Monday, July 27, 2015

Say Good-bye to Kolchak’s “Father”

Just the other day I was thinking that it had been a long while since I’d last watched the 1972 made-for-television vampire flick, The Night Stalker, starring Darren McGavin as journalist-turned-monster hunter Carl Kolchak, and that it was probably time for me to revisit that picture, along with its 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler. But now comes news that Jeff Rice, who created the Kolchak character, died on July 1 in Las Vegas, Nevada, at age 71. John L. Smith, a reporter for the Las Vegas Journal-Review reports that Rice had “suffered from severe depression throughout much of his adult life” and adds that, “In an eerie tribute to the mysteries that surrounded his fiction and life in Las Vegas, the cause and manner of death is pending the results of a toxicology test by the Clark County coroner’s office.”

Jeffrey Grant Rice was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1944 but spent part of his childhood in Beverly Hills, California. He was the son of Bob Rice, characterized by Smith as “a mob-associated costume jewelry maker … and early investor” in Vegas’ old Dunes Hotel and Casino. “Through those family’s connections, the son gained access to the neon glitz and subterranean shadow of Las Vegas. He even worked for a time at local newspapers. Some of that experience seeps into the pages of his story just as it surely crept into his consciousness.”

The story of Rice’s connection to McGavin’s original Night Stalker film has been repeated so many times, it’s probably now part legend; it’s certainly a cautionary tale. Here’s one synopsis, cribbed from Mark Dawidziak’s 1997 book, The Night Stalker Companion:
True-life newspaperman (and actor!) Jeff Rice created Carl Kolchak in The Kolchak Papers, a 1970 horror novel which Rice submitted to [screenwriter] Richard Matheson’s agent. Then, in a shocking example of Hollywood sleaze, the agent sold the unpublished novel’s TV movie rights to ABC--without first signing Rice!--trapping Rice in a done deal he’d never agreed to!

Heart-breakingly, Rice had hoped to write the TV script himself, but the agent had already secured the teleplay assignment for Matheson. Dawidziak adds: “It’s important to note that Rice does not in any way blame Matheson for what he views as shady Hollywood dealings.”
“Rice sued the network…,” explains Smith, “and [ABC] gave creative credit on screen to Rice. But that left him well short of Easy Street. By the time all the Hollywood double dealing was resolved, Rice’s novel was published in 1973 after the hugely successful TV movie. A series followed, and Rice also found success with a second novel, The Night Strangler, co-authored with Richard Matheson.”

I don’t remember when it was that I saw The Night Stalker; I was pretty young when that teleflick first aired, so the likelihood is that I caught up with Carl Kolchak--along with his newspaper boss, the irritable Tony Vincenzo (played by Simon Oakland), and his winsome dancer of a girlfriend, Gail Foster (Carol Lynley)--in reruns. However, I was hooked from the beginning, as a blood-sucking vampire started knocking off the otherwise carefree visitors to Vegas’ showy Sunset Strip. When I later discovered there was a second Kolchak adventure, The Night Strangler (which took place in a highly fictionalized Seattle Underground and found McGavin’s seersucker-wearing newsie confronting a Civil War-era doctor who kept himself alive with an elixir featuring blood taken from murdered women), I could hardly wait to watch that, too. And after I read (in this very article, from a 1973 edition of my then-hometown newspaper, the Portland Oregonian) that an ABC-TV series featuring McGavin and Oakland would debut on September 13, 1974, you can bet I cleared my calendar of other commitments. Sadly, I was disappointed at first with Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which moved the action to Chicago, found Kolchak and Vincenzo working for a wire news agency, and came up with some truly cheesy monsters for our tape recorder-carrying hero to combat--everything from an android and a lizard-man to a headless and homicidal motorcycle rider. (Interestingly, that last episode, “Chopper,” was scripted by future Rockford Files writer and Sopranos creator David Chase.) Only in recent years have I come to better appreciate Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1973-1974) for its humor and McGavin’s portrayal of a lonely, rumpled reporter who accepts the world’s horrors--actual, metaphorical, and outright fictional--with more courage and pragmatism than those around him.

Jeff Rice is to be thanked for bringing monsters out from under my bed, putting them on my TV screen, and making me appreciate them as much as I did. I only wish his own life had been a happier one. Although he is said to have found a grateful Internet following in recent years, Smith notes that Rice was also “extremely troubled and increasingly afraid of straying from his home near Desert Inn Road. In leaner times, Rice had rented a room from [his ‘close friend’ Bobbie] Carson and on occasion slept on her couch. She helped him through emotional and mental crises. He cared for her after the 78-year-old fell and broke her hip. The two met 14 years ago. In keeping with the local working-class subculture, they had a loan shark in common and struck up what became an enduring friendship.”

There are apparently no memorial services planned for Carl Kolchak’s creator. Yet you never know--maybe some vampires, werewolves, headless motorcyclists, and other ghouls will shed a tear to know that someone who might have been able to tell their stories, too, has disappeared from this world.

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At least for now, 1972’s The Night Stalker--based on Jeff Rice’s book--is available for viewing on YouTube. Watch it all here.

READ MORE: It Couldn’t Happen Here: An Episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker a Day As Seen Through the Eyes of Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri.


Ed Gorman said...

It's hard to believe that anyone in Hwood would do anything like this. Not. Marty Greenberg and I almost put a deal together with Jeff Rice. I didn't understand his wariness or anger. Now I know. I feel sorry for him. Kolchak was his life's work.

Gary Phillips said...

Had the great pleasure to write two Kolchak short stories for one of Moonstone's Night Stalker anthologies of original stories. Sounds like one day Rice's life itself might make a odd little biopic.