It Wasn't Easy
Mike Hammer Comes to Television
by Kevin Burton Smith
"I said, 'This is ridiculous! I mean, you can't take this shit seriously.'"
-- Darren McGavin
How do you turn the darkly violent, psychologically bruising revenge fantasies of Mickey Spillane's bestselling Mike Hammer novels into a weekly television show, in the squeaky clean surface puritanism of the 1950s?
It wasn't easy.
Even as the Hammer blood-and-thunder paperbacks were flying off bookstore shelves asnd drugstore spinner racks in record numbers, giving an entire post-war populace all the violent, sexy jollies it wanted, television remained another country.
In between plugging shiny new washing machines and shiny new cars, it preferred to pedal relatively innocuous fare: game shows, sitcoms and by-the-numbers genre exercises, mostly westerns and detective shows full of good ol' red, white and blue sanitized violence rather than anything as messy and real as violence that actually meant something.
Bang bang, fall down about summed it up when it cames to the medium's most popular dramatic genres: westerns and detective shows.
As for sex? Or even the hint of sex?
You're kidding, right?
So you'd think that bringing Hammer and all his sadomasochistic ultra-violence, warped psychology and twisted sexual tropes to the nation's living rooms would be a non-starter, right?
But damn, those books were selling well. And showbiz has never been known to shy way from making a profit; standards or not. By 1958, there had already been a few films and a radio series based on the Hammer books. There was even a television pilot (starring Brian Keith and written and directed by Blake Edwards) from a few years earlier that nobody picked up, cititing "too much violence" as the reason.
So, in 1958, smack dab in the middle of the private eye boom, Revue Productions decided to take another crack at bringing Hammer to the boob tube, unleashing MICKEY SPILLANE'S MIKE HAMMER as a syndicated series.
Wiser (or at least more commercially savvy) heads decided that maybe, just maybe Hammer could be toned down (just a little). So they cast the always affable Darren McGavin, then a relative unknown, as Mike Hammer. It was a choice that mystified many, including McGavin himself:
McGavin insisted it must be satire, but the producers reassured him:
Reminding the reluctant McGavin that he was under contract, they proceeded. Or as McGavin put it,
Certainly, seen through modern eyes, they're often very amusing. But I wonder how many people at the time thought of them as "funny."
Oh, sure, they were lighter in tone than the books, which could be pretty bloody and grim, while whatever tiny pieces of humour that existed in Spillane's work were generally rather dark.
Not so McGavin's Hammer. As played by the actor (and as written in the scripts), Hammer was a freewheeling looney tune, an affably brusque, horny doofus running on more hormones than a high school football team. Not a lot of tightly focused, white hot rage for vengeance burned here -- this Hammer was a loose cannon of another sort, alternately oblivious or quick to take offence; more cranky than psychotic. Nor was he a modern day Sherlock Holmes -- his lightning-fast deductions were frequently wrong.
I have no doubt that the savvy, intelligent McGavin certainly could have pulled off the relentless, slightly unhinged force of nature Spillane had created if he had wanted. His role as a masochistic dope dealer in Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm proved he had the chops. But when McGavin delivered a line like "I'm gonna find (this guy and) take him apart like a four bit watch!" there always seemed to be an arched eyebrow involved -- whether we could see it or not.
Mind you, with the episodes being only a half hour long, shot quickly and on the cheap in just two or three days each, many of the cases often made little sense anyway, full of rushed denouements and headspinning motives, so you can't really blame McGavin for not taking them too seriously.
At least they were never boring. Their pulp roots definitely showed, with logic often tossed out the window to make more room for more action. Not surprising, since the show's writers included such notable pulpsters such as Frank Kane (by far the largest contributor), Robert Turner, Richard Deming and Bill S. Ballinger (under the pen name of B.X. Sanborn), with several episodes based on stories from the pulp mags and digests of the era. Given these writers' backgrounds and that many of them had already created relatively successful series private eyes themselves, it's a surprise that none of them ever seemed able to quite get a handle on Hammer, or what made him tick. Or to remain consistent. From episode to episode, his personality would flicker back and forth from affable doofus to unhinged avenger.
