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Golden ‘Hammer’ : Filming of Stacy Keach Show and Others Opens a Treasure Chest for Ventura

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Hollywood comes to town, Ventura is not as it appears to be.

What is normally The Thrift Factory at 222 E. Main St. has been transformed into “Claudette’s Occult Shoppe” in Lower Manhattan. Glowing pumpkins near a make-believe newsstand down the street help turn the night into Halloween.

The 65-member cast and crew of “Mike Hammer: Private Eye” have been spending 12 to 14 hours a day, five days a week, in Ventura County to make you a believer.

On a recent day, shooting along Main Street went from 4 p.m. to just before sunrise.

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Such is the life of actor Stacy Keach, who is reprising the lead role of the hard-boiled pulp gumshoe he played for 46 hourlong episodes and three two-hour specials during the 1980s.

In this episode, Hammer is investigating a series of ritualistic killings. A single letter is tattooed on the lower back of each victim. S-A-T-A . . . you get the picture.

Whatever the story line, Santa Monica-based Franklin/Waterman Productions has discovered that Ventura, with its rolling hills and array of downtown building facades, can be Anytown, USA.

“When you have a number of storefronts that are so close together . . . It could be Second Avenue,” says Keach. “You just eliminate the palm trees.”

“Mike Hammer” is just one of the many productions in which Ventura has displayed its chameleon-like personality.

Those who saw the “The Rock” were led to believe the Rosewood Church off Wells Road was a Midwestern hall of worship in the movie’s final scene, filmed in March 1996.

In June 1992, producers of “Jeffrey Dahmer: The Secret Life” filmed assorted back streets and alleyways here and told viewers they were part of Minneapolis. And the City Council’s chambers were disguised as a Los Angeles Superior courtroom for scenes in Jack Nicholson’s directorial effort “The Two Jakes,” shot in June 1989.

Peter Jason (“Dante’s Peak,” “Escape From L.A.”), who plays New York City cop Skip Gleason believes the downtown area requires help to look like Manhattan.

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“Basically, it’s a little too clean,” he says. “But that’s not a problem. We’ll supply the dirt and the grime. We’ve got professionals here that can whip that up in an hour.”

City officials are beaming over the possible publicity a popular television series could bring to Ventura.

To entice Hollywood producers to film here, Ventura streamlined its permit application process, assists in finding shooting locations and catering services, and charges a nominal fee of $150 per day or $250 per episode--just enough to defray its administrative costs.

Costs of hiring police and firefighters to handle traffic control and other duties are extra, and picked up by the production company.

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Since Keach’s character most likely will not prowl Ventura’s dark streets and alleys more than one day per episode, officials believe the real income will come from increased tourism.

“The film activity brings name recognition to the town,” says Richard Newsham, a public relations specialist for the city’s community services department. “We do bill ourselves as a tourist destination.”

When Franklin/Waterman first hit town in May 1996 to film episodes of “High Tide,” a syndicated surfer-detective television series, it wanted to label all the scenes shot in Ventura to make viewers think it was Santa Barbara. Ventura officials bargained to have their city’s name included in the script.

The city was paid $10,000 for a season’s worth of filming--August 1996 through March 1997--because “High Tide” rented several Ventura landmarks, such as City Hall and the Ventura Pier.

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It is undetermined whether the show, which was filmed in New Zealand and San Diego for two seasons before coming to Ventura, will be picked up for another season.

Although Mike Hammer works in Lower Manhattan, there is reason to hope that Ventura’s name will be penned into at least one future script.

“Mike does travel,” Keach says. “He does come to Los Angeles.”

Most filming for the show takes place on Franklin/Waterman’s 8-acre Santa Ventura Studios. Located in an unincorporated area just north of the Ventura city line, the movie lot has 50,000 square feet of usable studio space and is expanding to accommodate future television series as well.

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“The reason Ventura works for us is we’ve had unbelievable community support,” says Jeff Franklin, the show’s co-executive producer. “It’s [also] accessible for crews and transportation from L.A. It’s against traffic both ways.”

Keach says he loves the drive each morning from his Malibu home and enjoys playing on an Ojai golf course just eight minutes from the studio.

But mostly, he loves the character of Mike Hammer, which author Mickey Spillane introduced 50 years ago in his book “I, the Jury.”

“Frankly, he’s politically incorrect,” Keach says of his character’s persona. “He smokes. He takes the law into his own hands. He’s a vigilante. He’s a male chauvinist. He’s very outspoken in terms of his intolerance for injustice. I guess because he wears a trench coat, he can get away with it.”

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Although Spillane often described Hammer as being to the political right of Attila the Hun, Keach’s version is a tad more mellow.

But in the 1990s, when criminals are seen by some as victims, Keach believes audiences will embrace Hammer’s tough-on-crime stance.

“Three-strikes-and-you’re-out is two strikes too many for Mike Hammer,” he says.

The show also stars Shane Conrad (“The Brady Bunch Movie”), son of actor Robert, who plays the youngest son of Hammer’s recently murdered longtime friend Officer Carrol Farrell, and Shannon Whirry (“Out for Justice,” “Animal Instincts”), who plays Velda, Hammer’s voluptuous--but very talented--secretary.

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Rebecca Chaney, a great-niece of Lon Chaney, plays a mysterious figure known simply as “The Lady.” She makes brief appearances in Hammer’s life, but it is unclear for now whether she is real or just in his imagination.

A total of 26 episodes are set to be filmed this season for first-run syndication in more than 30 countries worldwide, including 151 U.S. markets. Locally, “Mike Hammer: Private Eye” is slated for 11 p.m. Saturdays on KCAL-TV, Channel 9 beginning Sept 27.

Crowds gathering around on-location film sets have been friendly and cooperative, according to the crew.

“Everyone’s so eager to have us up here, they make it a joy to work,” says Jason. “It’s fun to be appreciated.”

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So far, the actors have had no problems with local paparazzi. But Keach says such aggressive photographers have stalked him in the past.

However, unlike George Clooney and several other celebrities who have blasted paparazzi in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, Keach says there is plenty of guilt to go around.

“Who buys the newspapers?” he says. "[The public’s] the ones who give the money. So we’re all responsible. None of us are exempt from this terrible tragedy.”

Such a diplomatic view Hammer likely would not take, according to his alter ego.

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“He would probably take out his gun and shoot right in the lens--BOOM!” Keach says. “And his line would be: ‘An eye for an eye.’ ”


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