On the television screen, rumpled newspaper man Carl Kolchak faced supernatural demons in the shadow of the Strip’s neon and beyond in the 1970s cult favorite “The Night Stalker” series.
Those demons were nothing compared to the real ones encountered by Jeff Rice, the man who dreamed up the story of a real Vegas vampire serial killer and the wise-cracking reporter who nailed him. Rice, who a close friend says suffered from severe depression throughout much of his adult life, died July 1 in Las Vegas. He was 71. In an eerie tribute to the mysteries that surrounded his fiction and life in Las Vegas, the cause and manner of death is pending the results of a toxicology test by the Clark County coroner’s office.
If the adventures of Kolchak captured the American pop culture zeitgeist and brought a new kind of mystery to mid-1970s Las Vegas during its polyester period, Rice himself haunted the background like an apparition. He was the son of Bob Rice, a mob-associated costume jewelry maker from Providence, R.I., and early investor in the Dunes. The elder Rice was part of a group led by Charles “Kewpie” Rich and Sid Wyman, who operated the Dunes when its secret owners were said to include New England mob boss Raymond Patriarca and St. Louis political powerhouse and organized crime attorney Morris Shenker.
Through those family’s connections, the son gained access to the neon glitz and subterranean shadow of Las Vegas. He even worked for a time at local newspapers. Some of that experience seeps into the pages of his story just as it surely crept into his consciousness.
Talk about the stuff of vampires and demons. From the look of things, it was rarely easy being Jeff Rice. David Dawidziak reports in “The Night Stalker Companion” that the television movie rights to Rice’s 1970 unpublished novel was sold without his permission to ABC. Rice sued the network, which settled before the series aired, and gave creative credit on screen to Rice.
But that left him well short of Easy Street. By the time all the Hollywood double dealing was resolved, Rice’s novel was published in 1973 after the hugely successful TV movie. A series followed, and Rice also found success with a second novel, “The Night Strangler,” co-authored with Richard Matheson. Those novels were republished by Moonstone in 2005, and the Kolchak caricature continues to rack up supernatural scoops in comic books.
In recent years, Rice had regained a fan following thanks to the Internet. One on Amazon enthused, “Jeff Rice has written by far the best vampire story of the 20th century. The Night Stalker (original title, The Kolchak Tapes) wipes the floor with Anne Rice’s murky stuff … Superb writing, I wish Rice had more novels available.”
Although the original series lasted just a season with Darren McGavin in the starring role, the image of Kolchak in his wrinkled seersucker suit and cocked porkpie hat, notebook and tape recorder in hand, chasing shadows up blind alleys, endures. The show has aired in reruns on the Syfy network and Chiller, and a big-screen version of “The Night Stalker” featuring Johnny Depp has been in development for several years.
Beneath the biography and credits was a troubled man who, his close friend Bobbie Carson says, was extremely troubled and increasingly afraid of straying from his home near Desert Inn Road. In leaner times, Rice had rented a room from Carson and on occasion slept on her couch. She helped him through emotional and mental crises. He cared for her after the 78-year-old fell and broke her hip. The two met 14 years ago. In keeping with the local working class subculture, they had a loan shark in common and struck up what became an enduring friendship.
“I’m just beside myself,” Carson says. “I just loved Jeff to death. Everyone that he knew loved him.”
He was having trouble coping recently and wound up in a local emergency room without insurance. He called his friend and implored, “Just come and get me.” Carson responded, recalling, “I got him and took him home.”
No services are planned, but his friend Carson hopes to get the word out to some of Rice’s old Vegas acquaintances.
Perhaps they can help solve the mystery of Jeff Rice’s troubled existence.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Find him on Twitter: @jlnevadasmith