To the casual fan, then, this Hammer was just another television dick; one more in a long litany of generic gumshoes running around in such contemporary shows as Peter Gunn, Martin Kane, Richard Diamond, 77 Sunset Strip or its numerous offspring. Maybe Hammer was a little rougher around the edges (sometimes), and slightly edgier (sometimes), but hey, most of them had some sort of gimmick, right?
Which makes it surprising that the producers skipped one major gimmick that might have helped. Velda, Mike's long-suffering secretary (and love interest), one of the novels' most significant supporting players and a definite steadying influence, was nowhere to be seen. More disconcerting for some Spillane die-hards was that TV's Hammer sported a measly little .38, not the big dick-compensating .45 of the novels. His cop buddy Captain Pat Chambers was still there, at least, to try to save Mike from his own worst instincts -- to rare avail, of course.
Fortunately, there was a New York itself -- shot on Hollywood backlots, unfortunately, but jazzed up with some great location shots featuring McGavin (or possibly a body double). But regardless of where it was actually shot, it was a great big pulpy swinging dick of a New York, just like in the books: full of eccentric oddballs and chisellers, quirky thugs and lonely showgirls for Hammer to play off against.
Naturally, the sex had to go. Elsewhere on the dial, Peter Gunn might have been allowed to pursue a more-or-less (implied) adult relationship with Edie Hart, but nobody ever accused Hammer of being particularly adult, even in the novels.
So the sex in the Hammer show was more along the lines of "Hey Chickie Babe!" teen wolf lust; more Tex Avery than Cary Grant. McGavin would wink and pop his eyes and even occasionally lick his lips, and more than one episode had him coming on to some poor woman (a client, a victim, a suspect, etc.) at the most inappropriate times. There wasn't any pussy-grabbing, but some of the scenes came uncomfortably close.
And the wisecracks?
Hoo-boy! Some shows, it seemed like half the come-on lines McGavin spouted would get him fired these days, and would have earned him a good slap in the face even back then.
Velda may have been absent, but inexplicably the footloose and fancy-free Hammer did all right with the ladies, and even had a few girlfriends during the show. Although most of the relationships only lasted an episode and seemed to be built upon the the woman's abilty to amply fill up an XL push-up bra that could poke your eye out and/or her potential for needing rescueing or avenging at some future point in the show.
Those looking for Spillane's dark twisted tales of blood, fury and revenge would be disappointed -- I know I was. Oh, Mike could be counted on to kill some wrongo every now and then, and he would occassionally dish out (or be on the receiving end) of a viscious beating, or a simple case could go pear-shaped at exactly the wrong moment, but the wild, brutal drive of Spillane's novels was markedly absent.
TV Guide, in 1958, had no problem announcing it could "easily be the worst show on TV."
Spillane himself was quick to wash his hands of it. "I just took the money and went home," the author once said of the show. "Believe me, I had bigger fish to fry."
* * * * *
But a funny thing happened as the Girl Detective and I worked our way through the 2011 DVD collection. The very oddness and goofiness of the show and McGavin's off-kilter approach to the material, coupled with the occasional tight, right plot, began to draw us in.
Sure, the scripts were often ridiculous, McGavin's leering wisecracks more worthy of eyeball-rolling than laughter, and the directoral choices often more of a mystery than anything the teleplays had to offer.
There were other mysteries, as well.
Like, why on earth was a portrait of a horse given such a place of honour on the wall of Hammer's seedy one-room office? Was there something between Mike and Mr. Ed we should know about?
And how many times could one man be knocked unconscious? Forget the obligatory fedora -- Hammer should have been wearing a football helmet.
The frequent fistfights and scuffles are also a hoot. In 1958, the stunt choreography for television had yet to be nailed down to a strict formula, with a lot of obvious air-punching and pointless flailing and leaping about like angry ballerinas, with Hammer and his foes often seemingly more interested in destroying props than each other.
