Toughing It With Mickey Spillane : Listen, Kid: The Writer Who Created ‘Mike Hammer’ Still Has Tales to Tell
Mickey Spillane leads the way through his kitchen to a big oak table, pulls out a couple of chairs, grins and says, “Get your questions out of the way. Then we can yak.”
Within minutes Spillane, a world-class yakker, is telling stories. There is the tale of a shooting victim dropping right at his feet on a London sidewalk: “Luckily, he looks at the bobby and says, ‘Me mate done it,’ and then he dies. I got out of there real fast.”
There’s the one about Spillane pointing his shotgun at a helicopter that had swooped in to give its passenger-tourists a good look at this house, the home of Mickey Spillane, creator of the Mike Hammer mystery novels. “He took off and never came back,” he says, enjoying a good laugh at the very memory.
At 71, Spillane is bringing back Mike Hammer, the tough-guy private eye he introduced in 1947 in “I, The Jury,” a book he wrote in nine days and which has sold 12 million copies. Spillane’s new Mike Hammer thriller, “The Killing Man,” his first in almost 20 years, is due in November from E. P. Dutton.
Later this spring, CBS will show a Mike Hammer movie of the week, starring Stacy Keach and Lynda Carter. Another Mike Hammer for TV is planned for fall.
But where has the real Mike Hammer been since 1970, the year he mouthed and shot his way through the pages of “Survival: Zero,” the 11th Hammer yarn? Spillane grins and says, “I got bored. . . . You see, when you characterize a person right up to the apex, there’s nothing much you can do with it.”
But finally he decided to accede to “public demand” to bring back Mike.
“I’d forgotten about him,” Spillane says, in the years he was churning out his Tiger Man series and two children’s adventure stories about the sea. “Now I can start off just like it’s something brand-new. And it’s good. He’s refreshing.”
Spillane, whose Mike Hammer novels made him one of the best-selling and best-paid novelists of the ‘50s, is by his own reckoning a “money writer.” He writes only when he needs the income.
“Writing for me is a job,” he says. “I’m a writer, not an author. If all that sold was the works of Shakespeare, I’d write like Shakespeare, or better, to get sold.”
What he writes, he is quick to acknowledge, is “the chewing gum of American literature.”
Perhaps. But to date his prodigious output has added up to sales of 180 million-plus books in hardcover and paperback, in English and in translations.
From Spillane’s typewriter have come “My Gun Is Quick,” “Kiss Me, Deadly” and “Vengeance Is Mine.” Vintage Mike Hammer--replete with sex and violence and big blondes with straining cleavage. Hammer calls his women “kitten” and “kid” and “babe” and they love it.
Now he’s back, with just a little updating, the same old Mike in a contemporary setting.
“I got older, but he didn’t,” Spillane says. Both Hammer and Spillane were 29 when “I, The Jury” came out 42 years ago. They grew older together, but Hammer stopped aging. As we rejoin him this fall in “The Killing Man,” he will still be 44.
Spillane explains: “I always kept him my age. Whatever Mike Hammer knew was exactly what I knew. Then I got to be 44. Now, you can’t have a 71-year-old lover boy with a smokin’ gun in his hand. John Wayne could do it admirably, but you can’t do this anymore.” So, he says, “I did a Little Orphan Annie with my kid,” simply stopping the age clock.
“But now I’m a lot older than 44, so I’ve taught him all the things I know about now.”
Now, just a hint or two from Spillane about the upcoming book: “Well, you don’t know which man is doing the killing here, but Mike is involved because apparently he’s the target of an attack. There was another guy in his office who was killed. But the thing that really gets Mike’s goat is that the killer smashes the heck out of Velma (Hammer’s private secretary for the last 42 years), really lays her out with a blackjack, messes up her face, damn near kills her.”
Having said that, Spillane grins and says, “I’m not going to give you the ending.”
Murrells Inlet is a long way from Hollywood, which is just the way Spillane wants it. Call for directions to his house and he’ll advise that there is no street address--make a right off Highway 17 at the Channel Marker restaurant, look for a white house with a white truck, a white T-bird, a white Jaguar and a white boat out front.
