The photograph to the right is of actor William Richardson, better known to the world by his stage name, Darren McGavin, in probably his most famous role (at least among people of a certain age), that of reporter Carl Kolchak from the 1974-1975 TV series named after him, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I have a copy of this very photo, autographed by McGavin himself, still hanging on the wall of my old bedroom at my parents' place in Baltimore -- "To Jimmy, Darren McGavin." I was probably six or seven years-old when my favorite aunt wrote to McGavin via ABC about my love of the series, which I watched in reruns a couple of years after it had been canceled. Needless to say, I was ecstatic to receive it and it's been one of the prize possessions of my childhood ever since, right up there with my French language edition of the D&D Basic Rules autographed by Gary Gygax.
A couple of years ago, a friend bought me the entire run of the TV series on DVD as a birthday gift. I already owned a cheaply made (and double-sided) DVD containing the two Kolchak TV movies that preceded the series, the original The Night Stalker and its follow-up The Night Strangler. Both are quite good and hold up surprisingly well after nearly 40 years, though The Night Strangler is clearly the weaker of the two films, owing at least in part to the similarity of its plot structure to that of its predecessor. Still, they're both excellent examples of American television movies from the early 1970s, when the form was still vigorous and occasionally groundbreaking. (The Night Stalker was also a popular success, earning the highest rating of any TV movie up to the time of its release)
I don't ever recall seeing the TV movies until I was much older, but I adored the TV series. After receiving my birthday gift, I watched the entirety of the series -- all 20 episodes -- over the course of several days, the first time I'd seen many of them in over two decades, maybe longer. Sad though it is to say, the vast majority of the episodes are simply terrible in almost every respect. Certainly McGavin and co-star Simon Oakland always give engaging performances and many of the special guest stars -- a veritable who's who of '70s era actors -- were obviously having fun with their roles, but the stories themselves are, with a few exceptions, awful B-movie level plots that don't hold up to even the most minimal scrutiny.
But, as a kid, I loved this show, probably because I found it just frightening enough. The episodes rarely showed much of anything gory or grotesque, partially due to their limited budgets and partially due to the constraints on TV in that era. While unsatisfying to my adult self nowadays, it was perfect for me as a child back then. My mind filled in all the details, resulting in some lasting impressions of how much more scary some of these episodes were than they actually are. A favorite of mine was "The Spanish Moss Murders," which dealt with a swamp monster from Cajun legend called Père Malfait. The episode give me the willies as a kid. Many of its scenes, such as the monster rising up out of the water in the sewers beneath Chicago, scared me a great deal in my youth. They seem almost laughable now.
My fondness for the show is nevertheless undiminished, as it was an early cobblestone on the path that led me to my lifelong love of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Though I'd never claim Kolchak: The Night Stalker was a good show in any absolute sense, it was a good show for me. It was a superb propaedeutic for an elementary school student fascinated by scary stuff even as he was frightened by it. And, for all its faults, the show had an impact on D&D. Gary Gygax admitted on more than one occasion that the inclusion of the rakshasa was due to his having seen the episode "The Horror in the Heights," in which the demon from Hindu legend figures prominently. That's got to count for something.