Darren McGavin went from runaway kid to famous actor

From a farm in Washington state, to the piers of San Francisco, the childhood of Darren McGavin was eventful and unusual, and it helped shape his eventual success in Hollywood and on Broadway.

The Everett Collection

Before starring in The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Mike Hammer, Riverboat and other shows spanning from the late-Fifties to the mid-Seventies, along with plenty of other work in between, Darren McGavin ran away. 

The eventual versatile actor, who seemingly had roles for just about every character, good or bad, was running away before he was even a teenager. 

According to McGavin's obituary from The Los Angeles Times, he "never revealed much about his childhood, but he told TV Guide in 1973 that he was a constant runaway by 10, and as a teen lived in warehouses in Tacoma, Wash. His parents vanished, he said."

As a child, McGavin was moving frequently. The son of divorced parents at the age of 11, he ended up with his father, who moved around a lot as a traveling salesman. According to akolchakaday.com, McGavin said in the Scholastic book TV Close-Ups in 1975 that his father "put me in a Catholic boarding school and I went from there to various foster homes." 

According to the website, McGavin said "My father was a salesman for a chemical company and didn't know what to do with me. He was traveling through Washington state and decided to put me on a farm that boarded kids." He explains this farm was supposed to have a nice bedroom waiting for him and the family even had a kid around McGavin's age at the time.

"It was beautiful and it looked great," McGavin said. 

But, it wasn't what it appeared to be. After his father dropped him off, McGavin said that the child already living at the farm was a bully, and his nice bedroom was just a simple sales pitch. 

"They moved me to a room off the kitchen that was kind of like a tent... I hated the place! I felt lost and abandoned... Often I went down to the bottom of the valley to the Nisqually River, and I'd throw rocks, make floats and just wander around." 

Time went on and McGavin continued to move around, and move around freely, at that. After being placed in boarding school, he continued to run. "For a while, I lived on the docks in San Francisco... I slept on piers. The stevedores found me, but they didn't turn me in. The police finally got me, though, and sent me back to school. What I got from all this... was early training in rebellion and learning how to survive-and that's all that matters, isn't it?" 

By 16, McGavin ended up in California with his mother. When thoughts of college rolled around, McGavin had aspirations of being an architect. He attended College of the Pacific in Stockton, but found another passion doing something else. Upon building scenery for a small theater group, he took interest in the production itself. "Finally, I asked if I could be in the play if I built the scenery... So they let me have the part. It was a lot of fun," he said in the book.

Shortly after, McGavin dropped out and moved to New York according to The Los Angeles Times. "He spent more than a dozen years performing on Broadway, beginning in 1953, including appearing in The Rainmaker," the obituary states. 

From there, McGavin began to collect the several experiences that made him the wide-ranging actor he became. From Kolchak: The Night Stalker to his memorable fatherly performance in A Christmas Story, Darren McGavin has played a lot of different roles throughout his career. A career that started after humble beginnings on the road, the farm, the boarding school, or wherever he happned to run off to as a child. 

All the "early training in rebellion and learning how to survive" moments led to a stellar career that spanned over five decades. 

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5 Comments

nd1irish 20 months ago
Aaah! 'Fra-GEE-Lay!' It must be Italian!
MrsPhilHarris 20 months ago
Loved in as the old man. Watched Kolchak yesterday. Haven’t seen it in years. Great fun!
daDoctah 20 months ago
He avoided becoming a juvenile delinquent himself just in time to become the mentor to Jerry Lewis in "The Delicate Delinquent" in a role originally written for Dean Martin, but when Dean and Jerry broke up, McGavin stepped in.
Runeshaper 20 months ago
Super interesting story. McGavin was a GREAT actor! I always enjoyed watching him as Mike Hammer with my folks (-:
LoveMETV22 20 months ago
Interesting story. It sounds like Mr. McGavin had a rough childhood, but was a survivor.
Enjoy him in The Kolchak series and some of the other shows he appeared in. Loved his role in
" A Christmas Story" as " The Old Man Parker."
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