The Making of ‘Sledge Hammer!’ with Creator Alan Spencer
The scene opens on the insignia of a hammer. It then moves upwards to reveal a white ivory gun handle. The gun is a 44 Magnum, and the camera moves along its body in a tender, almost sensual way. When the shot pulls back, it reveals that the weapon sits atop a white satin pillow. Then, a hand reaches in and grabs the gun. It belongs to a wild-eyed detective in a dingy jacket and a loud tie who declares “Trust me, I know what I’m doing,” before pointing the gun at the camera and firing.
That's the opening sequence of Sledge Hammer! One of the most revered cult sitcoms of all time. An action-comedy and political satire on Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films, Sledge Hammer! was about a gun-crazy, ultra-violent no-nonsense cop with the unlikely name “Sledge Hammer.” Along with his female partner and his ever-exasperated police captain, Sledge ran two seasons on ABC from 1986 to 1988 before getting axed.
However, in the years since its cancellation, Sledge Hammer’s profile has only grown. The show is often cited as one of the great “canceled too soon” sitcoms and has been released on both DVD and Blu-Ray. A reboot/reinvention of the show is currently in development, with creator Alan Spencer again at the helm.
Before discussing Sledge’s future though, which is still under wraps, Spencer joins us at Cracked — where Sledge was actually featured on our March, 1988 cover — to talk a bit about the history of Sledge Hammer! which began when Spencer was far younger than you might think.
The Birth Of Sledge
I wrote the script for Sledge Hammer! as a teenager. The idea came to me after I snuck into the first Dirty Harry movie. This was probably 1972, so I was like, 11 or 12 and Dirty Harry was rated R, so I bought a ticket for Fiddler on the Roof, rated G, and snuck into Dirty Harry.
I loved that movie and I loved Clint Eastwood’s screen persona as Harry Callahan. The movie also has a sense of humor to it and, if you’ve got a sick sense of humor, it’s pretty darkly funny as well, so I found myself laughing at stuff that no one else in the theater was laughing at. That’s when I was struck by this lightning bolt — that this kind of character was perfect for satire.
Being a fan of Get Smart’s Maxwell Smart and Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther movies, I thought Dirty Harry was ripe for a comedic, satirical version. So, I came home from the theater and began writing a screenplay for Sledge Hammer! The funny thing was, I was writing an R-rated movie and I wasn’t even old enough to see one.
I began exaggerating things about Dirty Harry for Sledge and wondering what the secret life of that kind of detective would be like. He’s a solitary figure and he didn’t have a woman in his life, so I began to focus on Sledge’s gun and that Sledge would talk to it and have an intimate relationship with it. Sledge wielding his Magnum is like a priest wielding a cross — it’s his symbol and brings people to their knees. Eventually, the opening credits to the show would end up showing Sledge Hammer’s ivory-handled Magnum on a white satin pillow as an object of reverence. One reviewer in Japan called it “Americanized weapon porn” which showed great perspicacity.
That wouldn’t be until years later though. Meanwhile, back in the 1970s, I was writing this script and updating it as other Dirty Harry movies came out. I began working in TV at 14 or 15 in a studio writing program and began writing sitcoms and got an agent, so I was able to pass the script around a bit and so did my agent. Nobody understood it though. Well, a few people did, but it mostly horrified people. A script reader for a production company wrote on their coverage: “One must seriously wonder about the state of mind of this writer.”
Part of the problem was that the Dirty Harry movies were popular in the 1970s, but they weren’t a phenomenon yet. The third movie in the series was The Enforcer in 1976 and that was the last Dirty Harry movie for a while until Clint Eastwood revived the character in 1983 with Sudden Impact. That’s when “make my day” begat a national catchphrase and that’s when Dirty Harry became an icon. Soon, other vigilante cop films would follow, like the Death Wish sequels and Cobra and all those movies with Chuck Norris. That’s when an HBO executive named Jeff Bricmont got the idea to do Get Smart meets Dirty Harry and he called Leonard Stern, the Get Smart executive producer, about the idea.
Sledge Comes To HBO, Then ABC
I didn’t know Leonard Stern, I never met him, but he was one of the people who had read the Sledge Hammer! screenplay and understood it. He was also aware of some unaccredited work I’d done for a colleague of his. So, out of generosity of spirit and great benevolence, Leonard Stern told HBO that a Get Smart meets Dirty Harry-style script had already been written. He said, “It’s called Sledge Hammer! and the writer’s name is Alan Spencer. I recommend you speak to him.”