But the same lack of codified choreography meant there were moments of surprising violence, as in one episode where Hammer repeatedly slams an opponents head in a doorway, or when a thug lands with two feet on a prone Hammer's stomach.
Hammer would regularly slap hoods and other reluctant witnesses around for information, and guilty parties rarely walked away in cuffs -- they were far more likey to be shot dead (usually but not always by Hammer), tossed out of a window or down a fire escape.
Nasty stuff, indeeed, and characters often came away convincingly bloody, from beatings, stabbings and gunshot wounds. Nor was blood splatter on walls and furniture uncommon. In one memorably framed scene from the episode "Requiem for a Sucker" (right) Hammer comes across the corpse of a murdered loanshark (played by Len Lesser), sporting a nicely obvious bullet head in his forehead.
In another show, Hammer breaks a printing press over a counterfeiter's head.
At the scene of a murder in yet another episode, Hammer notes that "somebody had worked her over with a pistol butt or a hatchet, you couldn't really tell which."
Like I said, nasty.
But the clunky dialogue and even clunkier acting (particularly from the supporting cast of occasional future stars but mostly never-weres) seen from sixty or so years on now seems amusing and even entertaining, as does the occasionally jaw-dropping plot twist.
Still, McGavin's cocky working class New York swagger does (and presumably did) offer a nice contrast to contemporary Peter Gunn's cool urbane sophistication or the genteel blandness of the 77 Bourbon Street Bunch. McGavin's clever, sardonic voice-over narration, tossed off with a world weary casualness, may have been a simple way to cover plot points too expensive for Revue to actually stage, but they tied nicely into the first person narration traditions of private eye literature.
Even better, though, is that occasionally a strong slug of modern-day irony and a tasty beverage or two isn't even necessary to enjoy an episode.
Sometimes, unexpectedly, the real Hammer would come down, as in "Wedding Mourning," one of the last episodes of the show's second and final season, in which our man for once comes close (at least for television) to being the relentless avenger of Spillane's novels. When his finacée (whom, of course, we'd never seen before) is murdered (on their wedding day, of course), Hammer goes on a "half-cocked" but fierce rampage of vengeance. Of course, after a surprisingly abrupt ending, wherein the killer (or at least the probable killer -- we never really know for sure) is summarily dispatched, Mike's engagement is never mentioned in subsequent episodes.
Other episodes cited as worth catching by others include the John English-directed "Peace Bond," featuring a clever little frame job and a crazy "let's smash some furniture" brawl that must have given the propmaster some significant extra paperwork, while the increasingly feverish, loopy plotting of the payola-themed "Music to Die By" pits Hammer against a devious record promoter who will stop at nothing to put her clients on the pop charts. There's a nice mention of the Brill Building and a cameo by the Ames Brothers that should please music buffs (and fans of Ed Ames' turn as Mingo in the old Daniel Boone show).
None of these episodes are truly stellar, although they do give hints of what might have been had McGavin been given better material and they'd had the budget and time to do them right.
And that's the rub -- to truly bring Spillane's Hammer to television (or even to film) requires a committment to the source material that few producers or directors seem willing to take.
Yes, there have been a few successful stabs. The original cheesy Stacey Keach TV series was popular enough, and the Robert Aldrich directed Kiss Me Deadly feature (1955), now considered a noir classic, was critically acclaimed enough, but both -- like McGavin's portrayal -- were a long leap from anything Spillane ever put down on paper.
Certainly, for those in network television, a weekly bout of nihilistic gut-wrenching blood and vengeance seems like a hard sell. Such a show would never have made it in the fifties, and even now, in these days of Breaking Bad, True Detective, Ray Donovan et al, where it seems almost anything goes, Spillane may be too raw and too unapologetic; too straight to the point for most audiences.
Fortunately, we still have the books.
Portions of the interview included in this article were reprinted on DarrenMcGavin.net
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