A fan of legendary mystery writers Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, novelist Robert B. Parker tread down a similar path when he introduced his signature character, small-time Boston private eye Spenser, in 1973. Starting with The Gudwolf Manuscript, a book Parker wrote right out of the English doctoral program at Boston University, Spenser was fashioned partly as a traditional hard-nosed gumshoe, complete with packed heat, an old car (a ’67 Mustang), a past as a losing boxer and a former job as a Beantown homicide cop before being bounced off the force for insubordination.
But the author also blessed Spenser with an unusually soft and cultured side, for someone in his profession: he cooks with great aplomb, reads voraciously (often spouting quotes from the classics), deeply loves his girlfriend, and can get way too emotionally involved in his cases. Ultimately, Spenser holds a stringent passion for his work, and for doing the right thing, and it’s probably these qualities that have sent Parker’s books to the best-seller lists again and again.
Over 10 years and 20 novels (not all dealing with Spenser) later, in 1985, Parker finally saw his character made flesh with the creation of Spenser: For Hire, the classy series starring Robert Urich in arguably his best TV outing (Urich has had a string of lead TV roles in his long career, most notably in the shows Gavilan and Vega$ and in the miniseries Lonesome Dove).
Developed for television by executive producer/writer John Wilder, with Parker acting as creative consultant and sometime scriptwriter, the series kicked off with a 2-hour pilot movie based on Parker’s novel Promised Land (winner of the 1976 Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Edgar Award). Hawk In it, we’re also introduced to the series’ other main characters, the foremost being Hawk (Avery Brooks), a enigmatic, stylish African-American man and former sparring partner of Spenser’s who’s carved a niche for himself as a mob leg-breaker (Brooks’s memorable turn resulted in a short-lived spin-off series, A Man Called Hawk).
Barbara Stock rounds out the main cast as Susan Silverman, Spenser’s stunning girlfriend who works as high school guidance counselor and psychotherapist and who frets constantly about Spenser’s on-the-job safety (so much so that her character left in the show’s second season, sojourning to San Francisco for a respite from Spenser’s bullet-riddled life — but, not to worry, she returned to her man’s arms in the third season). Other regulars on the series include Richard Jaeckel as caustic homicide lieutenant Martin Quirk, Ron McLarty as Sgt. Frank Belson, Lt. Quirk’s more sympathetic and helpful underling and, in the second season, Carolyn McCormick as Rita Fiori, the by-the-book assistant District Attorney who’s often at odds with Spenser’s work habits.
Beautifully photographed, often on location in Boston (instantly setting it apart from your average overlit L.A.-set cop show), Spenser: For Hire originally ran for three seasons on ABC, starting in September 1985, and yielded one pilot movie and 64 one-hour episodes before being canceled in 1988. Over that time, the show attracted a slew of then-little-known guest stars who have gone on to stellar careers — Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Frances McDormand, Andie McDowell, Jimmy Smits, Lawrence Fishburne, Eriq La Salle, Nancy Travis, J.T. Walsh, William H. Macy, Rob Morrow, Spalding Gray, David Strathairn, Tony Shaloub, Trini Alvarado, Laura San Giacomo, Ving Rhames, and Brad Dourif, among them. Added into the mix, the guest stars cement the show’s standing as one of the most literate crime dramas in recent memory.
USA / ABC – Warner – John Wilder Productions / 66×50 minute episodes / Broadcast 20 September 1985 – 3 September 1988
Books: Robert B. Parker / Executive Producer: John Wilder / Producers: William Robert Yates, Dick Gallegy, Robert Hamilton
ROBERT URICH as Spenser
BARBARA STOCK as Susan Silverman
AVERY BROOKS as Hawk
CAROLYN McCORMICK as Ada Rita Fiori
RICHARD JAECKEL as Lt Martin Quirk (1986-87)
RON McCARTY as Sergeant Frank Belson