I got a call from HBO out of nowhere saying they wanted to develop my screenplay into a half hour show. It was in development there for a while, but I ran into some issues there. HBO wanted a comedian in the role of Sledge Hammer and so did the head of the studio at New World Television. Rodney Dangerfield was a name I heard and so was Gary Sandy from WKRP in Cincinnati, but I wanted somebody unknown. This character was such that I wanted the audience to believe he was legitimately deranged — a person that came out of nowhere who would play the role relatively straight.
I knew the only way this extreme character would work is if it were played with believability and conviction. The genius of Peter Sellers was the verisimilitude he brought to characters that in lesser hands would be just caricatures. The eyes of Dr. Strangelove are filled with mad conviction — I needed the same deranged conviction for a man having a monogamous relationship with a .44 Magnum. Being .44 meant it was of legal age, but it's still loony.
So, this was stuck at HBO and then ABC’s head of comedy, Stu Bloomberg, happened to read the Sledge Hammer! script. This was at a time when ABC was the third place network and they were looking to make some noise. This was also well before HBO was what it is now. Original programming was scant on HBO at that time, while network TV was considered top-tier. So, Bloomberg got the message to me saying, “If you can get this out of HBO, I’d be interested in developing this for network TV.”
So, it was up to me to get this show away from HBO and I just turned really petulant. I even reached a point where I said “I bet you I could sell this script within 24 hours to another network!” They laughed at me about that and took me up on it. So, I went to ABC and HBO had to let the show go.
Developing Sledge Hammer!
When I found myself at ABC, I had to tone things down a bit. In the screenplay and the HBO script, Sledge was dropping f-bombs and there was a much higher body count — I think he shot a nun in the shoulder at one point. Anyway, so we had to tone things down, but, even with that, it ended up being pretty outrageous (this was all pre-Tarantino).
ABC allowed me a lot of creative control. Both Bloomberg and Brandon Stoddard, the head of the network, believed that it was such an outrageous idea and the creator had such a clear vision, they had to back me all the way, and they did, especially with casting.
When the show was in development, I’d read reviews about David Rasche, who was doing Mamet plays at the time. I also happened to read the reviews of a movie called Best Defense, which he got rave reviews for. Mind you, I hadn’t seen either of those things, but I had this kind of weird, psychic vibe about him and I thought, “If this guy resembles Clint Eastwood in any way, this is who I want.”
So, when it came time for casting at ABC, I rented Best Defense and watched his scenes and I knew it was him. Plus, he’d done a lot of drama and action pieces, but he also had a background in Second City, so there was a closeted comedian in him. So, he got the part and never had to audition for it.
For Dori Doreau, Sledge’s female partner, Anne-Marie Martin was my first choice. I’d known her from daytime soaps and she had the physicality to be a cop. Plus, there was an episode of T.J. Hooker where she played a cop, and, if she can play a cop opposite William Shatner playing a cop, that was enough of a litmus test for me that she was right for comedy.
For the role of Captain Trunk, we were obviously casting the archetype of the exasperated boss. But, when we were casting, I didn’t see any black actors at first. My fear was, with the way Hammer treated the Captain, the disrespect could have been misinterpreted as being racist. But, we had trouble finding someone and I realized how wrong it was to limit myself. If a performer had the strength to stand up to Hammer, he wouldn’t be a victim, he’d be the only one standing in Hammer’s way.
When Harrison Page came in and began screaming his lines, people came in from other offices because he was so loud, they thought something terrible was happening in there. So, it was clear he could stand up to Hammer with sufficient power and strength.
The pilot was set in San Francisco, but we never said it was San Francisco because the city wanted nothing to do with this character. It was directed by Martha Coolidge, which was a bit unusual, having a female director at that time for an action-oriented macho piece. But she wanted to direct something a man would normally direct and we agreed on how it should be filmed. She took it all seriously and didn’t try to be funny — she filmed it like a Dirty Harry movie. That was key. She was also very patient with me since this was my first produced pilot.
Sledge Is Put To The Test
The pilot came out great. I was really happy with it, but then Sledge Hammer! went to testing and we had some issues. They didn’t really expect it to test well, but it did worse than they thought. The problem was they pulled in these people off the street and asked them to watch a new sitcom, then, in the first few seconds, they see a gun on a white satin pillow and a man shooting at them.
It got tested another time and this time, even though it wasn’t meant for it or timed for it or anything, they added a laugh track to it. Unfortunately, it tested appreciably higher with the laugh track, so the laugh track would stay, for now. Although, when the show got renewed for the back nine for the first season, I got rid of the laugh track and nobody noticed.
