Ten months after Stacy Keach walked out of England's Reading Prison, an ex-convict and a free man, TV is reinventing the series he left behind.
When "The Return of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" with Keach again in the title role airs next week (April 18, 9-11 p.m. on CBS), the emphasis on jiggling young ladies and bulldozer action highly visible in the series' 1984-85 run will be virtually gone. In their place are a one-woman romance, a more mystery-oriented plot and some Hollywood glamour.
Outside of the fact that it interrupted the series, Keach's imprisonment on charges of smuggling cocaine has little to do with the retooling of Hammer. Rather, the changes reflect the kind of calculated effort to draw ratings that goes into the design of a program, often unbeknownst to viewers.
In the case of "The Return of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer," that effort is nothing short of a survival tactic. "Return of Hammer" is a pilot episode to test the waters for the return of "Mike Hammer" as a weekly series.
When it last aired on a regular basis--in January, 1985--it earned so-so ratings in the 9 p.m. Saturday time slot and its chances for renewal were borderline. But Hammer, with his macho swagger drawing a constant lineup of swooning starlets, was considered something of a hit with men. As a result, when Hammer returns, the plot, casting and tone are aimed at adding to its ratings by drawing more women .
"In order to survive with the splintered audience television has, you have to have two out of the three groups watching: men, women and teens," said executive producer Jay Bernstein, whose personal rallying on "Hammer's" behalf helped convince CBS to bring it back with another two-hour test run. "I did not want the two-hour movie pilot to turn women off, so I didn't want to go after MIAs in Vietnam."
Instead, Hammer will fall heavily for Lauren Hutton, playing a movie star, and her on-screen daughter whom he is hired to protect. Hutton, Bernstein said, was selected because she is thought to be both attractive to men and appealing to women.
arbara Corday, president of Columbia Pictures Television, which produces the series, is particularly gratified that Hammer is giving up some of his macho ways. Corday, who co-wrote the original "Cagney & Lacey" TV movie, said that she is "pleased that we're not seeing so many women with their clothes cut down to their waist that have no reason to be in the show. That was part of the books that didn't translate well to the screen.
"But there's a great danger in not giving people who are Mickey Spillane fans what they want. You want to add female appeal without losing men. That's why I say we're walking a fine line. I think we're damn close."
In addition, two subordinate roles were given to actors John Karlen and Stephen Macht because they are strongly featured on a popular show with strong female viewership, "Cagney & Lacey." On that show, Karlen plays Lacey's (Tyne Daly) husband and Macht is Cagney's (Sharon Gless) boyfriend.
Bernstein, who, as a personal manager, once played the star-maker to actresses such as Farrah Fawcett and Suzanne Somers, is perfectly frank about one of the side effects of Keach's incarceration. "I would say there is probably an 80-85% higher recognition factor for Stacy Keach. He is now what I would consider a star ," Bernstein said, with his definition of star being "a fine actor who becomes a celebrity."
Keach is a changed person today. In the aftermath of his prison sentence, he's lent his name and voice to numerous public service programs related to combating drug addiction.
His prison experience, he said, will be reflected in his portrayal of tough-guy detective Hammer. The extreme flippancy--"too much talking down to people"--has given way to what he calls "a slightly more vulnerable, more compassionate" hero "with a deeper sense of humor."
"I have a more well-rounded perspective about justice," Keach said the other day, laughing at his own understatement.
He acknowledges that the notoriety surrounding his prison term has made him more of a celebrity than he was when he starred in two "Mike Hammer" TV movies and 24 hourlong episodes. "Obviously I am," he said, though quickly adding that his means of getting there "is not something I'd recommend."
But he readily acknowledges that viewer demographics would have dictated the changes in his character anyway. Also, his imprisonment apparently has not turned away viewers. His first work as an ex-convict, in "Intimate Strangers," which aired Jan. 1, was one of CBS' highest rated made-for-TV movies of the season.
Corday believes that Keach's imprisonment and any resulting celebrity status probably have a "neutral" effect on viewers. "Six months later half of America is going to say, 'Was he the guy (who was in prison). . . .' I don't think people really remember."
Yet, from a ratings point of view, Keach's forced hiatus is significant. While Hammer was gone, a bunch of other no-nonsense heroes trod on his turf: NBC's "Hunter" has some of the same "Dirty Harry" style, CBS' "The Equalizer" likes to help the underdog and ABC's "Spenser: For Hire" uses a voice-over narration similar to "Hammer's" (and others before him).
Part of the solution, Bernstein said, was to make "Mike Hammer" more of a whodunit. "We will eventually be more like 'Murder, She Wrote' than we will 'Dirty Harry,' " he said.
That would be fine with CBS, for whom "Murder, She Wrote" continues to earn a spot in the Top 10 shows. After the broadcast of "The Return of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" next week, CBS will air hourlong repeats of the series on the following three Tuesdays at 9 p.m.
That's a killer time slot, opposite ABC's hit show "Moonlighting," but CBS' plan is not to beat that show. It is testing "Hammer" as a lead-in to the low-rated "The Equalizer," a series that Harvey Shephard, senior vice president of programming, says "I still have a lot of faith in."
Shephard purchased the three reruns of "Hammer" from Bernstein and Columbia Pictures Television just to test "Hammer's" strength. (CBS already has run them twice, as its original contract allowed.) If "Hammer" comes in second in its time period and gives "Equalizer" a boost, the combination will represent "good, strong alternative programming."
Shephard also said he hand-picked "Hammer" episodes that will be compatible with the tone of the new movie.
All of that is fine, too, with Columbia, which is short on hourlong network dramas at the moment. The studio already has spent a few million unrecouped dollars on "Hammer" to make up the difference between what the network pays for the show and what it actually costs to produce. But it is willing to gamble even more money for the chance to get enough episodes to sell in syndication a few years down the road.