Saturday, September 24, 2011

Happy 25th, SLEDGE HAMMER! (Part 2 of 2)

SLEDGE HAMMER! - SEASON ONE (For PART ONE of our SLEDGE salute click here)

Episode by Episode mini-reviews of the 1986-87 season, with key episodes in yellow.

UNDER THE GUN (9/23/86) The pilot sets the tone perfectly, with Spencer really going for broke with his script and director Martha Coolidge really nailing the sight gags.  John Vernon is on hand to play the mayor, who personally requests that Hammer be taken off suspension and assigned to find his kidnapped daughter.  It is a crying shame Vernon never got to reprise the role; he's deadpan great.  The shorter version (eliminating the interrogation scene with recurring stoolie Don Stark as Kurt Kruggle) actually flows better.  ****-flawless introduction to Sledge, Dori and Trunk.

HAMMER GETS NAILED (9/26/86) Guest star Ronnie Schell as a hard-nosed investigative reporter, who can make or break the department's budget when he requests to ride with the cops for a day.  Guess who gets the assignment?  Sledge's sensitive side emerges when he's confronted with a hungry criminal, and----nah, I can't keep a straight face and finish that thought. *** Some classic moments in this one, but Schell isn't one of the more memorable guests.

WITLESS (10/3/86)  With a mafia contract out on his life, Hammer is ordered "far away from the city".    ***1/2 Arguably Spencer's funniest script, works brilliantly despite some of the more obvious network censorship.  Al Ruscio's Godfather shtick is put to very good use.

THEY SHOOT HAMMERS, DON'T THEY? (10/17/86) Guest star Jack Thibeau (ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ) is Hammer's old partner, who has broken out of prison and is spoiling for a showdown.  The first episode to explore Sledge's background and tell us a little about his father, the late Jack Hammer. ***1/2 Thibeau's outrageously over the top performance puts this episode in the winner's circle.  In addition to providing us with comedy gold, the psychotic character makes Hammer seem positively normal.

DORI DAY AFTERNOON (10/24/86)  Sledge and Dori are taken hostage in a bank holdup.  Attica!  Attica!  **1/2 Great opening gag, but pretty routine the rest of the way.

TO SLEDGE WITH LOVE (10/31/86)  Sledge tries his own version of "Scared Straight" with some juvenile delinquents. *1/2 The first real clunker, with long stretches in between solid laughs.

ALL SHOOK UP (11/7/86) A serial killer is targeting Elvis impersonators, so Hammer decides to put on his blue swede shoes and go undercover. **** Alan Spencer wrote this one in tribute to his late friend Andy Kaufman, and created one of the best-loved and well remembered episodes.  Deservedly so: inspired lunacy from start to finish.

OVER MY DEAD BODYGUARD (11/14/86) It's up to Sledge to protect mafia witness Captain Trunk, who has the added dilemna of a reconciliation with his ex-wife. ** Interesting to learn a little about the Captain's personal life, and guest star Tracy Reed (...ALL THE MARBLES) is always a welcome presence, but this is one of the less memorable episodes from a comedic standpoint.

MAGNUM FARCE (11/22/86) You knew it was only a matter of time before Hammer and friends gave us their take on the second Dirty Harry film, with David Leisure among the vigilantes. *** Fine spoof of the plot and politics of the original, right down to the identity of the vigilantes' leader.

IF I HAD A LITTLE HAMMER (11/29/86)  "I deal in scumsuckers, not thumbsuckers!"  Despite his protests, Dori gets the two of them assigned to a case involving babies being kidnapped for the black market. **1/2 Sledge + babies = more wonderfully outrageous un-PC humor.

TO LIVE AND DIE ON T.V. (12/13/86) Peter Marshall is a game show host who resorts to murder when a contestant gets uncomfortably close to a million dollar prize he can't pay off. **1/2 Very funny, but the forced change to a local, rather than network, show dilutes some of the intended edge.  Censorship ended up hurting this one.

MISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN (12/20/86) Hammer has 11 hours to find the antidote after being poisoned. ** Your one chance to see Hammer and Doreau at a mud wrestling match.

THE OLD MAN AND THE SLEDGE (1/3/87) Guest star Stephen Elliott plays Sledge's idol, who wants to prove he can still do the job at the retirement age of 72. ***1/2 Surprisingly genuine heart combined with side-splittingly un-PC humor; one of the season's best.

