TV Flashback: Spenser for Hire

Feb 23, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Deborah Harter Williams, Mysteryrat's Maze, TV

by Deborah Harter Williams

Robert B. Parker’s Spenser had already been a success in 11 books when it came to television in 1985 with Robert Urich in the title role. Parker’s internal monologues translated well to Spenser’s voiceovers on TV, defining a classic PI style that has been envied and copied by writers ever since.

The show was an ode to Boston, one of the first shot on location. The names, the accents, shots of Spenser running in the snow or rowing on the Charles, captured the essence of the city from Beacon Street to Back Bay.

Spenser had a great character’s contradictions: poet and pugilist, fan of Julia Child and the Celtics, he was an ex-cop with a distrust of the law enforcement. He could get away with lines like, “I try to be honorable. I know that’s embarrassing to hear. It’s embarrassing to say.” He drove a 1966 green mustang (a tribute to the movie Bullitt) and for one season lived in a firehouse.

All his relationships were tough–strong people with strong beliefs that frequently clash.

His girlfriend in the first and third season, Susan Silverman (Barbara Stock), was a shrink with her own ideas about Spenser’s form of justice and they frequently have to agree to disagree to maintain the relationship. The cops Quirk (Richard Jaekel) and Belson (Ron MacLarty) are friend and adversaries.

Robert Urich as Spenser

Spenser’s best friend and foil is Hawk, played with great brio by Avery Brooks.

Brooks embodied the role of an imposing, well-dressed enforcer, armed with a 44 magnum and a malevolent stare. And then there was the laugh and the way he called his friend Spen-sah. When the two of them tossed Parker’s one-liners back and forth it was like the Globetrotters had taken the court.

Brooks also starred in the spinoff A Man Called Hawk and later as Benjamin Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Since then he has had multiple stage appearances as well as voice over and audio book work, when he wasn’t teaching at Oberlin College or Case Western Reserve. Trained as an opera singer, he released a CD in 2009 with opera, spoken word and jazz vocals.

Robert Urich fit the skin of Spenser so well that even Parker said the “the only thing wrong with Urich’s portrayal was that he should have been 30 pounds heavier.” He demonstrated that same boyish-resolute-sly-stubborn-steely persona as Dan Tanna on Vegas$ and in multiple TV roles including Gavilan, Soap and Bewitched spin-off Tabitha. He starred in 15 series during his 30-year career before dying of cancer at the age of 55.

Parker was involved from the beginning, working with show developer John Wilder.

The pilot was based on his fourth book, Promised Land, where Spenser first meets Hawk. Wilder brought his experience as writer and producer on The Streets of San Francisco and mini-series Centennial. One of his first writing credits was The Rifleman.

If this were an English class, parallels could be drawn. It would also be noted that Chuck Connors played King Power in the Spenser pilot.

The series still stands up with plots that involve moral dilemma’s including such issues as abortion, gun control and race. Four TV movies were made after the series was cancelled with the original cast, and in the late 90s, Joe Mantegna took on the role of Spenser for three more TV movies.

Last year the book In Pursuit of Spenser–Mystery Writers on Robert B. Parker was released. The 14 essays come from such notables as Ace Atkins, who has been chosen to take up writing the Spenser books, S.J. Rozan, Parnell Hall, Dennis Lehane, Lawrence Block. It also includes a profile of Spenser by Parker himself.

So it is that Spenser lives on in the voice of wisecracking PIs everywhere and in the 40th Spenser book Lullaby published in 2012.

Deborah Harter Williams works as a mystery scout, seeking novels that could be made into television. She blogs at Clue Sisters and was formerly a mystery bookstore owner.

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