Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Mako and McGavin: Made-for-TV

Been trading emails with a buddy about my Best of The Green Hornet post, and "The Preying Mantis" episode with Mako duking it out with Bruce Lee (as Kato). That reminded me of a Made-for-TV movie with Mako and Darren McGavin called The Challenge, a great slice of early seventies Cold War paranoia in which two superpowers each send a single soldier to an island in order to avert a nuclear war (i.e. last man standing wins).

God knows who they'd stick in a movie like that these days, but they wouldn't look like the two guys above. And Mako and McGavin were just the top of the cast list for The Challenge. You also had a couple of TV stalwarts in Broderick Crawford and James Whitmore, plus a young actor named Sam Elliott. Anyway, I loved the movie as a kid -- even though I knew (like a lot of TV Movies) that it was really just a budget-conscious riff off a big-screen idea (in this case, Hell in the Pacific, in which Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune fight WWII all by their lonesome while stranded on a jungle island). But any way you figure it The Challenge was a pretty dark slice for Network Prime Time -- hey, the U.S. was still knee-deep in the Vietnam war when it was first broadcast -- and like a lot of Made-for-TV movies, it shouldn't be forgotten today. I wish I could see it again.

McGavin was in more than a few TV movies. Most notably: The Night Stalker as Carl Kolchak, a wise-guy reporter hunting a vampire in seventies Vegas. While I loved McGavin as Kolchak in that movie and the inevitable sequel, the eventual Kolchak series stretched the reporter vs. monster concept too far for me, and it too often slipped into comedy. Still, the first two movies were gold, and I can still remember going to school the day after The Night Stalker first aired and finding that everyone was talking about it -- even the teachers and the blue-haired ladies at the lunch counter. That was something. And it was the same with a lot of other TV Movies (stuff like Duel, with harried commuter Dennis Weaver dodging a homicidal truck driver for an unbelievably tense ninety minutes courtesy of writer Richard Matheson and a young hotshot director named Steven Spielberg).

Yeah. Those little movies were something special (and nope -- they sure weren't Megasaurus vs. Crocozilla, starring your basic discarded pop stars). Those were different days, with three big networks beaming into most households each night. While America didn't quite have a hive mind, we certainly had a kind of universal consciousness going. It made for some universal excitement on a slow weeknight. It also made for some interesting conversations the next day.

And I miss that. Sparking up ideas with guys who loved the kind of stories I loved, and guys who were only thinking about them because a story got to them on TV the night before and they weren't even sure why. Talking about what you'd do if you found out there was a vampire sucking Las Vegas dry, or how two guys would settle a war on an island, or how you'd survive if a crazy truck driver chased you down a deserted strip of desert highway.

Saying, "Wow! That movie was something, wasn't it?"

And knowing that yep, damn straight it was.