STATE OF SLEDGE (1/10/87)  Sledge brings in the leader of a Satanic cult at the same time a by-the-book internal affairs officer reviews Hammer's file (brought in via wheelbarrow) **** Terrific script by Al Jean and Mike Reiss with some fine insight provided with the comedy.  One joke after another hits the bulls-eye, and interestingly, validity is given at various times to both Hammer's P.O.V. and the I.A. officer's as well.  The series had really hit its stride by this time.  This was the first episode to air without the laugh track ABC initially imposed.

HAVEN'T GUN WILL TRAVEL (1/17/87) One of the series' very best.  How does Hammer react when his prized Gun is stolen?  Terrific guest appearances by Bernie Kopell and legendary comic Bill Dana. **** Non-stop hilarity in this winner.  Kopell would return in Season Two for another great entry, LAST OF THE RED HOT VAMPIRES.

THE COLOR OF HAMMER (1/24/87) Sledge's favorite hanging judge (Allan Rich) disappoints him by being uncharacteristically lenient, then turns up murdered.  It'll take a different kind of shooting to solve this case.  ****  Lots of expected slapstick and cliche-busting; I know, that's par for the course but some extra rapid-fire laughs here.  In a series known for great guest stars, an extra half-star for gorgeous Bond girl Martine Beswick's comic turn.

BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A CRIME? (1/31/87)  Sledge's brother turns up out of nowhere, and proves to be the polar opposite of the Inspector, a ne'er-do-well with the ability to charm just about anyone.  **1/2  Decent enough, but not as sharp as it seems it should be.

DESPERATELY SEEKING DORI (2/7/87) Dori emerges from a concussion acting and dressing exactly like Hammer, hampering their efforts to crack a counterfeiting ring.  **1/2 Lots of the obvious here, which is amusing but doesn't reach the high gear of other episodes.

SLEDGEPOO (2/14/87) Scotland Yard and Kurt Kruggle help Sledge crack a cat burgling case.  **1/2 Sledge's new hairdo is the funniest thing here.  Rasche's knack for accents comes in handy yet again.

COMRADE HAMMER (2/21/87) Spencer and company had to get around to a Cold War episode sooner or later, and combine it with a trip to the Hitchcockian. *** Nicely done.  The series would return to Hitchcock land in Season Two with the arguably better "Vertical".

JAGGED SLEDGE (4/21/87) Hammer's on trial for murdering a mobster, and after firing his crooked attorney ends up defending himself--literally. *** Sledge in a courtroom was a frequent occurrence, and our favorite rogue generally delivered the goods there. The season's penultimate episode is no exception.

THE SPA WHO LOVED ME (4/28/87)  The season, and feared to be series finale, including guest appearances by Robin Leach and Mary Woronov and numerous other sure-fire ratings grabbers, topped by a cliffhanger that would make Nielsen rival J. R. Ewing green with envy. **** Lived up to the hype, and kept people talking about the show all summer back in '87.  But you could take away the climax and you'd still have one riotous episode.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Happy 25th, SLEDGE HAMMER! (Part 1 of 2)

SLEDGE HAMMER! (1986-1988 ABC-TV/New World Television) Starring David Rasche, Anne-Marie Martin, Harrison Page, Leslie Morris, Patti Tippo, Kurt Paul.  Created and Produced by Alan Spencer.

Twenty-five years ago today at 8:30 P.M. Eastern Time, viewers who stayed tuned to ABC after the season premiere of the thoroughly conventional WHO'S THE BOSS witnessed the debut of a truly different series that was very worthy of the overused phrase, "ahead of its time", SLEDGE HAMMER!

Starring David Rasche as the title character in what remains the best role of his career, SLEDGE HAMMER! gave us a hero who dealt with snipers (blowing up a building as the offender fired away from the rooftop) just as effectively as he handled purse snatchers (making the perp beat himself up at gunpoint).  He also found time to give to his favorite charity (Toy Guns for Tots) and to read classics like WAR AND PEACE (stopping after the first half).  Hammer occasionally revealed his sensitive side, but only to his most trusted confidante, his .44 Magnum named "Gun".  He talked to it, slept beside it, and even showered with it.

