Hammered

January 8, 2012

Mike Hammer, perhaps the trashiest of the film noir-era literary detectives, came to television in 1958, in seventy-eight gloriously lurid assemblages of fast-paced  fisticuffs, threadbare sets, and stock plots.  Video’s first Hammer, incarnated by Darren McGavin, was a reasonably faithful and always lively continuation of the popular series of novels by Mickey Spillane.  A&E’s unexpected DVD release of the show, which contains every episode, was one of my favorite home video events of last year.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer was produced by MCA, the talent agency-cum-TV factory that churned out oceans of half-hour genre series in the late fifties.  The shows were pumped out in backbreaking lots of thirty-nine, shot in three or even two days, for no money (the budgets were often well under $50,000 per episode), on the old, cramped Republic Studios backlot in the San Fernando Valley.  MCA had sweetheart deals with the networks, especially NBC, but since there was only so much prime time to be colonized, the up-and-coming mini-major also sold shows into first-run syndication.  Mike Hammer was one of those – perhaps the only syndicated MCA offering that’s remembered at all today, and a surprising network reject, given the fame that both Hammer and his shrewd, self-mythologizing creator had accrued since their 1947 debut.  The first episode, “The High Cost of Dying,” premiered in New York City on January 28, 1958 (but, as with any syndicated show, any airdates listed on the internet are bogus; local stations that bought the series had discretion over when to schedule it).

The difference between a bearable MCA show and an unbearable one, at least for a modern viewer, is often one of personality – that is, whether or not the series’ star had one.  The studio had tried to make TV stars out of stiffs like Dale Robertson (Tales of Wells Fargo), John Smith and Robert Fuller (Laramie), and Rod Cameron (City Detective, State Trooper, and Coronado 9), but it had also corralled an electrifying young Lee Marvin, clearly on the cusp of major stardom, into a television commitment with M Squad in 1957.

In the late fifties, Darren McGavin had a lot in common with Marvin.  Both had done showy supporting turns in major films, Marvin in The Big Heat and The Wild One and McGavin in a pair of 1955 releases, David Lean’s Summertime (as an unfaithful husband) and Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (as a vicious drug dealer).  The small screen had less prestige than the movies, especially those made by A-list directors, but it offered these youngish actors the opportunity to transition from incipient typecasting as flamboyant villains into potential stardom as leading men.  Television proved a wise career move for both actors and, a half-century later, they have repaid the favor by keeping their old series out of history’s dustbin.  The boundless energy of Marvin and McGavin – the way they dance around iffy dialogue and prop up dull guest actors and just revel in being the center of attention – is the indispensible quality that overwhelms the many elements that now appear cheap or rushed or dated.

By 1958, there had already been three films, a radio drama, and at least one busted television pilot spun off from the Spillane novels.  That pilot was written and directed by future Peter Gunn creator Blake Edwards and starring Brian Keith, who would’ve made a fine Mike Hammer.  But the only one of those properties that retains any currency today is Kiss Me Deadly, the 1955 Robert Aldrich masterpiece whose notes of cynicism, futurism, and paranoia were decades ahead of their time.

Armed with a richly ironic A. I. Bezzerides script, which depicted the thuggish, dim-witted Hammer as the agent of his own destruction, Aldrich recast Spillane’s two-fisted, commie-hating hero as something that crawled out from under a rock.  Aldrich put Ralph Meeker, the actor who replaced Brando as Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, in the part, and Meeker sneered, sweated, and fondled his way toward the creation of one of film noir’s nastiest protagonists.

Television’s toned-down Hammer isn’t quite as disreputable or disgusting as Kiss Me Deadly’s.  But McGavin captures enough of Meeker’s scuzziness to make the series more than a standard, square-jawed (and square) round-up-the-bad guys outing.  McGavin’s persona fits Hammer like a glove.  He’s fast-talking, gruff, growly, scowling, a girl-chaser and an ass-kicker.  He can take lines like “I’m gonna find out about this character Lewis, and when I do, I’m gonna take him apart like a four bit watch!” and spit them out with a palpable sense of menace.

