McGavin was born William Lyle Richardson in Spokane, Washington, a son of Grace Watson and Reed Daniel Richardson. He graduated from Puyallup High School.
In magazine interviews in the 1960s, he said his parents divorced when he was very young. His father, not knowing what else to do, put him in an orphanage at the age of 11. McGavin began to run away, sleeping on the docks and in warehouses. He lived in three orphanages. The last was the Dyslin Boys Ranch in Pierce County, Washington, a boys' home, which turned out to be a safe haven. Farm chores were assigned, and he lived with several other boys who had also been abandoned. McGavin commented that the owners of the home helped him develop a sense of pride and responsibility that turned his life around. McGavin did not serve in the military during World War 2 because he had bad knees, though he did make a training film for the military on venereal disease.
Still untrained as an actor, McGavin worked as a painter in the paint crew at the Columbia Pictures movie studios in 1945. When an opening became available for a bit part in A Song to Remember, on the movie set where he was working, McGavin applied for the role. He was hired for it, and that was his first foray into movie acting. (He had spent a year at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California). Shortly afterwards, he moved to New York City and spent a decade there learning the acting profession in television and plays. McGavin studies at the Neighbourhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio under teacher Sanford Meisner and began working in live TV drama and on Broadway. A few of the plays in which he starred included The Rainmaker (where he created the title role on Broadway), The King and I and Death of a Salesman.
McGavin returned to Hollywood and became a busy actor in a wide variety of TV and movie roles; in 1955 he broke through with roles in the films Summertime and The Man with the Golden Arm. During this period, McGavin also appeared on the anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in an episode titled "The Cheney Vase", in which he demonstrated his talent for playing complex roles, as a scheming caretaker and aspiring art thief, opposite Carolyn Jones and Ruta Lee.
Over the course of his career, McGavin starred in seven different TV series and guest-starred in many more; these television roles increased in the late 1950s and early 1960s with leading parts in series such as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer and Riverboat. McGavin held a black belt in traditional Japanese karate and the series are notable for him doing many of his own stunts and for the "enthusiasm" he put into some of the fight scenes, sometimes forgetting to pull his punches and "ad-libbing" moves, much as Robert Conrad did years later in The Wild Wild West.
When the comedy team Martin and Lewis broke up as a result of Dean Martin's refusal to play a cop in a movie, McGavin played the role originally earmarked for Martin in The Delicate Delinquent, Jerry Lewis's first solo film.
In 1970, he was in negotiations to replace Larry Hagman as the male lead in the television series I Dream of Jeannie for the sixth season, but NBC states they would rather cancel the series than have any other similarities to Bewitched, in which the male lead was replaced by another actor.
McGavin was also known for his role as Sam Parkhill in the miniseries adaptation of The Martian Chronicles. He appeared as a fill-in regular in The Name of the Game in an episode entitled "Goodbye Harry" and was features as a reporter in one of the Gene Barry segments.
The first of his two best-known roles came in 1972, in the supernatural-themed TV movie The Night Stalker (1972). With McGavin playing a reporter who discovers the activities of a modern-day vampire on the loose in Las Vegas, the film became the highest-rated made for TV movie in history at that time; and when the sequel The Night Strangler (1973) also was a strong success, a subsequent television series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974) was made. In the series, McGavin played Carl Kolchak, an investigative reporter for the INS, a Chicago based news service, who regularly stumbles upon the supernatural or occult basis for a seemingly mundane crime; although his involvement routinely assisted in the dispelment of the otherworldly adversary, his evidence in the case was always destroyed or seized, usually by a public official or major social figure who sought to cover up the incident. He would write his ensuing stories in a sensational, tabloid style which advised readers that the true story was being withheld from them. McGavin and the cast were enthusiastic about the series. McGavin reportedly entered into a verbal agreement with Sid Sheinberg (President of MCA and Universal TV) to produce The Night Stalker as a TV series as a coproduction between Universal and McGavin's Taurean Productions. Early promises were never fulfilled, and McGavin expressed concern over script quality and lack of network commitment toward promoting the show. His concerns appeared justified, as the series drifted into camp humour and the production values declined in later episodes.
Kolchak is acknowledged as being a main inspiration for The X-Files, McGavin was asked to play the role of Arthur Dales, founder of the X-Files, in three episodes: Season 5's "Travelers" and two episodes from Season 6, "Agua Mala" and "The Unnatural". Failing health forced him to withdraw from the latter, and the script (written and directed by series star David Duchovny) was rewritten to feature M. Emmet Walsh as Dales's brother, also called Arthur.
In 1983, he starred as "Old Man Parker", the narrator's father, in the movie A Christmas Story. He portrayed a middle-class father in 1940s Hammond, Indiana, who was endearing in spite of his being comically oblivious to his own use of profanity and completely unable to recognise his unfortunate taste for kitsch. Blissfully unaware of his family's embarrassment by his behaviour, he took pride in his self-assessed ability to fix anything in record time, and carried on a tireless campaign against his neighbour's rampaging bloodhounds. McGavin allegedly received a fee of $2 million to play the role, making him one of the highest paid actors of the time.
McGavin made an uncredited appearance in 1984's The Natural as a shady gambler and appeared on a Christmas episode ("Midnight of the Century") of Millennium, playing the long-estranged father of Frank Black (Lance Henriksen); he also appeared as Adam Sandler's hotel-magnate father in the 1995 movie Billy Madison.
During the filming of The Natural, Robert Redford was so pleased with McGavin's portrayal of his character that they began to expand the role. However, after a certain point, union rules dictated that the actor's contract needed to be renegotiated for salary and billing. After haggling on salary, and holding up production of the movie because of it, the billing had to be decided. McGavin became somewhat fed up with the proceedings and instructed his agent to waive his billing in the credits entirely so they could get back to filming.