Ready for that Friday night meeting with Mr. Ewing, Captain!
Alan Spencer's creation was DIRTY HARRY by way of GET SMART!, and, at first glance, you saw a carbon copy of HUNTER's setup (pre-Roy Huggins, that is): square-jawed unconventional cop, beautiful but tough female partner, and apoplectic superior officer.  Anne-Marie Martin played Hammer's resourceful partner Dori Doreau, a martial arts expert ("I'd like to fight you sometime, Doreau") and Harrison Page (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) was Captain Trunk, who tried to harness Hammer and hypertension with equal futility.  After a while, Trunk's desk literally gained a prescription each episode, with the work area completely obscured by bottles and vials by the end of Season Two.

Over the course of these two wonderfully silly seasons Hammer and Doreau took on kidnappers, vigilante cops, crooked politicians, identity thieves, cat burglars, and even crooked game show hosts in riotous fashion every week.  Through it all, Sledge remained single-minded to a fault, but incorruptible and consistently quotable ("Trust me.  I know what I'm doing!").  He also revealed an impressive arsenal of hidden talents when going undercover: perfect Aussie and Cockney accents, self-representation in court, proficiency at billiards, and perhaps funniest of all, the ability to impersonate Elvis Presley in "All Shook Up".

Those network schedulers are screwed in the head, I'm tellin' ya!

Like his (also hilarious) ABC cop brethren on POLICE SQUAD! before his day and THE JOB after, Inspector Hammer had a rough go of it in the Nielsens during his prime time run.  SLEDGE had the longest network run of the three despite the roughest scheduling.  For his first season, HAMMER! was literally caught in between Dallas and Miami, a "terrible place to be" (as he slyly noted in "All Shook Up").  CBS' DALLAS and NBC's MIAMI VICE converged at 9 PM ET on Friday nights for a head to head showdown, leaving little breathing room for SLEDGE HAMMER! opposite the top ten stalwarts.  It didn't help that the audience most likely to be hip to HAMMER was likely already out on the town on TGIF.

Ratings improved a bit in mid-season with a move to Saturday night, though the latter problem remained and the series was against another firmly entrenched hit (227) with no help from its ABC lead-in (SIDEKICKS).  Spencer also had to deal with weekly "input" from the network censors, which sometimes hampered the needed versimilitude--to name one example, a murdered informant in MAGNUM FARCE clearly doesn't have a scratch on him as he lays dying and supposedly bullet-riddled.  Despite his uphill battles with TPTB on scheduling and network standards, Spencer and his collaborators (most frequently Mert Rich and Brian Pollack) provided a series that was not only true to the creator's vision but often side-splittingly funny, with numerous episodes that remain well-remembered despite the terrible time slots (the show was up against THE COSBY SHOW after yet another time slot change) and a lack of wide syndication since the show ceased production.

While Spencer assembled a lot of talent behind the camera (Leonard B. Stern, Jackie Cooper, Bill Bixby, Tino Insana and Robert Wuhl among the other culprits) it was the actors who really shined while delivering their witty lines week after week.  David Rasche expertly walked a fine line, exaggerating his tough-guy squint just enough without ever becoming cartoonish or losing the hint of humanity (ever-so-slight, but yeah, it was there) under the tough exterior.  He was ably supported by Martin, beautiful but never mere eye candy, and Page, who took one of the oldest cop movie cliches in the book and found several new wrinkles for it.  His high-strung police captain stays in your memory more prominently than even Frank McRae's (48 HOURS) or John Amos' (in the aforementioned HUNTER)--no small feat.

Sadly, the 41st episode on 2/12/88, in which we finally meet the oft-referred to ex-Mrs. Hammer, (played by Heather Lupton, the real-life Mrs. Rasche) was the end of the line for the good Inspector.  But the series lived on, sometimes in unexpected ways. SLEDGE HAMMER! clearly influenced Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker when they fashioned their similarly neglected POLICE SQUAD! into the NAKED GUN feature film franchise.  Frank Drebin wasn't particularly trigger-happy when his adventures aired on ABC-TV, but he acquired this character trait in a big way for his cinematic adventures, along with several other shadings that appeared to be Hammered into him after the series.  Vacationing in Beirut?  Sledge beat Drebin to it by two years ("Witless").  Drebin laughing his ass off at PLATOON?  Sledge's "favorite comedy" was THE DEER HUNTER.  Involving a student driver in a high speed chase?  Hammer had been there, done that one too ("Hammer Gets Nailed").