Gun, Hammer, shithole: Darren McGavin as Mike Hammer in his seedy office

I’ve always looked at McGavin as a curmudgeon, television’s great loquacious crank, but my friend Stuart Galbraith IV, who thinks McGavin is cast against type (albeit effectively) in Mike Hammer, calls him “one of the breeziest, most likable of character actors ever.”  I have difficulty reconciling that McGavin with my McGavin, but it’s true that the actor plays sincere pretty well in the scenes where Hammer has to comfort grieving widows and orphaned daughters.  McGavin himself had contempt for the material, and insisted on affecting what he called a “satirical” approach; he claimed to have won a showdown on the matter with MCA chief Lew Wasserman, who wanted Mike Hammer played straight.

In practice, what McGavin described as “treating it in a lighter manner” meant camping it up whenever he could get away with it (he was a hammer indeed).  This was a habit that could make the actor overbearing in some of his later work, like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and A Christmas Story.  (The producers of both Kolchak and another McGavin private eye series, The Outsider – respectively, Cy Chermak and Roy Huggins – also clashed with the star over the same issue.)  But in Mike Hammer, McGavin doesn’t go overboard.   He knows just how much spoofery he can get away with, and his Hammer isn’t clowning so much as he’s blustering enthusiastically through each week’s mystery, the same way a dime-novel private eye would charge through a slim, plot-choked Dell paperback.  When McGavin does play it goofy, it’s often genuinely funny; see, for instance, “Requiem For a Sucker,” in which Len Lesser plays a gun thug with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent, and McGavin then mocks it throughout their scenes together.

Since I only made it through about three pages of I, the Jury before giving up on Spillane’s ugly, turgid prose, I can’t really grade the extent to which the Mike Hammer series mimicked the novels.  For television, MCA kept Hammer’s pal on the police force, Captain Pat Chambers, but dropped the other regular character of his sexy secretary Velda – a somewhat surprising move, given that a video Velda would’ve been both another leggy dame on display and an efficient conduit for some of the inevitable reams of exposition.  (Velda is mentioned in a few early episodes, but after a while it became clear that McGavin’s Hammer was a one-man operation.)

As for Chambers, he was played by Bart Burns, a busy bit player and live television veteran, whose chief claim to recognizability was his pronounced Noo Yawk accent.  Burns bears a close resemblance to Mickey Spillane, and I wonder if perhaps he was Spillane’s choice to play the character and ended up with the secondary role as a consolation prize after MCA hired a bigger star.  Certainly, Spillane had a history of trying to make over screen Hammers in his own image.  He went on to star as his own creation in the weird but worthwhile 1963 movie The Girl Hunters, and he had tried unsuccessfully to install Jack Stang, an ex-cop pal on whom the character was purportedly based, as Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (and did succeed in getting Stang small acting roles in I, the Jury and another Spillane film project, Ring of Fear).

Bart Burns as Captain Pat Chambers

If you only know the Hammer character via Kiss Me Deadly, which transplants him to a very location-specific Los Angeles, the emphasis that the television series places on his identity as a New Yorker will come as a surprise.  Television’s Hammer often sings the praises of the great city, except when he’s going back to his rough old neighborhood (Greenwich Village, now even more perilous following its colonization by hipsters) to help out or hunt down an old crony.  The implication is always that Hammer has come a long way since those hardscrabble days, but the visual evidence is unpersuasive.  Hammer operates out of a grungy one-room office (see the image above), and lives a transient existence in the dubious-looking Parkmore Hotel.  The heroes of 77 Sunset Strip and Peter Gunn were upright, respectable professionals, and part of the fun of Mike Hammer is that no one made any effort to reform Hammer into any kind of respectability.  He drives a huge honking convertible; that’s something, at least.

According to one historian, Mike Hammer slaughtered thirty-four people in the first five Spillane books.  There’s no way a television hero, even one operating just prior to the 1961 Congressional hearings on televised violence, could match that body count; McGavin got to blow away one or two bad guys per episode, tops.  But the show occasionally delivers some hint of the sex and sadism in which Spillane traded, especially in the earliest episodes.  In “Just Around the Coroner,” a murder victim leaves a good-sized arc of blood spatter on a wall, and Hammer observes that “somebody had worked her over with a pistol butt or a hatchet, you couldn’t really tell which.”  In the standout “I Ain’t Talkin,’” Hammer roughs up a woman, kicking in a moll’s door, then shoving her up against a wall and screaming into her face.  (Then, of course, he kisses her.)  “Hot Hands, Cold Dice” has a scene in which Hammer invites a villain to step outside, then throws his coat over the oaf’s face and kicks him in the ass.  In “Just Around the Coroner,” as in Kiss Me Deadly, Hammer’s meddling gets an innocent person killed.  None of this comes anywhere close to the demythologized, revisionist private eye cycle of the seventies, but Mike Hammer does occasionally – and unexpectedly, for a fifties TV show – call to mind The Rockford Files or Altman’s devastating riposte to Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye.

