Sunday, August 7, 2011

When Diverging Paths Converge Again: the Collaborations of Simon Oakland and Darren McGavin

It’s a phenomenon that has been known to happen in the acting world—two actors cast together have such rapport and chemistry, they inevitably cross paths again, whether planned or unplanned.  In Hindi, there’s actually a name for this: actors’ jodi.

One of my favorite actors’ jodiyaan (that’s plural) is none other than that of Simon Oakland and Darren McGavin, best known for playing Tony Vincenzo and Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, and the Kolchak: the Night Stalker series proper.  It was through the Kolchak saga that I grew to adore both actors.  Their onscreen chemistry was perfect, and as I mentioned in a previous post, they were both able to utilize a wonderful brand of understated humor in regards to the number of times Tony and Carl bantered and snarked at each other.

That would’ve been enjoyable for me as it was, but I was utterly thrilled to find out that, prior to the Kolchak saga, Simon and Darren had worked together on other projects; the first project they had worked on was a one-time TV special in 1962 called “The Problem Child.”  I haven’t had a chance to see it, alas, but the official Darren McGavin website has some wonderful production stills, and with those alone, you can see the chemistry they had.

Simon and Darren’s next project was an episode of Gunsmoke in 1965, the season 11 episode, “The Hostage.”  The duo played two members of a gang of prison escapees—Darren playing Gorman, the guy in charge, and Simon playing Mandee, his disgruntled and hot-blooded lackey.  Having seen Kolchak first, it was a highly amusing twist to see Darren playing the guy in charge and Simon being the one to blatantly ignore his orders—well, at first, at least; Mandee quickly gets too annoyed with Gorman and his concern for Marshal Dillon, and starts planning to off both of them.  For a Kolchak fan such as myself, that got surreal really quickly, but it still showcased the wonderful chemistry they had once again.

After Gunsmoke, Simon would make an appearance on Darren’s show The Outsider in 1968 (I haven’t seen that, either, alas, though the episode plot is intriguing, involving Simon’s character hiring Darren’s to find his missing girlfriend), and it wouldn’t be until 1972 that the Kolchak saga would begin.  It truly is a joy to see them as Tony and Carl, practically polar opposites who, underneath the arguments and the shouting matches, are true-blue friends.  The series would have been missing something significant had their interaction not been there; a comparison between the first two movies alone can prove this (and, interestingly enough, between the two movies, Simon had a small role in Run, Stranger, Run, a movie that Darren directed).  Tony and Carl’s interaction is limited in The Night Stalker but greatly expanded in The Night Strangler, and the former definitely seems lacking without it.  The Night Strangler, on the other hand, is highly amusing when the case gets peppered with the banter and the arguing.  Even the series has examples; Tony is only a one-scene wonder in the “Werewolf” episode, and I definitely felt that to be a major weakness in the episode.

For me, it is the characterizations of Tony and Carl that draws me to them.  Simon and Darren certainly seemed to put a lot of themselves into these characters; I sometimes wonder where “Simon and Darren” end and “Tony and Carl” begin.  And it’s almost like a case of art imitating life.  Simon and Darren somehow ended up repeatedly and unintentionally crossing paths throughout their careers before having that more-or-less four years as Tony and Carl.  Meanwhile, in-universe, Tony and Carl also ended up repeatedly and (sometimes) unintentionally crossing paths throughout their careers before getting that job at the INS in Chicago.  While I’ve chalked up Simon and Darren’s collaborations as a series of serendipitous coincidences, I actually do have a theory as to why the characters of Tony and Carl ended up repeatedly crossing paths; you can read that here.

The meaning of the word jodi in this context can be translated to "partnership."  That, in my opinion, is what makes Tony and Carl the most special out of Simon and Darren’s characters.  Mandee and Gorman may have been partners in name only, but, deep down, Mandee’s backstabbing ways effectively broke that partnership.  Tony Vincenzo, on the other hand, has taken a lot of proverbial flak to secure a job for both himself and for Carl Kolchak, never once leaving him high and dry if it was within his power to help.  The irony here is even though Tony and Carl would certainly never consider themselves partners, they inevitably have a jodi that rivals that of the actors who brought them to life.  And that is what makes them so appealing and believable.

~Crystal Rose

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