He won a CableACE Award (for the 1001 TV movie Clara) and received a 1990 Emmy Award as an Outstanding Guest Star in a Comedy Series on Murphy Brown, in which he played Murphy's father.
There was a brief and unsuccessful remake of the Night Stalker TV series in 2005 starring Stuart Townsend. In initial episode aired on September 29, 2005, McGavin appeared momentarily in the background, using digitally inserted footage from his role in the original series.
Darren McGavin narrated the majority of the audio book versions of the adventure novels by John D. MacDonald in which each title included a colour. The central character and main voice of the novels was Travis McGee.
McGavin was married twice. The first was to Melanie York on March 20, 1944. It ended in divorce in 1969, but produced four children: Bogart, York, Megan and Graemm Bridget McGavin. The second was to Kathie Browne on December 31, 1969, ending with her death in 2003.
McGavin died on February 25, 2006 at the age of 83 in a Los Angeles hospital. He is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
- A Song to Remember (1945)
- Counter-Attack (1945)
- Kiss and Tell (1945)
- She Wouldn't Say Yes (1946)
- Fear (1946)
- Queen for a Day (1951)
- Summertime (1955)
- The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
- The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)
- A Word to the Wives (1955)
- The Delicate Delinquent (1957)
- Beau James (1957)
- The Cast Against Brooklyn (1958)
- Bullet for a Badman (1964)
- The Great Sioux Massacre (1965)
- African Gold (1966)
- Mission Mars (1968)
- Anatomy of a Crime (1969)
- The Challenge (1970)
- Tribes (1970)
- Mooch Goes to Hollywood (1971)
- Mrs. Pollifax- Spy (1971)
- Happy Mother's Day, Love George (1973)
- 43: The Richard Petty Story (1974)
- B Must Die (1975)
- The Demon and the Mummy (1976)
- No Deposit, No Return (1976)
- Airport '77 (1977)
- Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978)
- Zero to Sixty (1978)
- Hangar 18 (1980)
- The Martian Chronicles (1980)
- Firebird 2015 AD (1981)
- A Christmas Story (1983)
- The Natural (1984)
- Turk 182 (1985)
- Flag (1986)
- Raw Deal (1986)
- From the Hip (1987)
- Dead Heat (1988)
- Inherit the Wind (1988)
- In the Name of Blood (1990)
- Captain America (1991)
- Blood and Concrete (1991)
- Perfect Harmony (1991)
- Happy Hell Night (1992)
- Billy Madison (1995)
- Still Waters Burn (1996)
- Small Time (1996)
- Pros and Cons (1999)
- Crime Photographer (1951-1952)
- Tales of Tomorrow (1952), episode "The Duplicates"
- Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955), episodes 3: "Triggers in Leash" and 13: "The Cheney Vase"
- Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer (1956-1959)
- Riverboat (1959-1961)
- The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford (November 5, 1959, McGavin is Tennessee Ernie Ford's guest star in a comedy skit about a Riverboat captain.)
- The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1964), season 2: "A Matter of Murder"
- Gunsmoke (1966), three episodes as Joe Bascome
- Cimarron Strip (1967), episode: "The Legend of Jud Star"
- Custer (1967), ABC series with Wayne Maunder
- Mission: Impossible (1967)
- The Outsider (1967) (pilot episode)
- The Outsider (1968-1969)
- Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour (1968), two part episode "Boomerang, Dog of Many Talents" with Patricia Crowley, Darby Hinton, and Russ Conway
- The Forty-Eight Hour Mile (1970)
- The Challenge (1970)
- The Challengers (1970)
- Berlin Affair (1970)
- Tribes (1970)
- Banyon (1971) (pilot episode)
- The Death of Me Yet (1971)
- The Night Stalker (1972)
- Something Evil (1972)
- The Rookies (1972) (pilot episode)
- Here Comes the Judge (1972)
- Say Goodbye, Maggie Cole (1972)
- The Night Strangler (1973)
- The Six Million Dollar Man (1973) (pilot episode)
- Police Story (1974)
- Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975)
- Crackle of Death (1976)
- Brinks: The Great Robbery (1976)
- Ike: The War Years (1978)
- The Users (1978)
- A Bond of Iron (1979)
- Donovan's Kid (1979)
- Ike (1979) (miniseries)
- Not Until Today (1979)
- Love for Rent (1979)
- Waikiki (1980)
- The Martian Chronicles (1980) (miniseries)
- Magnum, P.I. (1981)
- Nero Wolfe (1981)
- Freedom to Speak (1982) (miniseries)
- Small & Frye (1983) (cancelled after six episodes)
- The Baron and the Kid (1984)
- The Return of Marcus Welby, M.D. (1984)
- My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Legend of Errol Flynn (1985)
- The O'Briens (1985) (sitcom pilot)
- Tales from the Hollywood Hills: Natica Jackson (1987)
- Tales from the Hollywood Hills: A Table at Ciro's (1987)
- Inherit the Wind (1988)
- The Diamond Trap (1988)
- Murphy Brown (1989)
- Around the World in 80 Days (1989) (miniseries)
- Kojak: It's Always Something (1990)
- Child in the Night (1990)
- By Dawn's Early Light (1990)
- Clara (1991)
- Perfect Harmony (1991)
- Miracles and Other Wonders (1992-199?)
- Mastergate (1992)
- The American Clock (1993)
- A Perfect Stranger (1994)
- Fudge-A-Mania (1995)
- Derby (1995)
- Touched by an Angel (1997), guest appearance
- X-Files (1999), two episodes