Darren McGavin and Joan Tabor in “I Ain’t Talkin’”

If the violence was necessarily diluted, other aspects of Spillane’s fifties-pulp style are not.  Like M Squad, the show is patched together with verbose first-person narration, a necessity for conveying all the plot points that a low-budget show could not afford to stage.  Mike Hammer turns a weak device into something enormously entertaining: the narration is often witty and lurid, and McGavin’s delivery of it is varied, surprising, and often priceless.  The episode titles, which do appear on screen, also convey the show’s grim but wry attitude: “Lead Ache”; “Baubles, Bangles, and Blood”; “For Sale: Deathbed – Used.”

So do the stories themselves, when the series is at its best.  In “Just Around the Coroner,” Hammer tells a clerk to keep the hotel doctor on call for the next ten minutes.  Then he barges in on a counterfeiter, breaks the guy’s money-printing machine over his head, throws him into the hallway, and helpfully informs him that first aid awaits in Room 210.  The funny “To Bury a Friend” features James Westerfield as a smirking cop (with a great name, Lieutenant Dan Checkers) who uses Hammer as a punching-bag bird-dog to ferret out a murderer while he himself remains parked on his fat ass.  At the end of “Dead Men Don’t Dream,” the gallant Hammer allows the moll to slip away (with a parting admonition to “change your brand of men”) and then pounds the shit out of a roomful of thugs.  His pal Captain Chambers is outside with the cops, but he hangs back to give Hammer time to finish his beatdown.  “Mike Hammer doesn’t kill easy,” Chambers tells the anxious ingenue confidently.  Hammer is the Paul Bunyan of pulp, parading through downmarket crime stories writ large as noirish tall tales.

*

MCA in the late fifties was already famous as a menacing corporate octopus, a sort of entertainment-industry F.B.I. that clothed its agents (many of whom later became television producers or executives after MCA’s TV arm, Revue Productions, consumed the agency business) in dark suits and ordered them to avoid personal publicity.  That ethos may explain why some early Revue shows, including Mike Hammer, carry no producer credit.  So if there was a guiding intelligence behind Mike Hammer – and the series was sharp enough that it must have had one – that person’s identity will remain cloaked until someone undertakes a bit of detective work.  (Alas, of the archival, not the beating up people, kind.)

We do, however, know who wrote and directed the seventy-eight Mike Hammer segments.  The future A-lister among the regular directors was Boris Sagal (Dr. Kildare, Mr. Novak, The Omega Man), then a recent graduate of the live Matinee Theater doing his low-budget apprenticeship in filmed television.  It’s almost impossible to see any kind of directorial signature in these two-day wonders, but I did think it fitting that the few forceful compositions I spotted occurred not in Sagal’s episodes but in those helmed by Earl Bellamy, a journeyman who stuck with Universal for a long time as a directorial fix-it man on troubled productions.

It’s more relevant to look at Mike Hammer’s writers, since this was a show that thrived more on words than images.  Spillane had nothing to do with the television Hammer, but the series’ most prolific writer (and possibly its uncredited rewrite man) was another pulp writer of some note, Frank Kane.  Kane’s series character, New York investigator Johnny Liddell, predated Mike Hammer but flourished in a series of novels that emerged after Spillane hit it big.  Supposedly Kane repurposed some of the plots from the Liddell books into Mike Hammer mysteries, and it was an easy transposition: Liddell had a brother on the police force who could turn into Captain Chambers with just a dash of Wite-Out.  Kane, who died young in 1968, did not make substantive contributions to many television series, but he had done quite a bit of writing for radio, on The Shadow and also an array of private eye series.  His involvement may explain why Mike Hammer’s voiceovers were so much more flavorful than those heard in other contemporaneous series (M Squad, for instance).