He moved here in 1955--"I’ve been down South so long I hate Yankees.” For the last five years he has shared the rambling two-story house with his third wife, Jane, 42, a local who, he insists, he first met when she was a noisy little pest who used to cycle by on her two-wheeler.
No-Frills Resort Town
Murrells Inlet, on the South Carolina coast about an hour’s drive north of Charleston, is kind of a no-frills resort town whose amenities include a used-car lot and a plethora of seafood restaurants like Oliver’s Lodge, where the Spillanes were married five years ago on Halloween in what he describes as a “we do, let’s eat” ceremony.
“I’m a beach bum,” says Spillane, who has dressed for the interview in a black sweat shirt, white deck pants and Topsiders on sockless feet.
For him, Murrells Inlet was serendipitous. “During the war,” he says, “I was flying a P-51 down this way and I saw this enormous 16-mile stretch of beach, a grand strand that absolutely fascinated me. There was nothing down there, no big jetties, it was natural, and there was nobody here.
“There was a B-25 base so I landed. I had a new airplane, but I told the mechanic, ‘Find somethin’ wrong with it, will ya?’ ” He did, and Spillane was able to parlay that into a beach weekend.
Over the next few years, he vacationed there often with his four children. Then, one winter, he recalls, “I saw this place (for sale). I didn’t even come in” before making an offer.
The house, now greatly enlarged, sits on an acre lot, surrounded by water, with a private beach. Renovation was a challenge for handyman Spillane--"The guy who built it owned a lumber yard, but he didn’t own a level.”
Spillane, the master of guts-and-gutter prose, the writer who created Mike Hammer as a guy who “hates too hard and shoots too fast,” a guy who routinely takes out a bevy of victims with his .45 over the course of 200-plus pages, lives in a warm, welcoming house with pegged floors and hook rugs, black kettles hanging in the hearth, wingback chairs and stuffed teddy bears.
He collects Blue Willow pottery--"What I’m after now is covered dishes.”
Can’t Live in L.A.
“I’m a country boy,” he says. “I couldn’t live in Los Angeles.”
He dismisses Hollywood as a place where “they listen to their own trade papers, but they don’t listen to the people in the Middle West, or any place else.”
Oh, he had a taste of it. In 1963, he played Mike Hammer in the film of “The Girl Hunters.”
And if he came across bigger than life, he reveals, it’s because “I hired everybody smaller than me. I swaggered through the picture. I’m 5-feet-8 (and) I don’t like that business of wearing high heels and standing in trenches. It’s ridiculous. If anybody came over my eyebrows, I just said, ‘You’re a great actor, but I can’t use you.’ The only guy who was my size was Lloyd Nolan. We came out even.”
Mike Hammer films have never enjoyed the success of the books, which Spillane attributes to his ill-advised sale of rights to four books in perpetuity to the late producer Victor Saville who, he says with some satisfaction, “took the money he got from making four fast, junky pictures and made ‘The Silver Chalice,’ (an early Paul Newman film), one of the worst pictures in the world, a terrible flop.”
Spillane was “disgusted” with the movie version of “I, The Jury,” a thriller of 1953. He still shakes his head and wonders, “How could they do that? A bullet hits a wall like that-- (he slaps his hands together)--and it should look like half a dollar and it looks like somebody just pulled it out of the shell.”
He shrugs. “That’s past. I learned my lesson by working with Hollywood. . . . If I ever see the word net in a contract, I rip the contract up, goodby. Like net profit. Well, you know, with their accounting system, there is no net profit.”
He delights in telling visitors that he has been honored by having his star placed in the sidewalk--in Myrtle Beach, S.C., an honor he shares so far with the rock band Alabama.
Sealed With a Handshake
His Hollywood connection is Jay Bernstein, with whom he says he has the only filmland partnership sealed with only a handshake. They first met on a Los Angeles-to-New York flight, Spillane recalls: “He sat down, looked at me and said, ‘She walked toward me, her hips waving a happy hello.’ I wanted to go to sleep and I thought here’s this crazed fan who’s going to keep me awake for 3 1/2 hours. Before we got to New York, we’d made a deal for a show.”
