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One of the most successful novelists of the 20th century, Mickey Spillane was the creator of the two-fisted private eye Mike Hammer, whose violent exploits were detailed over the course of 13 novels, as well as numerous films like "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955) and television series, including "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" (CBS, 1984-85). Noted for the excessive brutality and sexuality, the Mike Hammer books, which were launched in 1947 with I, the Jury, sold millions of copies to action-hungry readers who thrilled to Hammer's style of Old Testament vengeance against Communists, two-timing women and thugs of all stripes. Critically pilloried by the mainstream media, Spillane's novels were pulp at their best, and Hammer's shoot-first style helped to inspire such trigger-happy antecedents as Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry and John Woo's guilt-ridden gunmen. Spillane and Hammer kept in the public eye for over half a century before the author's death in 2006, but readers never lost their fascination for that world, at once exciting and ugly, but always hard-boiled.Born Frank Morrison Spillane in Brooklyn, NY on March 9, 1918, Mickey Spillane was the only child of John Joseph Spillane, a bartender, and his wife,...
One of the most successful novelists of the 20th century, Mickey Spillane was the creator of the two-fisted private eye Mike Hammer, whose violent exploits were detailed over the course of 13 novels, as well as numerous films like "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955) and television series, including "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" (CBS, 1984-85). Noted for the excessive brutality and sexuality, the Mike Hammer books, which were launched in 1947 with I, the Jury, sold millions of copies to action-hungry readers who thrilled to Hammer's style of Old Testament vengeance against Communists, two-timing women and thugs of all stripes. Critically pilloried by the mainstream media, Spillane's novels were pulp at their best, and Hammer's shoot-first style helped to inspire such trigger-happy antecedents as Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry and John Woo's guilt-ridden gunmen. Spillane and Hammer kept in the public eye for over half a century before the author's death in 2006, but readers never lost their fascination for that world, at once exciting and ugly, but always hard-boiled.
Born Frank Morrison Spillane in Brooklyn, NY on March 9, 1918, Mickey Spillane was the only child of John Joseph Spillane, a bartender, and his wife, Catherine Anne. An avid and omnivorous reader as a child, with an equal interest in classics and comic books, Spillane began writing his own fiction while a student at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn. After a brief tenure at Fort Hays State College in Kansas, he returned to New York and worked in a variety of odd jobs, including lifeguard and department store salesman, as well as a turn as a human cannonball and trampoline artist for the Ringling Brothers Circus.
Spillane began his professional career writing for Timely Comics, which kept him busy throughout the 1940s, save for a stint in the U.S. Army Air Forces as a flight instructor in Mississippi during World War II. While working for Timely, he conceived a hard-boiled detective character named Mike Danger, but failed to sell the comic book. Danger enjoyed a brief tenure as a weekly comic strip hero in New York area newspapers, but Spillane decided to quit the comic business and retool his hero for published mysteries. After renaming his hero Mike Hammer, Spillane churned out I, The Jury in 19 days and sold it to the E.P. Dutton publishing house, which reportedly regarded the material as in poor taste. The story, which pitted the brutish Hammer against the owners of a private psychiatric clinic that served as a front for a drug and prostitution ring, was packed with an exceptional amount of violence and sex for 1947, and quickly sold over six and a half million copies in the United States alone.
Over the next five years, Spillane would turn out five more Hammer adventures, each of which earned bestseller ranking status among its predominately male readership. The stories were hung on the concept of Hammer as an avenging angel who metered out rough justice to the guilty, no matter what the race, sex or social status. There was little room for elegant prose or character development - men were either loyal patriots or dupes for various criminal agencies, women were sexual predators or doormats, and problems were solved with guns and fists - but Spillane's colorful prose and breathless pace hooked crime aficionados from 1950's My Gun is Quick to 1952's Kiss Me, Deadly. Their popularity made Spillane a pop culture hero in his own right, and he played up his myth at every opportunity. He served as the cover model for many of his books, and said that he finished his books in two weeks and never wrote revisions.