Mike Hammer also adapted stories by a young Evan Hunter (under the pen name “Curt Cannon”) and Henry Kane, a prolific crime novelist who still has a small cult following.  There was also the talented Bill S. Ballinger, whose books formed the basis of the films noir Pushover and Wicked as They Come.  His script for “Requiem For a Sucker” introduces characters named Zyg Zygmunt, Buckets Marburg, and Chinchilla Jones, and it’s as bouncy and Runyonesque as those monikers would imply.  Ballinger signed all his Mike Hammers as “B. X. Sanborn,” and the pseudonym mania didn’t stop there.  “Steven Thornley,” who wrote more than a dozen scripts, was in fact Ken Pettus, a young writer who later contributed extensively to The Big Valley, The Green Hornet, Bonanza, and Hawaii Five-O under his own name.

Len Lesser and McGavin in “Requiem For a Sucker”

It’s too bad that the television rights to the Hammer character didn’t go to some outfit other than MCA.  Ideally, the series would have been produced on the streets of Hammer’s home turf, New York City, and with more than a few pennies’ worth of production value.  The Republic lot’s New York street was so inadequate that Mike Hammer relied mainly on interiors and rear projection.  (McGavin, or more often his double, did swing through New York for pickup shots a few times: “Dead Men Don’t Dream” shows McGavin outside a Houston Street subway station, and “Letter Edged in Blackmail” has him entering the Daily News/WPIX building on 42nd Street, not too many blocks away from where I’m writing this.)

But the low-rent approach works; it fits the material.  The narration drowns out much of the toneless stock music that was MCA’s unfortunate aural trademark.  The threadbare sets evince Mike Hammer’s threadbare world.  And McGavin’s mugging takes your attention away from the holes in the overused plots.  There were four great half-hour hard-boiled private eye shows on the air during the late fifties: Peter Gunn, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Johnny Staccato, and Mike Hammer.  Each of the first three enjoyed the participation of a figure who retains a significant cult following today – respectively, Blake Edwards, David Janssen, and John Cassavetes – and I think that because Mike Hammer has no comparable cinephile lightning-rod name, it may sometimes be excluded from their company.  Hopefully the new DVD release, which has given the show its first significant exposure in about fifteen years, will put some fresh ammo in Hammer’s gun.

*

Postscript: A&E doesn’t release a lot of vintage television, but Mike Hammer brings the label full circle: fans will recall its issue, over a decade ago, of another fifties private eye classic, Peter Gunn, which was doomed by atrocious image quality and aborted before even the first (of three) seasons was completed.  The DVDs of Mike Hammer, which sport slightly soft but still very watchable transfers, represent a kind of redeption for the label.  While researching this piece, I noticed that, amazingly, the 1954 Brian Keith pilot is also available on DVD, and there’s still more good news: I’ve heard a solid rumor that Peter Gunn will be continued on DVD next year, by a different label, and hopefully from better elements.

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25 Responses to “Hammered”

  1. Patrick Murtha Says:

    Great post, Mr. Bowie. A couple of observations: Although I have not seen Biff Elliot as Mike Hammer in “I, the Jury,” I can say that the Robert Bray Hammer film, “My Gun Is Quick,” is quite under-rated. Bray plays the character straight, without even such ironic curlicues as Ralph Meeker provided, and that works well. The direction is credited mysteriously to George White (there was an editor by that name) and the otherwise unknown Phil Victor, but I suspect it was all by Victor Saville, who worked as a producer on all three Hammer films of the Fifties. There are a few sharply directed scenes in the film.

    The first two seasons of “Peter Gunn” have been issued as Region 2 box-sets in England – I’m not sure of the quality. Craig Stevens’s Brit series “Man of the World” is also available complete as a Region 2 box-set.


  2. This is a fine article on this underrated series. Jim Traylor and I just wrote about the show in MICKEY SPILLANE ON SCREEN, which we recently delivered to McFarland. I hope we did as good a job, but I’m not sure we did.

    I would mildly disagree on a few points. There is actually quite a bit of NYC location shooting — appparently McGavin went there two or three times a season, very crafty stuff, with McGavin appearing with NY actors keeping their backs to the camera so that Hollywood actors with the same costume (and actual dialogue) could be matched in. There’s a lot of seedy Manhattan flavor in the show, thanks to this imaginative B roll. Also, some of the music (the theme is classic) was composed for the show, especially in the second season (there was a sound track).