SLEDGE HAMMER! has yet to see its own sequel on the big or small screen, so loyal Hammerheads have had to make do with the "original 41" ever since, but the lack of a filmed reprise hasn't made the show's afterlife any less interesting or impressive. 

New World released 4 episodes on VHS in 1991, and the solid sales resulted in plans to release the complete series on 10 two hour tapes.  Unfortunately New World's financial difficulties resulted in the TV division being sold to Sony before the release came to fruition, and frustrated Hammerheads had to make do with bootlegs and memories for the next decade.  But Alan Spencer (whose subsequent credits include THE NUTT HOUSE in collaboration with Mel Brooks and the feature HEXED) never stopped championing his classic creation or looking for a suitable distributor.  Spencer's official website launched in 2002 and was quickly host to over one million unique visits while the out of print VHS tapes went for consistently high sums on ebay into the new millenium. 

Finally, in 2004 Anchor Bay stepped forward to release SLEDGE HAMMER! SEASON ONE on DVD with extras including commentaries, a documentary with interviews of the principal cast, original advertisements and inserts.  Perhaps best of all, the laugh track ABC insisted on for the first 13 episodes was removed entirely.   Brisk sales for the set ensured that Season Two followed in 2005.  Loyal Hammerheads also inspired the first, but probably not last, Sledge Fest just last October.  It was a sold-out success.  Well marketed too:  

And how many SledgeFest tickets for you, Sir?

Sledge was prematurely cancelled, but these recent events prove that his show will never die. So happy birthday Sledge, and let us continue celebrating your ground-breaking humor and your Silver Anniversary all weekend.  Coming up next, Part Twoan episode guide to the first season with mini-reviews of all 22 1986-87 episodes will follow later this weekend.  Meanwhile, as Sledge himself once said, obey the penal codes.

"Every breath you take, every move you make... I'll be watching you. That's police talk."  -- Inspector Sledge Hammer

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Missing No Longer: NEIGHBORS (1981) and BLACK EYE (1974)

DVD finally? No kidding?
This month's edition of Missing No More finds two more long-awaited releases finally making it to DVD, both starring major talents of the 1970's who left us way too soon.

John Belushi's final film, NEIGHBORS (1981) found the erstwhile Senator Blutarsky co-starring for the third time with Dan Aykroyd and the two SNL vets playing against viewer expectations.  This time Belushi was the put-upon conservative suburbian and Aykroyd the wild, crazy rebel outsider who aggravates him.  NEIGHBORS was probably the most anticipated release of the 1981 Christmas season, with Belushi and Aykroyd joined by an impressive list of heavy hitters on the other side of the camera: screenwriter Larry Gelbart, director John G. Avildsen, and producers David Brown and Daryl Zanuck.

The results are a mixed bag, with Avildsen (who once directed CRY UNCLE's edgy humor capably) proving to be a mismatch for the material, clashing with Belushi and ordering a soundtrack (by ROCKY's Bill Conti) that kills too many laughs--I always thought the TWILIGHT ZONE/horror music used in the TV trailer below worked better myself.  It must have seemed like a bad re-run for Gelbart, who a year earlier saw his ROUGH CUT extensively rewritten and hampered by off-screen infighting. 

While a missed opportunity, NEIGHBORS has its moments, and its release means that all three Belushi-Aykroyd features are finally available.  NEIGHBORS was released last week by, who else, Warner Archive and is available for $19.95 through their DVD shop.

It was just last month that The Horn Section trumpeted the arrival of the second of Teresa Graves' three feature films to DVD when VAMPIRA (1974), her last and least, finally received a home video release.  Tuesday, the Graves trifecta was completed when Warner Archive released 1974's BLACK EYE.

The Hammer

Starring Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, BLACK EYE is a routine but still fun action flick.  Williamson plays a perpetually indebted ex-cop turned P.I. who tries to solve a puzzling new case while attempting reconciliation with his bisexual ex Graves.  While The Hammer's other flicks of the era turn up frequently on cable, BLACK EYE has been rarely screened in recent years--I last saw it on TV One in 2008.

Worth checking out if you're a Williamson fan, and a must if you're a fan of Graves, who as mentioned only made 3 features before retiring to a quiet life devoted to her religion.  Interestingly, she co-starred with Williamson twice: her debut was THAT MAN BOLT (1973).

BLACK EYE is also available for $19.95 at the Warner Archive DVD shop.  More reviews to come!