Sledge Hammer! Season One
Sledge Hammer! made it on the schedule in the fall of 1986 and I thought there was a bit of weird synergy to that, since Maxwell Smart’s agent number was 86 and Get Smart was a big influence on me and Sledge Hammer! Other influences include Blake Edwards and vodka.
The first season had 22 episodes and, even though we got shuffled around a lot and we struggled in the ratings, we had strong demographics that would guarantee a long run today. It was also clear that the people who liked it really liked it and I was very proud of how the episodes turned out. I wanted to give the show legitimate crime plots because, generally, comedy works better when the stakes are real, as opposed to wacky heroes facing off against wacky villains.
During the season, Sledge also became his own unique character — he wasn’t just a satire of Clint Eastwood. This suited David Rasche, a classically trained actor, versus a comic or straight actor parodying their own established persona — those don’t sustain week after week.
A particularly good episode in the first season was the episode “Haven’t Gun, Will Travel,” where Sledge Hammer loses his gun and has an existential crisis because of it. In recent years, I’ve had a chance to watch that episode with a live audience and it’s pretty gratifying to hear the laughs more than 30 years later. I never got to experience that during the show.
At the end of the first season though, I was pretty sure that the show wasn’t going to be renewed. We’d gotten critical acclaim but other shows without that acclaim were bona fide hits. I was also not a fan of the head of current programming at the time, who viewed me as enfant terrible that kept making fun of his other shows by name in my series. So, I figured I’d just go out with a bang, go for broke with the last episode and have Sledge blow up the entire city with an atomic bomb. I wanted a cliffhanger that was just impossible to get out of.
Afterwards, the network kept asking me how I was going to get out of it, and I told them “It’s not a dream sequence, but you’ll have to renew us if you want to find out what happened.”
Sledge Hammer! Season Two
To my surprise, it worked and Sledge Hammer! got a second season. To resolve the cliffhanger, I just said that the second season was a prequel. It didn’t really make sense because Hammer wouldn’t have known Dori before the first episode, but who cares. Unfortunately, our budgets got cut in Season Two which meant less shooting on location. Also, we were put opposite The Cosby Show, which was the biggest show on television, so the ratings really suffered. Revenge came a few decades too late on that one — Cosby was the one villain Sledge didn’t catch (though I’m proud to say that a man that showered with his gun was a better role model for kids than Dr. Huxtable).
By the end of Season Two it was clear that the show wasn't getting a third season. Despite the budget cuts, we did some really good episodes — “Hammeroid,” when Sledge becomes a RoboCop-type character, is a lot of people’s favorites. And, even though the show didn’t have a proper finale, I wanted to make clear in the last episode that Sledge had had some character growth and he softened a little.
The Legacy of Sledge Hammer!
After the show was canceled, I figured Sledge Hammer! would be forgotten, and I’ve been amazed by how much people still love it. I’ve gotten to watch the show with live audiences and there have been tributes and some cast reunions. It’s been really gratifying. It was also cool to hear how big of a hit it was internationally, as many people overseas saw it as making fun of America. Of course, Sledge Hammer’s satirical statement now forms the backbone of most political platforms. We were a satire, not a parody. Satire exaggerates reality, which invariably finds a way to catch up with it.
I also got some really positive notes from people I really respect. I was able to involve Leonard Stern on the show as a creative consultant, which I wanted to do to repay him. I also got a phone call from Lucille Ball once telling me she liked the show and one of the members of Monty Python — I won’t reveal which. Clint Eastwood cast David Rasche in Flags of Our Fathers and has shown appreciation.
The New York Times reviewed my show as being “curiously affectionate” towards Dirty Harry, but that was the point, I loved the character and the films. Get Smart and Young Frankenstein are respectful of the genres they’re making comedic entries into. Same is true of Shaun of the Dead. By doing that, you inherit some of the same qualities of the genre as opposed to just offering a mockery. In the long run, it pays to respect your source material.
The show has a really unique fanbase too. Some saw Sledge as this goofy crimefighter, while others saw the series as a rebuke of law enforcement, but some agreed with Sledge and took him pretty seriously. I remember one time I got a bullet in the mail with my name engraved on it. I was so scared I called the FBI. Turns out the guy was a fan of the show!
I also got an honorary membership into the NRA and so did Sledge, which is pretty ridiculous for a fictional character. Maybe the best legacy the character has had though is that clips from Sledge Hammer! have been featured in a number of training videos for law enforcement for tips on what not to do. I’m pretty sure no other show can say that.