    Probably serial director William Whitney, who helmed a fair number of HAMMERs, should be mentioned. So should the astonishing parade of starlets, from Peggie Castle (late of the I, THE JURY film), Yvettte Vickers, Allison Hayes and on and on, and some fairly major acting talent, like Lorne Greene, Robert Vaughn and DeForrest Kelly. An interseting thing to note with McGavin is how he dials it down and gets out of the way of an actor who’s doing a nice job.

    I find it bizarre that Bart Burns seems to you to resemble Spillane, when it’s McGavin who resembles Spillane’s fedora-sporting book jacket photos…so much so, that lots of readers mistook Spillane for McGavin in the Hammer editions that appeared concurrent with the show.

    Also, I disagree with the notion that McGavin’s enthusiastic performing damaged either NIGHT STALKER or CHRISTMAS STORY. But that’s just taste. I know Huggins hated McGavin’s acting. Still, the kind of show Huggins specialized in required a larger than life actor to pull it off.

    Finally, you should try Spillane again. I recommend ONE LONELY NIGHT or maybe the recent KISS HER GOODBYE (which I completed from an unfinished manuscript of his.

  3. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Thanks for the input, guys. Max, great news about your book, and I’m glad you didn’t find too much to take issue with here.

    I should add (since I don’t think people who write about TV series always make this clear) that I’ve seen about half of Mike Hammer, 15 episodes since the DVDs came out and maybe 20-25 more prior to that. None of the William Witneys landed in that net, so I’ll keep an eye out for them.


    • I’m watching them in order, and am deep into the second season; just watched by very stylish Dixieland-themed episode, “Dixie Is Dead,” directed by Whitney. All of the music was specific to that episode, even down to a variant version of the wonderful theme at the top and bottom of the show.

      I had seen a lot of these over the years, owned gray-market copies, but watching them in crisp prints, in order, has been a revelation. McGavin is far tougher than I remembered, the scripts much better written, the casts almost always interesting, and all those actresses….

      Bart Burns, by the way, appears only in a relative handful of the second season shows. He was a fine Pat Chambers.

  4. Stephen Bowie Says:

    I think Burns is interesting because he was so limited as an actor … very unpolished, like a real guy. Good choice for a cop sidekick part, although I wouldn’t want to see him an anything meatier, necessarily. Do you detect any other changes as the show progressed, apart from Burns’s reduced role? I didn’t pick up on any, and I deliberately tried to sample beginning, middle, and end. Solving the “Steven Thornley” mystery is something I’m rather proud of, incidentally.

    It’s spelled Witney, by the way … hope you can still fix that in the galleys!

  5. Stephen Bowie Says:

    (For those of you who don’t know, Max currently writes the Mike Hammer novels, having continued the series after Spillane’s death.)


    • Yeah, it’s Witney in the book, I’m sure. If I can get the chance, I may add a couple of things (crediting you) that you came up with.

      Less Burns, more original music, in the 2nd season. Some elaborate second unit NYC shooting, including action sequences, going beyond the first season B unit. Very seldom is McGavin doubled in the Manhattan footage. Snazzier title card with occasional title over action (as in “Dixie Is Dead”).

      All of my Mike Hammer novels, incidentally, are me completing substantial unfinished Spillane manuscripts. This year LADY, GO DIE! will be be published by Titan — a 1945 Hammer manuscript begun after I, THE JURY (the second Mike Hammer novel).

      Thanks for the plug!

  6. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Max, do you know who composed the original scores (or who produced the damn show, for that matter)? I did notice a couple of nice jazz riffs in “Park the Body,” now that you mention it, but just assumed I must have been hallucinating. I wonder if the importance of jazz to Peter Gunn and the retooled Richard Diamond forced them to pony up for a half-hearted effort to keep pace. Certainly Alfred Hitchcock Presents (to cite the one Revue show I know fairly well) never got original scoring until it expanded to an hour in 1962, and that was a pretty high-end product for MCA.


    • The soundtrack — or anyway, accompanying album, “The Music from Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer” — is arranged and conducted by Skip Martin, the music composed by Dave Kahn and Melvyn Lenard. It’s a terrific jazzy album, more big-band than Mancini’s (not counting the Gunn theme itself).