In the midst of his astonishing success, Spillane shocked the publishing industry by retiring from writing. He had become interested in the Jehovah's Witness religion in 1952, and after conversion, he spent the next nine years in service of their church. However, interest in all things Mike Hammer remained white-hot among readers, and Hollywood soon approached Spillane and his publishers to adapt the novels into a variety of formats. From 1952 to 1954, the Mutual Broadcasting System aired a weekly program called "That Hammer Guy," with Larry Haines and later Ted DeCorsia as Mike Hammer. A television pilot with Brian Keith as Hammer and Blake Edwards in the director's chair was developed in 1954 but never aired. It would be four more years until Hammer would appear on the small screen in the form of Darren McGavin in "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" (syndicated, 1958-1960). The show received mixed reviews, most notably from Spillane himself, who stated that his interest in the show was purely financial. Critics decried its excessive violence, and fans of the novels took issue with McGavin's portrayal, which had a tongue-in-cheek element.
Hammer made the leap to the silver screen in 1953 with "I, the Jury," a loose adaptation by director Harry Essex with Biff Elliott as the two-fisted private eye. Filmed in 3-D, it made little impact upon its release, and was quickly forgotten in the wake of Robert Aldrich's "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955). Character actor Ralph Meeker played Hammer with an emphasis on the character's latent sadism, as seen by the thuggish treatment doled out to nearly every character he encountered. The film's screenwriter, A.I. Bezzerides, added a fascinating element to the picture with the introduction of a stolen suitcase containing radioactive material. Dubbed "the Great Whatsit," the suitcase represented Cold War paranoia and nuclear hysteria at its most terminal point; the film's conclusion saw the suitcase opened and unleashing a seemingly supernatural annihilating force that appeared to consume even Hammer and his secretary-lover, Velda. However, the ambiguous ending was the result of clumsy studio manipulation, and the original conclusion, which saw Hammer and Velda escape the conflagration, was finally released in 1997. Widely regarded as the coda for the noir genre and one of the finest Cold War thrillers ever made, "Kiss Me Deadly" was not a favorite of Spillane, who angrily confronted Bezzerides in a Hollywood restaurant over the changes to his original text. A third Hammer picture, "My Gun is Quick," was released in 1957 to modest acclaim, though its star, Robert Bray, was regarded by fans as a faithful interpretation of Hammer.
Spillane himself had gotten into the movie business in 1954 with "Ring of Fear," a curious mystery with circus performer Clyde Beatty and Mickey Spillane playing themselves and investigating a rash of murders at Beatty's big top. Produced by John Wayne and co-written by an uncredited Spillane, the film helped to introduce the author to producer Robert Fellows, who bought the rights to Spillane's novels with the intention of adapting them for the screen. In 1961, Spillane returned to writing with The Deep, a crime novel about a former hood returning to his old stomping grounds as a cop. Clamor for a new Hammer adventure resulted in "The Girl Hunters" (1962), which was turned into a motion picture the following year with Spillane himself in a credible turn as Hammer.
By 1964, Spillane had returned to the prolific schedule of the early 1950s, turning out up to two novels a year. He had developed a new character, a suave spy in the James Bond mold named Tiger Mann, who made his debut in the 1964 novel Day of the Guns. Both Hammer and Mann proved exceptionally successful, as shown by a 1967 list of best-selling novels published between 1895 and 1965. Spillane wrote seven of the top 29 titles. He continued to polarize readers and critics alike, with few changing their stance throughout his long career. One unlikely admirer who did was the novelist Ayn Rand, who praised Spillane's Hammer novels, but reversed her opinion after the release of the Tiger Mann books.
