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, impersonating Elvis 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 acquired this characteristic in a big way but 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 Two:  will follow later this weekend, with an episode guide to the initial season.  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

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