      This is from our Spillane book: “The premiere episode was first broadcast on January 7, 1958, toward the beginning of the private eye “fad” on American television. “Perry Mason” was first seen on CBS-TV on September 12, 1957, “Peter Gunn” on September 22, 1958, and “77 Sunset Strip” began October 10, 1958. ”

      So Mike Hammer on TV predates Gunn, meaning the first season of the former was probably shot (or mostly shot) before the premiere of the latter. So the music of the second season is clearly influenced by Gunn’s success…just like there wouldn’t have been a soundtrack (it’s not really a soundtrack, but a studio recording of music from the show). I’m no expert, but I believe Richard Diamond didn’t jazz up its music, either, until Gunn’s success. That would have to be checked.

      No idea who produced the show. How did you discover Thornley’s real i.d.?

  7. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Er … from a confidential source. But it’s accurate.

    I should’ve checked Jon Burlingame’s book before I implied Hammer was all-stock; I’m sure he would’ve set me straight. And I think you’re right, the jazzification of Richard Diamond would’ve happened around the same time as the second season of Mike Hammer.

  8. Jon Burlingame Says:

    Another superb piece, Stephen.

    As to the music, I interviewed composer Dave Kahn in 1993 and he said that his only memory was of writing the theme (recorded, non-union, in Munich) and then, when the series became successful, writing a batch of new themes specifically for the RCA album.

    (Incidentally, while Kahn is co-credited with one Melvyn Lenard, Kahn wrote alone; the second name was designed to capture composer royalties for the publisher, Dave Gordon, and his heirs.)

    Kahn claimed that the episode scores were all “track” music out of the Gordon library — generic dramatic music, a good deal of which was actually Kahn’s. So I was surprised to read that some later episodes actually had original scores. That’s unusual for an MCA first-run syndie show, because that was rarely the case at Revue. Network shows were scored; syndicated ones were not, as a rule.

    The album, however, with Skip Martin as arranger-conductor, is one of those private-eye gems of the era (and they paid Spillane to write the notes: “man-sized music, seasoned to today’s torrid tempo…”). I’ve always found it odd that McGavin isn’t mentioned, or pictured, anywhere on the album. Is it possible that he didn’t grant permission? And if so, why? Wish I’d thought to ask.


    • I can’t be specific, but I am almost positive some music from the LP (besides the incredible theme) appears on the show. McGavin may be on the cover, with his back to the camera, which is how the show always opens.

      The photo of Mickey on the back is my favorite of him, and emphasizes how similar he and McGavin looked at the time (especially in the hat and rumpled suit).

  9. Brian Says:

    .
    I wonder if Richard Lewis might have produced “Mike Hammer”.

    There is a terrific interview with Lewis from the Archive of American Television on youtube.

    Even at 79 in 1999 Lewis seemed like a very sharp guy.

    Lewis says he was a beer drinking friend of Mickey Spillane, and that he eventually obtained the radio and television rights to Hammer.

    Lewis did a radio version of Hammer from June 53 to October 53 called “That Hammer Guy”. Lewis was the director and Ed Adamson (“Banyon”) was the writer.

    Lewis then produced the “Mike Hammer” TV pilot with Brian Keith in 1954. Lewis said everyone loved the pilot, but William Paley wouldn’t buy it because of Hammer and Spillane’s sleazy image.

    But Lewis was asked to come up with another show for Brian Keith and writer/director Blake Edwards, with a guarantee of a 39 week run. The replacement show Lewis came up with was called “Crusader”, although Blake Edward was no longer available. Keith starred in the series from 1955-56.

    “Crusader” was filmed at Revue. Revue liked “Crusader” well enough to hire Lewis as an “executive producer/producer”. Lewis said when he got to Revue they had three shows on, but they soon had 13 shows, many of which he produced.Lewis said he got a good financial deal from Revue but a negative was that he often didn’t get credit. Revue didn’t want his name on too many shows. I think Revue thought it would upset potential sponsors if Lewis was producing a show for another sponsor.

    Lewis did get an executive producer credit on “M Squad” with Lee Marvin from 1957-1958, according to imdb. Perhaps Lewis was also producing “Mike Hammer” at the same time.

    Darren McGavin started “Riverboat” in 1959, immediately after “Mike Hammer” ended. Some internet sources credit Richard Lewis as a producer of the series. Maybe McGavin and Lewis continued their partnership.

    Other Lewis shows were “Wagon Train” and “Checkmate”.

