Tube Talk: A triple loss: Don, Dennis and Darren

February ended with sad news for TV fans around the world. Don Knotts—Barney Fife himself—died Feb. 24 at the age of 81. News soon broke that two other television stalwarts also passed away: Dennis Weaver, 81, known to some as Gunsmoke’s Chester and to others as the horseback riding cop, McCloud, also died on the 24th, and Darren McGavin, 83, who starred in the original incarnations of Mike Hammer and The Night Stalker died on the 25th.

Sadly, once again the adage that bad things happen in threes has proved true.

I doubt a day has gone by without Knotts appearing on TV since The Andy Griffith Show first hit syndication. The character of Barney Fife was a comedic goldmine—the fumbling deputy sheriff who kept a single bullet in his pocket instead of his gun is funny even on paper. But Knotts brought vulnerability and a quirky charm to the character that endeared Barney to viewers around the world.

While Knotts will forever be remembered as Barney Fife—for which he won an astounding five Emmy Awards—he first came to national attention as an original cast member of The Steve Allen Show in 1956. And yet another generation of TV fans remembers him as Mr. Furley on Three’s Company. He stayed busy right up until the end, including a voice role in last year’s animated film Chicken Little. Given a lifetime spent on our TV screens, it’s somehow appropriate that he played the pivotal role of the TV repairman in the 1998 film Pleasantville.

Dennis Weaver will always be associated with Westerns, from his days on Gunsmoke to his most recent role in the current series, Wildfire (Mondays at 7 p.m. Central on ABC Family). Like Knotts, Weaver also started in television in the ’50s. It was his 1955 to 1964 role as Gunsmoke’s coffee-brewing deputy-with-a-limp, Chester, that really made him a star—and won him an Emmy in 1959.

Weaver took to the saddle again in the ’70s as the title character in McCloud, one of NBC’s rotating murder mystery series. The show proved very popular—he received two more Emmy nominations as McCloud—and was on the air for seven years.

Darren McGavin is probably best remembered as the father who won the leg lamp “major award” in the classic movie, A Christmas Story. His TV career kicked into high gear when he starred in the original Mike Hammer series (1956-1959), but for many, McGavin’s biggest claim to fame was playing Carl Kolchak in two standout made-for-TV movies The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973) in the short-lived cult classic series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. (Last year’s ill-fated remake of the series had an even shorter run.)

It’s no secret that McGavin’s supernatural series inspired The X-Files. He even appeared as retired FBI Agent Dales in a couple of episodes of The X-Files. McGavin also won an Emmy as Murphy Brown’s father on, what else, Murphy Brown.

While the passing of these three very different actors is sad, the legacies they leave behind ensure they won’t soon be forgotten. And thanks to DVDs, syndication (and the annual A Christmas Story marathon), they’re only a click or two away.

Paula Hendrickson is a regular contributor to Emmy Magazine and Variety, and has been published in numerous national publications including American Bungalow, SatelliteORBIT and TVGuide.

From the March 8-14, 2006, issue

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