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Timeless characters leave together

The recent, almost simultaneous deaths of three sturdy acting pros serve to put their best feats forward again.

Don Knotts, Dennis Weaver and Darren McGavin amassed hundreds upon hundreds of credits. And along the way, each struck gold on more than one occasion, leaving us with the cherished, signature characters of their lifetimes.

Knotts and Weaver, who died Friday, earned their first enduring stripes as second bananas on The Andy Griffith Show and Gunsmoke, respectively. McGavin, who died Saturday, initially emerged as a leading man in the 1950s version of tough-as-nails Mike Hammer.

Unlike the others, full-blown television success eluded McGavin. His second series of any note, 1974's Kolchak: The Night Stalker, lasted but one season on ABC.

You never know, though, when lightning will light up a lifetime of acting. A Christmas Story had a minimal impact when released as a feature film in 1983. It has since become the gift that keeps on giving via annual around-the-clock TV marathons.

McGavin's portrayal of grade-schooler Ralphie Parker's Dad, a.k.a. "The Old Man," is a perfect mix of spiked egg nog and toasted marshmallow.

Who can forget The Old Man's reaction when Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) tries on a gift bunny suit:

Mr. Parker: He looks like a deranged Easter Bunny.

Mother: He does not!

Mr. Parker: He does, too. He looks like a pink nightmare!

But most memorable was The Old Man's giddy anticipation and unveiling of what he declares to be "a major award!"

It turns out to be a lamp in the shape of a leg, but that doesn't stop him from enthusing, "Would you look at that? Would you look at that?" and declaring, "It's . . . it's . . . it's indescribably beautiful! It reminds me of the Fourth of July!"

Alas, his wife (Melinda Dillon) fails to agree and finds a way to smash it by "accident," prompting him to complain ruefully, "You were always jealous of this lamp."

Weaver seemed to have a patent on "folksy" after Gunsmoke put him on the map as limping deputy Chester Goode opposite tower of power Matt Dillon (James Arness). From then on, Weaver cut his own TV trail, playing the leads in Kentucky Jones, Gentle Ben, Buck James and McCloud.

Viewers trusted Knotts to be funny above all else. One couldn't take him entirely or even remotely seriously as a pitchman or dramatic actor. But he stole The Andy Griffith Show as bumbling, bragging deputy Barney Fife, winning five Emmys in the process.

No one, with the arguable exception of The Honeymooners' Art Carney, has matched Knotts as a TV sidekick or physical comedian. Another generation knew Knotts better as landlord Ralph Furley on Three's Company. But that's a strictly secondary achievement.

McGavin, Weaver and Knotts drew firmly upon their lifelong love of acting. Their collective characters kept them ticking. Timelessness is still on their side.

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