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'Spenser' Takes on Sunday-Night Heavy Hitters

August 16, 1987|Lawrence Eisenberg | Eisenberg is a novelist and magazine writer who lives in New York City. and

Look, up in the sky. It's a bird . . . It's a plane . . . It's "Spenser: For Hire." ABC's programmers must have thought their new detective show was Superman--or a kamikaze pilot--when they introduced it on Sept. 20, 1985, opposite "Miami Vice."

When they came back from lunch and read the ratings, the programmers who still had jobs decided on a more prudent course: On Oct. 29, 1985, "Spenser" became a Tuesday-night fixture opposite "Hunter," where "Spenser" did well for 11 months.

Finally, this tough, stylish show about a Boston private eye (Robert Urich) who can quote poetry and cook as well as he can turn a felon into chopped meat was being treated with some respect.

Ignoring the TV dictum, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," on Sept. 27, 1986, ABC moved "Spenser" to Saturday night--once again, opposite "Hunter."

The problem was that paving the way for "Hunter" on NBC were "The Golden Girls" and "227." ABC's lead-ins, or to be more accurate, turn-offs, for "Spenser" were such programs as "Heart of the City," "Ohara" and the new "Lucy" show.

On May 30 of this year "Spenser" was rescued and moved back to Tuesday nights, where it did fine, especially since its lead-in was "Moonlighting."

And now that "Spenser" has grasped a firm footing, this fall it will be moved to Sunday nights--opposite "Murder, She Wrote" and "Family Ties," two hits.

Superman won't be enough to get them out of this. Now they'll need Godzilla and Sigourney Weaver.

Michael Maschio, producer of the show, disagrees. "Demographically, 'Murder, She Wrote' draws an older female audience and 'Family Ties' draws a youth audience. I don't think there's any programming at that time that is male-oriented or relationship-oriented."

Let's talk relationship. The love of Spenser's life in the Robert Parker novels on which the series is based--and in the show's first season--was Susan Silverman, an intelligent, beautiful woman played by Barbara Stock.

Here comes another dubious TV dictum: Because they were in love and happy, the relationship had no place to go.

So at the end of the first season, they gave Susan a fellowship to the University of Canceled Love Interests and replaced her with Carolyn McCormick, as a deputy district attorney; this would give the show what is known in the biz as "sexual tension."

Now the network heard from an unlikely source: the audience. Responding to rumors that the show was going to be canceled, and furious about the removal of Susan, viewers sent ABC more than 18,000 letters, Maschio said.

"The person who made that decision was possibly incorrect," he adds. "The reality is that everyone is interested in the relationship, because it's real." Voila! --as Spenser might say. Susan will be back this year.

Barbara Stock, emerging from a costume fitting in the "Spenser" studio on Boston's Soldier's Field Road, says, "I might have felt vengeful for the first month or two after Susan was written out, but then I got other work."

This included a feature film, "Vern Miller," in which she appeared opposite Scott Glenn and sang several songs that she co-wrote. A fringe benefit: She fell in love with the producer, Bill Dunn, and is planning to marry him next April. ("That wouldn't have happened if I had still been on 'Spenser.' ")

She's optimistic about the future relationship of Susan and Spenser. "We have new writers who have a better feeling for it. Look at the millions of people who have been married for years and years. Do they have romantic tension in their relationships? What we have to do is show people how to keep relationships interesting."

Steven Hattman, co-executive producer, says the show "will continue to be reality-based and issue-oriented. Susan will return to college--Harvard--and by the end of the season she'll be Dr. Silverman.

"In the second show, we'll probably have Spenser and Hawk in conflict over an issue." Hawk, played by Avery Brooks, started out as Spenser's wary ally. They were willing to die for each other, but they didn't socialize. In the second season, they became buddy-buddy, verging on cutesy. Out that goes.

"We also intend to do a show where the backdrop would be the Catholic church--something that's very Boston," Hattman adds.

There's a plot they may not have considered: Angela Lansbury and Michael J. Fox, making press tours of Boston, are kidnaped, and the police suspect that Spenser had something to do with it.

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