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Watching Darren McGavin’s Old Man never gets old in ‘A Christmas Story’

November 24, 2018

Watching Darren McGavin’s Old Man never gets old in ‘A Christmas Story’

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Those well versed in trivia concerning “A Christmas Story” can tell you the precise type of BB gun little Ralphie Parker had set his sights on in all of those dreams and schemes. Say it with me now: “An official Red Ryder carbine-action, 200-shot, range-model air rifle.” The uber-fan will add “with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time.”

They can tell you what kind of soap Ralphie has stuck in his mouth after he utters the “queen mother of dirty words.” Come clean, you know what it is. Lifebuoy (“yecch!”), of course.

They can tell you what Cleveland locations doubled for Hohman, the fictional version of Shepherd’s hometown, Hammond, Indiana – from the Higbee’s Department Store building and Public Square to the Tremont neighborhood house used for the Parkers’ home.

And they can tell you that director Bob Clark wanted Jack Nicholson to play the Old Man.

Yes, as we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the beloved film based on the autobiographical essays of humorist Jean Shepherd, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but Darren McGavin playing Ralphie’s irascible dad. But you certainly can understand why Clark wanted Nicholson at the time.

The Oscar-winning Nicholson was about as A-list as it got in the early ’80s. He had delivered iconic performances as Randle McMurphy in “One Flew Over’s The Cuckoo’s Nest,” Jake Gittes in “Chinatown” and Jack Torrance in “The Shining.” He also was 45 when “A Christmas Story” went into production.

That seemed to be about the right age for this role. McGavin, who turned 60 in 1982, was considered on the old side for the Old Man.

But Clark later realized what an incredible gift he had been handed when the studio “settled” on using McGavin, who, although he had nowhere near the star power of Nicholson, brought an incredible mix of wackiness and warmth, humor and heart, surliness and sweetness to his portrayal of the Old Man. Indeed, if you listen to the director commentary on the DVD of “A Christmas Story,” you’ll hear Clark saying how grateful he was that McGavin got the part.

McGavin wasn’t the first actor to play the Old Man. The part had been played on PBS by James Broderick for adaptations of Shepherd’s “The Phantom of the Open Hearth” and “The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters.”

Nor would McGavin be the last to play it. After “A Christmas Story,” the Old Man would be portrayed in movies by James Sikking (“Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss”), Charles Grodin (“It Runs in the Family,” also known as “My Summer Story”) and Daniel Stern (“A Christmas Story 2”).

But McGavin remains the actor most completely and affectionately identified with the character. And rightly so.

Before “A Christmas Story,” McGavin’s best known role was that of Carl Kolchak, the hard-nosed, hard-charging reporter with a knack for close encounters of the supernatural kind. He had first played Kolchak in “The Night Stalker,” the January 1972 TV movie about a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas. It set ratings records, attracting an astounding 54 of all people watching TV during the 90-minute time period when it aired on ABC.

The incredible success of “The Night Stalker” dictated a sequel, “The Night Strangler, which aired in January 1973. It was followed by a 1974-74 ABC series, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” which only lasted for 20 episodes yet had an enormous influence on horror series as films to follow. “The X-Files,” “Twin Peaks,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Supernatural” were just some of the spooky series to acknowledge their great debt to “The Night Stalker.”

And it was Kolchak who led me to Darren McGavin’s Beverly Hills home on a rainy evening in January 1991. I was writing a book “The Night Stalker” and the actor and his wife, Kathie Browne, graciously allowed me to set up camp in their living room, peppering them with endless questions while consuming several cups of coffee.

The topic was Kolchak, but the conversation wandered to other titles on his resume, including such pre-Kolchak series as “Casey, Crime Photographer” (1951-52), “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer” (1958-59), “Riverboat” (1959-61) and “The Outsider” (1968-69). And there simply was no possible way that a TV critic from Northeast Ohio wasn’t going to ask about the Old Man and “A Christmas Story.”

Folks in this area tend to consider it their movie. Then again, the appeal of the film is so vast, anyone might consider it his or her movie. It touches a ton of universal chords.

I’ve told the tale until it has gone stale, but it was a magic moment. When I first asked McGavin about “A Christmas Story,” the loquacious actor fell uncharacteristically silent. He lowered his head, not smiling or frowning, apparently in deep reflection. It seemed as if he was searching for just the right thing to say about this special movie -- nothing flip or off-the-cuff would do.

When McGavin raised his head, he was smiling, and I knew he had found the words that would do justice to his feelings. Turns out, three words were all he needed. Turning his gaze on me, he said clearly and quietly but with tremendous resolve, “It will live.”