(Spillane, for the life of him, can’t remember which of his Mike Hammer books the quote is from.)
Funny, he muses, the lines people hang onto. “In ‘I, The Jury’ it was ‘It was easy,’ ” Hammer’s exit line after he shoots the naked, seductive and murderous Charlotte in the belly. “People used to go around saying, ‘Oh, it was easy. . . .’ ”
The man who gave the world Mike Hammer is probably best known to a generation of Americans as a face in a beer commercial. For 16 years, he has done Lite beer television spots for Miller’s, which regularly delivers cases of the stuff to Murrells Inlet, though Spillane says, “I’m not (much of) a drinker.”
But then, this man who talks so tough in print is given in conversation to such phrases as “by golly,” “my word” and “son of a gun.”
And since 1951, he has been a devout Jehovah’s Witness. “It’s where the truth is,” he says. “What the Bible tells you is almost directly opposite what church traditions teach. Everything’s right there, in the Bible.”
Murrells Inlet is pretty tame stuff for someone who’s made 313 parachute jumps, has logged 11,000 hours as a pilot, has been a professional diver, drove racing cars and once toured with Ringling Bros. as a trampoline artist.
These days, Spillane says, “My favorite trip is coming home.”
He laughs and says, “Jane wants me to get a 9-to-5 job. I say if you don’t want to see me so much, you get a job. I like to be home.”
Eats ‘a Lot of Cereal’
A compactly built man, tanned, with his silver hair cropped in a ‘50s crew cut, he looks years younger than his years. His only concessions to physical fitness, he insists, are that he eats “a lot of cereal” and lives a “very modest” life style.
When he was 65, he told an interviewer, “If youth is this good, I can’t wait for middle age.” Today, he says, “They say, ‘How are ya?’ and I say, ‘Any day above ground is a good day.’ As the guy said, ‘I’m not an old man. I’m a young man that something happened to.’ ”
Murrells Inlet is “not pretentious,” Spillane says, not like Fort Lauderdale, where “you don’t know if you’re at the White House or in Monticello or Mount Vernon or in the Taj Mahal.”
“I get along just fine here,” he says. “I’m one of the old ones.”
Occasionally, a Spillane fan snoops around, asking a local merchant where he lives. “I say, ‘If he buys something, tell him. If he doesn’t, forget it.’ Let’s keep it economic.”
He laughs and says: “People say to me, ‘With all your money, why don’t you have a Cadillac?’ I say because I can afford a Ford. I’m a Ford man. I love Fords.”
Gift From John Wayne
Of course, he does have a Jaguar, as well, a 1956 XK-40, a gift from John Wayne. “A thank-you card,” he explains. “It came wrapped with a big red ribbon and a note that said, ‘Thanks, Duke.’ I rewrote a movie for him, saved him a lot of money.”
He and Wayne, however, shared more than a friendship.
They also saw eye to eye on politics.
Spillane, who jokingly refers to himself as a “redneck,” is a law-and-order man. He never votes but says, “If I were in politics, I’d be a mighty big conservative.”
And don’t talk to him about gun control. “I don’t belong to the NRA,” he says, “but I don’t believe you should have your guns taken away from you. . . . I have guns. I have all sorts of guns and I’m not even going to list them, under no condition. People are like that around here.”
He believes police should “carry shotguns” and he doesn’t hesitate to say, “If I see somebody comin’ at me with a gun, it wouldn’t bother me to take ‘em out.”
As for his latest book, “The Killing Man,” Dutton payed him “a bundle of loot"--$1.5 million, Spillane confirms, contrasting that with the $1,000 he was advanced for “I, The Jury.”
‘My Checks Don’t Bounce’
He guesses he’s a wealthy man but asks, “What’s wealth? The money goes into taxes. My checks don’t bounce, let’s say that. But I don’t buy things.
“Money’s like a hammer. You can kill somebody with a hammer or you can build a house with a hammer. Money is for what you need, and what you want. Everybody needs things. It’s your wants that kill ya’. Now, I can buy a big yacht, but I like a work boat.” He zips around the waterways in a 24-foot outboard.
