Tag Archives: darren mcgavin

Three’s Company

Do celebrities really die in threes?

To some, it’s a universal law. To others, it’s just sloppy thinking applied to a statistical likelihood with all the famous people walking around these days.

Each camp draws different conclusions to the same evidence, like in late June, 2009, with the wave of celebrity deaths that took place around the passing of Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett.

Another such grouping happened five years ago this week with the triple-deaths of the three-D’s – Darren McGavin, Dennis Weaver, and Don Knotts – within 24 hours.

Darren McGavin, the first to be born and the last to die, spent much of his youth in the Pacific Northwest either homeless or living in orphanages. He began his Hollywood career as a painter on the Columbia lot where he secured a bit role in a film before moving to New York to hone the craft of acting.

He eventually starred in seven television series, most notably in Kolchak: The Night Stalker in the early 70s, playing a modern-day vampire hunter. His most famous film role came in 1983’s A Christmas Story, where he played the grumpy father with the kitschy leg lamp.

McGavin died on February 25, 2006, a day after Knotts and Weaver. He was buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery in an appropriate spot for a former vampire hunter, as his plot overlooks that of Maila Nurmi, television’s original Vampira.

Dennis Weaver was raised in Missouri where he wanted to be an actor from an early age. He committed to the profession after failing to make the 1948 U.S. Olympic decathlon team. His acting career was secured when he landed the role of Chester, Matt Dillon’s deputy, in the long-running Western series Gunsmoke in 1955.

Weaver was often seen on television throughout the rest of his career, including starring roles in Gentle Ben in 1967 and McCloud in 1970. He also starred in the Steven Spielberg thriller Duel in 1971.

Weaver and his wife Gerry had one of the most successful marriages in Hollywood history, lasting from 1945 until his death. He was an advocate for the environment and a major supporter of several progressive causes. He died from lung cancer on February 24, 2006.

Don Knotts, like Weaver, was born in the summer of 1924.

Knotts came from West Virginia and began his stage career as a ventriloquist. In 1958, he appeared alongside Andy Griffith in the film No Time For Sergeants, which began a lifelong friendship and professional relationship between the two men.

Knotts later got regular work on television on Three’s Company and other shows, and in several classic screen comedies like The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Pleasantville, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (“Atta boy, Luther!”). 

But to the millions of fans who still regularly transport themselves to the town of Mayberry in the country of TV Land, Knotts will forever be Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. Barney, with his Napoleon complex and single bullet, was just about the funniest character to ever appear on a television set.

It was fitting that both Knotts and Weaver died on the same day, since they both became famous playing deputies. As one blogger wrote back in 2006, “it looks like a bad week to be an ex-law enforcement sidekick.”

It was a bad week for us all.

I never met any of these men, so I can’t vouch for their real-life personalities, but thanks to the wonderful characters they played, it’s impossible for me to bring any of them to mind without breaking into a smile.


The Dark’s First Mistress

Before Elvira, even before Morticia … there was Vampira.

Vampira, the original ghoulish horror movie hostess in television history, was a familiar personality to Los Angeles late-night television viewers in the mid-1950s. But it was for a one-day acting job, in which she appeared in what she believed would be a quickly forgotten schlock-horror film, that Vampira is remembered today.

Vampira was the gothic alter-ego of curvaceous actress, model, and chorus girl Maila Nurmi. Nurmi was born in Finland is 1922 and claimed kinship with the great long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi. She moved to the United States when she was two, and grew up in Ohio and Oregon.

After briefly appearing on Broadway, she migrated to Hollywood, where she worked as a dancer and as a model for acclaimed artists Alberto Vargas and Man Ray.

Nurmi first appeared as Vampira in a wasp-waisted tight black dress and white pasty makeup for a masquerade ball in Hollywood in 1953; a look that was inspired by Charles Addams’ comics. She caught the attention of a television producer that night who spent months tracking down the mysterious beauty to star as hostess for a horror-film show he was launching.

Nurmi began each episode of The Vampira Show by gliding through a fog-strewn funereal set towards the camera, greeting the audience with a scream that would shame a banshee. She introduced the films with a barrage of mockery and graveyard puns that earned her a small, but fiercely loyal (and mostly male) following. Her shtick was successful enough to earn her an Emmy nomination in 1954 for ‘Most Outstanding Female Personality.”

The Vampira Show ended in 1955 and Nurmi survived being held hostage by a homocidal home invader that same year. She was critically burned in an apartment fire the following year. She recovered and supported herself by making personal appearances and acting in whatever roles she could find.

One of these roles called for her to re-create her Vampira persona for a film that was originally entitled Grave Robbers From Outer Space. By the time the film was released in 1959, the title had changed to Plan Nine From Outer Space from director Ed Wood – a film that gained a worldwide cult-following after it was voted “the worst film ever made.”

Nurmi acted sporadically over the next few decades, and eked out a living by selling antiques and installing linoleum floors. In 1981, she was working to revive the Vampira character for a new television show in Los Angeles but parted ways with the producers when they cast comedienne Cassandra Peterson in the title role with the name “Elvira.” Nurmi later unsuccessfully sued Peterson for cribbing her likeness.

Nurmi was once married to Dean Riesner, who appeared as a child in the Charlie Chaplin film The Pilgrim (which we will be screening at ChaplinFest in February), and was later the screenwriter of Dirty Harry and Play Misty For Me.

As pointed out in Warren Beath’s great book The Death of James Dean, Nurmi and Dean were once close friends, but had a falling out shortly before Dean’s death.

Nurmi passed away on this date in 2008 at the age of 85. Fans pitched in to buy a marker for her grave at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which ironically, is situated next to the grave of Darren McGavin (1922-2006) who is best known for his role in television’s The Night Stalker, in which he played a reporter who followed the activities of a modern-day vampire.

Kimi at the grave of Maila Nurmi. Darren McGavin's' tomb is behind her at the left of the photo.