doug K

  2. I have the Night Stalker Companion right next to me here on the shelf--very enjoyable book. Thanks for the nice intro, Mark! I look forward to more on this great series.

  3. Mark, you clearly know your NIGHT STALKER! Not to mention television history in general. Yep, there certainly are amusing similarities between Columbo and Kolchak, although one investigator slyly uses his rumpled persona to entrap his quarry, while the other simply irks authority figures with it and clearly doesn't give a damn what people think -- so what if wearing sneaks all the time is ludicrous, it helps you to run faster when the monster-of-the-week's on your tail! Either way, humor is a key ingredient of both characters and their respective shows. Part of this decision in KOLCHAK's case has to do with '70s network concern that a weekly horror TV series not be, well, too horrible. ROD SERLING'S NIGHT GALLERY on NBC was rendered semi-campy for this reason as well. Fortunately, the horror genre accommodates humor magnificently (BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, ROSEMARY'S BABY) just as it does super-seriousness (THE EXORCIST), so we're on safe ground. In any event... kudos, Mark, for following your muse and becoming the ultimate NIGHT STALKER historian, along with your other significant career accomplishments. I look forward to your views on each and every Kolchak mystery as we live through them on this blog...

  4. Many thanks, Doug, Jack and Gary. It's the ideal opportunity to thank Gary for FANTASTIC TELEVISION, a fantastic, insightful and essential book that I've consulted more times than I can count -- and is properly cited in the bibliograhies of NIGHT STALKING and THE NIGHT STALKER COMPANION. Not to date either of us, Gary, but FANTASTIC TELEVISION appeared the year I got out of college and started my journalism career in Washington, D.C. Physically and intellectually, it has held up wonderfully well (which is more than I can say for me).

  5. Ha! You and me both, Mark. Thanks so much for the kind comments! And away we got to Las Vegas...

  6. And away we "got"? Make that "go." Guess you were right about falling apart physically (dumb fingers!) and intellectually (duh?!). Anyway, we're off and running, sneakers and all...

  7. Mark, it goes without saying that Peter and John couldn't have picked a better "third Musketeer" for their Kolchak blog, and I'm thrilled that you'll be contributing your expertise and enthusiasm. Your kindness and good fellowship while I was working on my Matheson projects has not been forgotten, and I'm honored that for a little while we'll be sharing space here. Look forward to the ride.

  8. Matthew, this is going to sound like I'm blowing sunshine your way, but, no lie, just this afternoon I pulled down "The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson," getting joyously lost in those worlds. That's not an uncommon occurrence.It's a remarkable resource on a writer we both revere.

  9. Why, thank you--and feel free to blow sunshine my way (never heard that one before) any time! It's nice that we have such a pleasant overlap in our areas of expertise/obsession/whatever, you with Kolchak and Curtis and me with Matheson. Better still, for two such experts, I don't remember our ever having a serious disagreement over any aspect of their respective careers! :-)

  10. Rereading my comment, I realize it sounds like I'm holding myself up as more of a Matheson expert than you. Not so.

  11. Matthew, the actual blowing-sunshine phrase is much cruder when rendered in the original slang. More New York Post than Emily Post, if you feel as if you're being unctuously flattered, you might say, "You're not just blowing sunshine up my ass, are you?" The cleaned-up variation is "blowing sunshine up your skirt," but it doesn't have quite the same ring. Either way, I wasn't engaging in that particular exercise when complimenting your work on our friend, Mr. Matheson. And I think you're right, by the way -- my Matheson expertise is more specialized, focusing on the vampires projects and the Dan Curtis collaborations (and those areas cross, of course, even though you should never cross a vampire). That's why I so frequently consult your work. You have a far greater command of the entire legendary career. And I'm not just blowing sunshine . . .

  12. Hah! Had heard that as "blowing smoke up my ass," but not the "sunshine" variation; maybe it's a regional thing. And it certainly invites one to do a down-and-dirty rewrite of the lyrics to "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." But that's a project for another day. Meanwhile, thanks again.

  13. I've been reading Mr. Dawidziak's stuff for a couple of decades now - from both Night Stalker companion books through Grave Secrets, and the Columbia House VHS liner notes - it's been a heck of a ride - and here we go again! Awesome!

  14. Mark, have you seen the British and/or Australian DVD sets of the KOLCHAK series? MGM, Disney or Universal suggest the telefilms or series might be coming to Blu-ray? They'd look great there. Any comments on the Johnny Depp version on the way?

    1. Nothing yet on Blu-ray releases, although interest in the Depp film should push that along. Haven't seen the British or Australian DVD sets. As far as Johnny Deep playing Kolchak, I'll be most interested in seeing what kind of script emerges from this development process -- what kind of approach it will take. A reworking of the original story? A new story? Will it period? Will it be a Kolchak for the 21st century? There is no script yet, even though a director has been attached to the announcement. In short, we've got a long way to go.