There were equal parts joy and pride in those words and the way they were said. What kind of joy? Perhaps that magical kind available to us at Christmas. You can see an example of it in “A Christmas Story.” Remember that look of joy lighting up the Old Man’s face when his wide-eyed son is unwrapping that Red Ryder air rife Christmas morning?

That’s it. That’s the essence of the movie, all in one look where the father is the loving dad who has not lost touch with the childlike wonder of the season.

It wasn’t just a BB gun. It wasn’t just the present most desired by a child. It was, as Ralphie tells us, the greatest gift he had ever or would ever receive.

He had tried every way he knew to secure this gift. He had tried lobbying his mother (“You’ll shoot your eye out.”), his teacher, Santa Claus . . . anyone who might listen. Near the end of the film, Ralphie is certain that, despite his persistent efforts, he will not get the present of his dreams. Nobody has heard him. Nobody understands what it means to him. Nobody is listening.

In the end, the one person who has been listening and understanding all along is the one person he (and we) were sure wasn’t listening: the Old Man. It’s the Old Man who comes through.

That’s the magic of that scene and, in many ways, the magic of the entire movie, and it doesn’t work without everything McGavin brings to the portrayal of the Old Man. It doesn’t happen without McGavin bringing the gifts and selling the scene.

Watch that moment and consider the incredible range of emotions playing out on McGavin’s face. The joy is in the memory. The joy is in the moment. And for a few Christmas seconds, Ralphie and we are convinced that all is right with the world.

So, McGavin’s Old Man is both a deceptively subtle and wildly exaggerated performance, and that’s by no means easy to pull off.

From 1972 to 1975, Kolchak battled vampires, a murdering alchemist, zombies, aliens, a werewolf, a witch, malevolent spirits, an android and a headless motorcycle rider. The Old Man had his epic battles, as well . . . with a finicky smoke-bellowing furnace, with overburdened electrical sockets that regularly blew fuses, with the neighbors’ pack of smelly hound dogs who ignored everyone but him, with an Oldsmobile that “would freeze up in the middle of summer on the equator,” with a perilously leaning Christmas tree, with his wife over a lamp that he called a major award but looked suspiciously like a woman’s leg in a fishnet stocking (or, as Ralphie describes it, “the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window”).

“I loved just taking him way over the top,” McGavin said. “Those were deliciously fun scenes to play, where he’s ranting and cursing and carrying on. You have to be very careful with that, though. You’ve got to be willing to take it so far, but not too far. If you can’t feel where the line is, you can cross it and go from character to caricature.”

It took an actor of McGavin’s abilities to expertly walk that line.

There were changes from Clark’s earliest visions for the movie, which included some rougher edges and actual profanity. McGavin believed those changes helped “A Christmas Story” eventually reach a wide audience.

“The first draft had actual swearing in it,” he said. “But then we came up with the idea of using nonsense sounds for the swearing. I had a great time doing that. The audience knows he’s cursing a blue streak, but it’s just harmless noise.”

Ralphie tells us that his father “worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium. A master.“ Illustrating the point, Ralphie says that the Old Man “wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.”

But we only hear the Old Man say things like “for cripes sake” or call someone a “wart mundane noodle.” We get the idea without the words.

McGavin was justifiably proud of his work in “A Christmas Story,” which did a modest box office when it opened a week before Thanksgiving in 1983. He knew it was a special role in a very special movie. Still, remember, when he proclaimed in January 1991 that “A Christmas Story” would live, it was long before there was an annual 24-hour marathon showing of the film (this year’s begins at 8 p.m. Christmas Eve, airing simultaneously on TBS and TNT).

It also was long before there was the restored “Christmas Story” house in Tremont became a tourist attraction. It was long before you could buy replicas of the leg lamp or T-shirts emblazoned with such phrases as “you’ll shoot your eye out,” “oh, fudge,” “it’s a major award,” “soap poisoning” and the ever-popular “I triple dog dare you.”

Sure, by 1991, thanks to cable airings and home video releases, “A Christmas Story” was on its way to becoming a holiday and comedy classic. McGavin knew in his heart, however, that this was not fluke. He knew its popularity would continue to grow.

It has continued to live. It lives as a family movie that can be enjoyed by all ages. It lives as an enduring and endearing Yuletide treat worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as novelist Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and director Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It will live as an annual viewing tradition as highly esteemed as such TV specials as “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

When McGavin died at the age of 83 on Feb. 25, 2006, most obituaries mentioned he was best known two roles: Carl Kolchak and the Old Man. He was a versatile actor capable of playing many types of characters, but these were the two that made the deepest, most profound connections.

McGavin was quite right. “A Christmas Story” will live, and a major reason for that is his performance as the Old Man. The gift that Clark recognized, McGavin’s presence in the film, became a gift to all who cherish this film.

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