He shuns parties, loves to take off in his truck (which he calls his “Carolina Cadillac”) and, he says: “My wife gives me the devil because all the clothes I wear have ‘Lite’ written on them.”
“I get the world’s worst reviews,” Spillane boasts, bringing out a few he’s kept: “A shabby and rather nasty little venture . . . hackneyed and in execrable taste. . . . A mixture even more repellent than usual.”
He’s hoping for a bad review for the new Mike Hammer book. Let them crucify him, he says--"I’m the fifth most widely translated writer in the world. Ahead of me are Lenin, Tolstoy, Gorky and Jules Verne. And they’re all dead. People say to me, ‘When are you going to write a good book?’ I say I already have, 42 of them.”
As a writing teacher, unsalaried, at various colleges, he leaves his students with one message: “No matter how you slice it, the criterion of how good you are is how much money you make. Now, you might not be writing anything fancy, but you’re writing for the public and if they accept it, you’ve done your job. I am not writing message things. Henry Ford put out Model Ts. Mr. Woolworth sold five-and-dime. That’s what I’m into.”
Frank Morrison Spillane, a bartender’s son from Brooklyn, N.Y., spent three formal years in college, at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. “I know a lot about wheat,” he says. Even as an undergraduate, he recalls with glee, he was making more money than the deans as a part-time magazine writer.
He averages a book a year, “bangin’ away” eight hours a day at home on two “beautiful machines,” manual Smith-Corona typewriters that he has restored by lifting parts from a third one.
“I don’t rewrite,” he says. “I never rewrite. The first stuff you write’s the best, especially if you’re a pro. And I’m a pro. I can’t afford to waste time doin’ that.”
He tells his students to write for the market--"If you want to play with poetry, there’s only one way to make money. Work for Hallmark Cards.”
Spillane laughs as he recalls that “I, The Jury,” in which Hammer chased bad guys and beautiful women, was considered “horribly sensual” in its day, while now, “little old ladies write things that are wilder than that.”
He delights in telling of his improbable readers, among them the late Ayn Rand--"We were good friends. She was a fan of mine like you couldn’t believe--and ‘Miss Lillian’ Carter,” about whom he says, “For years I was gettin’ letters from this little old lady. She was tellin’ me about when she went to the Peace Corps and writin’ me from over there. I didn’t know who she was until once she mentioned her son, the President.”
The question seems inevitable. Is Mike Hammer going to fly with a generation weaned on Ian Fleming’s James Bond tales?
Spillane doesn’t seem concerned. “Apples and oranges,” not comparable, he says.
“I write mystery stories,” he explains, while Fleming wrote spy stories. “You can compare them only as entertainment value.” He adds, “Fleming used to spend three pages describing wine. I spend three pages describing a girl.”
He’s writing a second Hammer comeback novel, he mentions, then he plans to do “a big book, real adventure stuff, heavy with good plots,” a science-fiction sort of thing set off an island.
Spillane’s thoughts return to Ian Fleming and James Bond.
“You know, he was with two other publishing houses and he did not sell. But I liked his stuff and I got with our editor at New American Library. I said, ‘This guy’s got something goin’ here,’ so they brought him in. And then Kennedy made the statement that he liked to read the works of Ian Fleming and he went right to the top.”
Strange thing, he adds, “He sold himself out for $300,000, knowing he was going to die, sold all his rights out, blew it all down there in Bermuda, said goodby to his wife, and that was it.”
He picks up “KK” (for Killer Kitty), one of his three black cats, strokes the animal’s fight-scarred nose and launches into another of his stories.
This one’s about two notorious one-time English underworld figures, Billy Hill and Jack (Spot) Comer, paying him a social call at London’s Rembrandt Hotel, thinking he’d know something “about the boys and the action in New York.” After all, he was Mike Hammer, wasn’t he?
“Now, right after that, in comes this guy, you’d swear he was right out of Conan Doyle, Scotland Yard"--and here Spillane affects a clipped British accent--"I say, sir, I understand you entertained a certain person. . . . Do you mind telling me your profession?”
“I say, ‘I’m a writer,’ ” Spillane says. “He says, ‘What the hell do you write?’ ”