    As long as I’m in swag mode, I also wonder if Ed Adamson might have had a role in producing the “Mike Hammer” TV series. Maybe prior to producing his season of “Richard Diamond” Adamson had worked on “Hammer”. Adamson later used Darren McGavin in the fine pilot movie for “Banyon”. However, Lewis said Adamson was a good radio writer who really never mastered TV. I think Lewis sold Adamson short.

    Thanks again for this marvelous site.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Good guesses. I’d thought of Richard Lewis, having made the link between the radio Mike Hammer and his MCA years, but not all the other connections you filled in. What’s your source re: Lewis on Adamson? Sounds like something I should read.


      • I remember running into an internet source or two that mentioned Richard Irving (who directed a bunch of episodes, 11 I believe) as being the producer.

        There may have been other pilots, probably at least one other one. There’s been speculation, with some justification, that MY GUN IS QUICK is a busted pilot, an hour episode of a never-sold Hammer series expanded with padding (and there’s a good deal of it) for theatrical release. That would help explain why the film has two directors.

  10. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Very good — Irving would be the other logical candidate, who I’d also considered (which sounds like I’m stealing credit from you guys, but really, I swear; I was going to start speculating in the piece, but it was already gargantuan). Irving was the very first TV director hired by MCA and remained an executive at Universal long enough to mentor Steven Spielberg in the late 60s-early 70s, and see him marry his niece, Amy Irving.

    Some diligent combing of Variety might sort this out, but it probably won’t explain why these guys received screen credit on some shows (like Richard Lewis on M Squad) but not others (Richard Lewis on Checkmate, which of course came later).

  11. Brian Says:

    I thought of Richard Irving too!! But I didn’t know Irving was Amy Irving’s father. Irving used McGavin as Oscar Goldman in the pilot movie for “The Six Million Dollar Man”. Maybe it was a reunion.

    One weakness of my Richard Lewis theory was why would Lewis keep it a secret in that Archive of American Television interview. Lewis relished telling how everyone loved the Brian Keith “Mike Hammer” pilot including William Paley but that Paley wouldn’t buy it. Why wouldn’t Lewis mention that he eventually produced the McGavin series? Unless it contradicted his thesis that the Brian Keith “Hammer” series would have been a big hit. My feeling is that McGavin made a much better Hammer.

    Lewis said in the interview that Victor Saville (“The Silver Chalice”) got the movie rights to Hammer when he got the radio/filmed TV rights.Saville produced “My Gun is Quick” under the name George A. White. That makes me think “Gun” was a movie. But the film does have a TV feel to it, particulary with Robert Bray and Patricia Donahue in the cast. Maybe Savillie and Lewis made a deal or maybe Lewis’ option expired.

    Richard Lewis makes the unkind remarks about Ed Adamson in that fine Archive interview.


  12. The credits for “My Gun Is Quick form a genuine conundrum. As best as I can make out the facts, here they are:

    1. The direction and production of “My Gun Is Quick” are jointly credited to George A. White and Phil Victor.
    2. The IMDB states that George A. White, producer, is a pseudonym for Victor Saville.
    3. But the IMDB also attributes the work of George White, director, to the film editor George White (1911-1998).
    4. The editor George White has no direction (or production) credits otherwise.
    5. The editor George White edited two films that Victor Saville directed, “The Silver Chalice” and “Green Dolphin Street.” They were colleagues and collaborators.
    6.The editor George White did not edit “My Gun Is Quick”; that credit goes to Frank Sullivan.
    7. “Phil Victor” (whose last name is the same as Saville’s first name) is otherwise completely unknown and has no other IMDB credits.

    So – was there one director or two? If one, why the double credit? Why would Saville use his friend George White’s name? Was the real George White involved? Who is Phil Victor? Does Phil Victor even exist?

    Compounding the problems of attribution is that the direction of the film is uneven and looks as if it could indeed be by two directors. Some of the interior scenes are flatly and unimaginatively shot. But other scenes, including most of the location work, are quite good, as for example this sequence described well by an IMDB reviewer:

    “My Gun Is Quick boasts one distinctive passage: Hammer looks in from an upstairs window down at a chaotic scene crowded with police, ambulance drivers and several of the characters, as a body is wheeled away. It’s filmed entirely without dialogue, the only sounds being the wind, the surf and the muted music of bongo drums. ”

    Honestly, it’s one of the most riveting and stylish scenes I’ve ever watched in a noir, and if the whole film were at that level, we’d be talking masterpiece here. The final shot, as well, begs comparison with the finale of “The Big Combo.”