In 1969, Spillane and Fellows launched a production company to begin their long-gestating project of adapting the author's works for film, but Fellows died shortly after the release of 1970's "The Delta Factor," director Tay Garnett's take on Spillane's 1967 spy novel, with Christopher George and Yvette Mimieux as agents on a rescue mission. Spillane again returned to writing, producing his first "spicy" potboiler, The Erection Set (1972), which followed in the vein of sudsy authors like Harold Robbins. In 1974, Spillane once again announced his retirement, but remained in the public eye through his appearance in numerous comic commercials for Miller Lite, where he joined the likes of Bob Uecker, Rodney Dangerfield, Joe Frazier and linebacker Ray Nitschke, among others. Spillane would frequently parody his hard-boiled persona in the spots, which saw him tricked out in porkpie hat and dark suit, with a blonde on his arm.
Spillane's second retirement was again short-lived. By 1979, he had returned to writing, with a pair of young adult novels, including the award-winning The Day the Sea Rolled Back (1979). His most famous creation had also returned to active duty, first in the CBS TV movie "Margin for Murder" (1981) with Kevin Dobson as Mike Hammer, and later, in the troubled 1982 production of "I, the Jury" with Armand Assante as the private eye. The film underwent numerous production difficulties, including the firing of writer-director Larry Cohen after the picture went over budget, and the finished project, completed by Richard T. Heffron, earned mixed reviews, with many critics lambasting its abundance of exploitative sex and violence.
In 1984, Hammer returned to television with "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer" (CBS, 1984-85), an unapologetically old-fashioned crime series with Stacy Keach as a virile and roguish Hammer. The show reproduced the novel's violence and leering tone towards women, which made it something of an anachronism among television programs of the period, as well as a favorite among male viewers. The series was interrupted in 1985 when Keach was arrested in England for cocaine possession, which resulted in a nine-month sentence. He reprised the role in a 1986 TV movie, "The Return of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer (CBS), which resulted in a new series, "The New Mike Hammer" (CBS, 1986-87), which despite the presence of Keach in the title role, flopped due to its competitive time slot against "The Golden Girls" (NBC, 1985-1992).
Spurred by the attention generated by the Keach-Hammer series, Spillane took up his old hero once again for 1989's The Killing Man, his twelfth Hammer novel. That same year, Spillane's South Carolina home was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo, which put his writing career on hold for a period of time. During this period, Spillane's lengthy career finally received its due when he received the Edgar Allan Poe Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1995. A new attempt at a Hammer series, "Come Die With Me" (Fox, 1994), was also launched, this time with Rob Estes as the private eye and a newcomer named Pamela Anderson as his secretary, Velda, but it never progressed beyond the pilot stage.
In 1996, Spillane penned his final Hammer novel. Black Alley saw the P.I. awaken from a coma to contend with a changed world while pursuing $89 billion in stolen money. The author also returned to his earliest stomping grounds, the comics, for a science-fiction series based around Mike Danger, his proto-Hammer character. In 2003, he released Something Down There, a thriller with a new character, retired spy Mako Hooker. Hammer, however, was never far away. Stacy Keach gave the role a third try with "Mike Hammer, Private Eye" (syndicated, 1997-98), which quickly disappeared from the airwaves. Spillane himself was working on new Hammer material when he died of pancreatic carcinoma on July 17, 2006. His longtime friend and literary executor, novelist Max Allan Collins, later compiled the unfinished work into three new Hammer books, beginning in 2008 with The Goliath Bone.
That same year, Hammer returned to the radio airwaves with a series of audio dramas titled "The New Adventures of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer." Keach provided not only Hammer's voice but also the show's score, and Collins penned a 2009 script based on an unfinished Hammer story by Spillane. By 2010 and 2011 Collins-Spillane published new novels, with the first being The Big Bang, followed by Kiss Her Goodbye in 2011. That same year, Spillane's long time home, the small South Carolina fishing village of Murrells Inlet, renamed U.S. 17 in South Carolina the Mickey Spillane Waterfront 17 Highway.
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