Knotts, McGavin, Weaver: TV Land’s firmament dims

Celebrity deaths come in threes, the morbid diktat informs us. But they rarely occur over a single weekend, as was the case when TV fans lost Don Knotts, Darren McGavin and Dennis Weaver in the past 72 hours. Knotts won five Emmys for his signature creation, the fretfully goggle-eyed Barney Fife, on The Andy Griffith Show.? Weaver won one, not for what has become his best-known character, McCloud,? but for playing the limping deputy Chester on the long-running series Gunsmoke.? McGavin, contrary to what the AP story in todays Daily News reported, never won an Emmy (he was nominated once for playing Murphy Browns? father), but he did win a Cable ACE, an award so prestigious theyve quit handing them out (imagine that, in an era where a new awards show seems to pop up every other week). His most beloved character was Carl Kolchak, the glibly beleaguered reporter/monster hunter of The Night Stalker? telefilms and TV series. All three men died in their 80s after extended illnesses. I have powerfully uninteresting anecdotes about all three.

I met Knotts almost a decade ago at a session of Yarmys Army, a private gathering of comedians and comic actors who mainly emerged in the 60s. It was created as a support group to help Dick Yarmy, Don Adams brother, as he was dying of cancer. It evolved into a monthly bull session where the group Adams, Gary Owens (who was nice enough to invite me; otherwise, civilians cant attend these dinners, though the group occasionally put on public performances), Jack Riley, Harvey Corman, Tim Conway, Peter Marshall, Pat McCormick and the list goes on would meet at a local steakhouse and spend a couple of hours trying to outdo one another with their latest jokes and amusing reminiscences of some admittedly long careers in showbiz. Adams, who died last September, told a particularly amusing story of some Vaudeville misadventures with Mae West. Knotts was frail even at the time, but he had enough energy to do a brief routine that got laughs, and, as all have said about him, was unfailingly charming and polite.

TV Land will present the best of Barney Tuesday from 8-11 p.m. and, beginning at 6 a.m. Saturday, run a 48-hour marathon of his work on “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Three’s Company.”

I was a huge fan of The Night Stalker? when I was a kid, so wrote my first and last fan letter to Darren McGavin. He never responded. I learned the probable reason why years later, when, visiting the White House set of the movie Dave,? I saw stacks and stacks of fan letters to whatever teen-idol TV star was hot at the time lying unopened and being used as props in the secretaries office mail bins. I also tried to interview McGavin last summer for a story on the new (and since-cancelled) Night Stalker? series that I ended up scrapping; he was too ill even then to speak with reporters. (A son of Richard Matheson, who wrote the script for the original TV-movie, erroneously told me then that McGavin was dead. Well, hes right now.) McGavin was famously irascible while working on the Night Stalker? series, whose monsters-of-the-week got increasingly silly, he reportedly led what amounted to an open revolt, arguing with producers over the shows direction and, in the end, purportedly begged ABC to cancel the show. (His plea wasnt really necessary, as the show wasnt exactly what youd call a hit, even though the first TV movie was, at the time, the highest-rated in history.)

McGavin also appeared on Gunsmoke,? though Weavers presence on the series was one of the most memorable things about the show. I was offered an interview with Weaver upon the publication of his 2001 autobiography All the Worlds a Stage,? but the interview was to focus, as I recall, on his ecological concerns (he created something called the Institute of Ecolonomics, which melded the environment and the economy) and his charity, so I passed. Oh, well. His Colorado ranch, which includes an energy-efficient luxury home he deemed the Earthship,? is available for sale through his website for $3.75 million, if youre interested.

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