    This film is a puzzler.


    • The film appears to be directed by editor White, and Saville under the “Phil Victor” pseudonym. This is part of why the notion that Saville may have extended a one-hour White pilot film makes sense.

      That it’s based on a Spillane novel is typical of the era — the first several seasons of “Perry Mason” were based on Gardner novels, and the “Mike Shayne” series was similarly based on novels.

      And the pilot film with Keith has Saville as its executive producer with Lewis as producer — meaning they cross-polinated. Also, Donald Randolph played bad guys in both the Keith pilot and MY GUN IS QUICK, which was by the way shot at the old Republic Studios like the McGavin “Hammer” — framed pictures used as set dressing can be seen in McGavin episodes and in MY GUN IS QUICK.

      That silent scene mentoned is really outstanding, though little else in MY GUN IS QUICK is very good, and the material that seems to be outright padding — the longest, slowest, mostly deadly dull car chase ever filmed (five minutes, an eternity of screen time) — is hardly up what director Saville was capable of.


  13. Excellent piece, Stephen. I’ve been watching the Hammer series the last couple of months and have enjoyed it greatly. It’s one of those shows, like M-Squad, that used to run here in Minneapolis in syndication after the late local news. And it has that feel to it, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t be quite the same watching it on a Saturday afternoon.

    I’m also glad to read more of the details of how McGavin approached the role – having read a 60s interview with him in TV Guide, where his opinion on violence is stated quite clearly (he was, for example, strongly in favor of gun control), it was interesting to see how he reconciled that with the hard-hitting Hammer. Thanks for the details!

    (And I agree with Mr. Collins on giving the books another chance. They really are classics of that type.

  14. Ted Newsom Says:

    Given the assorted overlap in people in the production birdsnest, the director/editor connection (and the latter’s lack of other credits) and the use of Saville’s name in the 2nd credit, I would not be surprised if Saville was “both” directors. It was certainly common enough for a blacklisted artist to borrow the name of a friend, as in THE FRONT, and, say, the 1950s career of Bernard Gordon. His experience is illustrative: the first film credit as a blacklisted writer was under the name of two writer-friends (who had written a play about Billy the Kid). Since he had to split the small fee with them as well as pay ALL the taxes and deductions Gordon saw very little dough for doing all the work adapting their stage play. For further work, he made a open-ended deal with non-writer friend, Ray Marcus.

    If there was some passage of time between the first and second Saville/Hammer shows, could well be that he’d decided on a proper blacklist nom de plume by the time he did the 2nd. And who knows, perhaps he was unhappy with the first result and did not want his first-choice pseudonym on that work. If you’re used to taking a month or two making a film and you find yourself cramming a 30 minute shoot into two days, it’s likely the result will disappoint you enough that you would not want anyone to know.

  15. sanborneo Says:

    i’m just chiming in here. i’m not a big fan of mickey spillane’s work (sorry, MAC!), & am just discovering this series for the first time on DVD, from the NYPL. i can’t even follow the minute details you guys are tracking , but i appreciate the geek grunt work! all i know is, i loved darren mcgavin’s work on “night stalker” as a kid, & his performance here is loose & fun, the awesome guest stars & smoking fifties dames are aplenty, the location shooting is pure cut NYC porn, & my god, mcgavin’s hammer is such a bastard! he sleeps w/married women, shoots guys on the drop of a dime, is willing to rough up witnesses/fake evidence…how could spillane not admire this interpretation, judged against other stolid fifties leading man standards?! &, forgiving the short cuts & cliches, i found the story telling brisk & economical. what’s not to love?!

    • Anonymous Says:

      Spillane did like McGavin’s Hammer. His chief complaint was that the producers had McGavin use a .38 — the .45 is to Hammer what a bow and arrow are to Robin Hood. I think he’s one of the great Hammers. The absence of secretary Velda is the main thing that makes the show not quite an ideal transfer from book to screen, but the half-hour format makes her presence problematic.

  16. sanborneo Says:

    yes, the absence of velda is a head scratcher on the producer’s part…could have led to plenty of sexy banter, ala bond & moneypenny…but damn, the half hour limitations really forced those eps to cook hard boiled on the quick!


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