I became a writer because of 1970s TV Carl Kolchak

KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER, Darren McGavin, 1974-75

The 1970s were a boon for TV dramas based on fantasy, science fiction, and horror. We had shows like Battlestar Galactica, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk, Buck Rogers, and of course my favorite, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I started binge-watching these classic shows and they reminded me of why I became a writer. Carl Kolchak may not have had a big impact on television (it only lasted one season with two television movies) but it had a major impact on me.

First and foremost, I need to give credit where credit is due. Darrin McGavin (1922-2006) was the heart and soul of that series. He may be remembered more as being the foul-mouthed “old man” in A Christmas Story, he will forever be Carl Kolchak to me. His tenacity in searching for the truth in a story, no matter how bizarre or unusual, was evident in every episode. McGavin’s portrayal of the intrepid reporter, especially in the narrative that accompanied each episode, showed his incredible dedication to the truth in journalism (something we seem to be missing today). In any case, as I watched Carl Kolchak from my living room floor as an impressionable teenager, I knew I wanted to be just like him.

The Rakshasa, Episode 11, Horror in the Heights

Murders caused by vampires, werewolves, zombies, and swamp monsters (the Creole legend of Père Malfait) were scoffed by the police and his editor, but it was Kolchak who sought the truth behind the crime. It was how he went about his investigation and the way he wrote the story that endeared him to the audience. Even how the authorities reacted at the end of each episode to actually prove he was right (i.e. in episode 2, they buried the zombie for a third time with salt in his mouth and his lips sewn shut). To me, as an impressionable teenager, that made me the sceptic I am today.

It was also a great introduction to many myths and legends, some of which I never heard of before. I mentioned, Père Malfait, but also a Native American bear-spirit legend Matchi Manitou, a Hindu demon called a Rakshasa, an Aztec cult, a succubus, even a headless, sword-wielding motorcycle rider. As someone who watched his fair share of Hammer horror pictures in the 1970s, it was a blast. Yes, the make-up and special effects were substandard by today’s youth, no CGI, but it was scary back then.

“Maybe its appeal remains because it was then, and remains now, a very different kind of show. Maybe people see, in the monsters and the way public knowledge and discussion are stopped, symbols for all those things various government entities wish the people not to know about. Maybe people — fans — admire Kolchak because he just keeps on trying to do what he sees as work that has value; trying to keep the public informed about what is going on.”

Jeff Rice, creator of the Kolchak movies and TV series

Add to it the dark, shadow-filled production that kept the corners dark and the anticipation gnawing. And the music, oh the music . . . The theme song for Kolchak by Gil Mellé is unforgettable. Once you hear it, you’re hooked. It is so recognizable you never forget it. Overall, it kept you entertained as an impressionable young teen on a Friday night.

You see, early in my life, I wanted to be a comic book artist. Unfortunately, my art skills were not up to par and I missed writing the stories behind the art. I think that’s why I went into the U.S. Navy as a Navy Journalist. It was that inner Carl Kolchak speaking to me. It was my own chance to write, investigate, and tell the stories. Eventually, that led to me being an author.

Darrin McGavin as Carl Kolchak

It’s sad that Kolchak only lasted one season. According to IMDB, “the series was cancelled because Darren McGavin asked to be released from his contract. He became disappointed with the series’ scripts and was exhausted from his uncredited producing duties. Three scripts were left unproduced. Two of them were adapted into a Kolchak series of comic books in 2003.” But the character of Carol Kolchak, as I said earlier, was all Darrin McGavin. In the book, The Night Stalker Companion, McGavin explained how he came up with the iconic look of the intrepid reporter.

“In the first draft of the script, Kolchak was wearing Bermuda shorts, socks and brown shoes, a Hawaiian shirt and a golf cap. Apparently somebody thought that was the uniform for a newspaperman in Las Vegas. But there was a line in there about him wanting to get back to New York, so I got this image of a New York newspaperman who had been fired in the summer of 1962 when he was wearing a seersucker suit, his straw hat, button-down Brooks Brothers shirt and reporter’s tie, and he hasn’t bought any clothes since. Well, I knew that was the summer uniform of reporters in New York of that time, so that’s how the wardrobe came about. I added the white tennis shoes and that was Kolchak. It might have been totally at odds with what everybody else was wearing in Las Vegas, but he hasn’t bought any clothes since then. You need goals for a character and Kolchak’s goal is to get back to the big time. He always wanted to get back to New York and work on the Daily News.”

Darrin McGavin, The Night Stalker Companion

When I think about the stories I write and why I became a writer in the first place, it always goes back to Carl Kolchak. That was where I got the “bug” to sit at a typewriter (which I wrote many of my early stories on) and put my thoughts and ideas down. It is that idea that there’s something out there, a story to tell, that escapes the human eye. It takes only one person to tell the story.

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Mark Piggott is an independent author of the Forever Avalon fantasy book series and other fantasy novels and short stories. Forever Avalon is available for purchase as a paperback/ebook at Amazon and as an audiobook from Audible and iTunes. The Dark Tides: Book 2 of the Forever Avalon Series is available for purchase as a paperback/ebook from iUniverse Publishing and at Amazon, and other booksellers. The Outlander War, Book Three of the Forever Avalon series is available for purchase as a paperback/ebook from Austin Macauley Publishing, and at Amazon and other booksellers. His latest fantasy novel, The Last Magus: A Clockwork Heart is available through Lulu and other booksellers. Get ready for The Prometheus Engine: Book 4 of the Forever Avalon Series, coming soon, and the steampunk historical fiction, Corsair and the Sky Pirates.

3 thoughts on “I became a writer because of 1970s TV Carl Kolchak

  1. Colin Clark says:

    This brought so many memories back for me Mark. I too loved Kolchak and for many of the same reasons. I was fascinated by anything ‘horror’ even in those days and would make sure I was in front of the TV for Nightstalker. I was already writing [on a typewriter] then and desperately wanted to be Kolchak 🙂 Fabulous stuff. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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