Legend of stage and screen Stacy Keach has 15 minutes to talk. Factor in the foul-ups of connecting via an international operator and that window, sadly, reduces to 10. Yet still, the fact that someone of Keach’s stature and schedule is willing to be interviewed about a TV series made more than three decades ago speaks volumes about his character as both a person and a professional.
That TV series is The New Mike Hammer (released now for the first time on DVD through Via Vision). Ripped directly from the pages of Mickey Spillane novels, of which he admits to being a fan, Keach spent four seasons as the cantankerous private eye for The New Mike Hammer, 1986 to 1989, which followed his turn as Mike Hammer in the original TV series of the same name, 1984 to 1985.
Described by Keach as “part James Bond; part Dirty Harry; one foot as superhero and the other in the gutter”, Mike Hammer is an interesting experiment in this millennial generation given his misanthropic and, some might say, misogynistic ways. But Keach hopes he will be appreciated in the context of the era – a grizzled and hardboiled remnant of a bygone film noir age.
Despite the passing of the years, Keach’s fervour in talking about the series shows no decline, especially when it comes to a sentimental memory: the meeting of his wife.
“The best thing that came out of [the first Mike Hammer] was I had the chance to meet my wife,” he recalls. “We’ve been married now for almost 31 years. In the early part, she was playing a nurse and a hooker, then later a Russian spy, Natasha. In the second incarnation of Mike Hammer, she played Maya, the yoga teacher who lives next door to Mike. Her studio was located next to his office, which created problems because they were like oil and water – a wonderful foil for Mike Hammer to have her next door. She wouldn’t allow him to smoke.”
Stacy Keach is an actor who knows no obstacles. He performs in front of a live audience just as impressively as the cameras. He sings and lends his voice to numerous projects as a narrator. Only last year, the 76 year-old suffered a mild heart attack on the opening night of his 80-minute solo show on Ernest Hemingway, Pamplona… and then attempted to continue performing. He has been dubbed one of America’s finest Shakespearean actors, most notably for his ownership of the role of King Lear, and was labelled by The New York Times as “The finest American classical actor since John Barrymore.”
That an actor with such thespian stripes should even stoop to television is remarkable in itself. When Keach first started on the box in 1958 on the US rom-com How to Marry a Millionaire (also starring I Dream of Jeannie’s Barbara Eden), TV was hardly the hallowed medium that sees A-list actors scrambling for an HBO leading role; instead, it was the poor cousin to more ‘serious’ acting outlets. But Keach is, and always will be, a working actor – one who attacks his projects as a trade – and, as artistically adept as he may be, he admits that “actors need to act” and television has provided the means to keep them doing just that.
“I think it was beginning to change when I started acting on TV,” says Keach of attitudes towards television. “The writing was on the wall. It used to have such a stigma attached to it but that stigma went away. And certainly, it no longer exists.”
When asked if that change prompted him to take on more TV roles, Keach admits, “I made a movie that had great expectations called Doc [about Doc Holliday, the American gunfighter and friend of Wyatt Earp] in 1971. The movie did not do well; it was a disaster at the box office. Then suddenly the phone stopped ringing and I wasn’t getting any offers to do movies.”
“I thought to myself, this is going to drive me crazy because, as an actor, I want to act,” explains Keach. “I could always go back to the theatre but I thought, once I get back into public good graces – critical good graces, that is – I think I want to do more television because it’s more immediate and it’s more available to me. So that’s when I started doing more television; much to the chagrin, I must say, of my agents at the time. They thought I shouldn’t do it because they still thought, as you mentioned, that old stigma was attached to television as a medium, as opposed to film. They thought, once you did television, you’d never get back to features.”
Stacy Keach’s faith in television rewarded him supremely and proved no barrier to the cinematic world either. His film repertoire has been broad-ranging and includes the likes of John Huston’s Fat City (1972), William Peter Blatty’s The Ninth Configuration (1980), Richard Franklin’s Road Games (1981) and Burt Kennedy’s adaptation of the Jim Thompson detective novel, The Killer Inside Me (1976), another pulpy text in the Mike Hammer mould.
A couple of years before The Killer Inside Me, however, Keach would work with Kennedy under the auspices of television – that of the unjustly aspersed TV movie. This particular project, All the Kind Strangers (1974), has largely been lost in the misty annals of time along with many other made-for-TV gems, despite its top-line cast (including Samantha Eggar, John Savage only four years prior to The Deer Hunter, and teen heartthrob Robby Benson) and a deliciously psychotic bent that lends itself to even more twisted interpretation with further contemplation.
Written by seasoned TV scribe, Clyde Ware, All the Kind Strangers is essentially a skew on the classic ‘stranger danger’ premise with Stacy Keach – strikingly sans moustache – playing Jimmy Wheeler, a photo-journalist and bachelor who is travelling through the Tennessee backwaters on assignment when he comes across a golden-haired ‘Leave it to Beaver’ boy, Gilbert (Tim Parkison), carrying a bag of groceries in the middle of nowhere. Jimmy stops to see if the boy is okay and offers him a lift home in his new convertible while also impressing Gilbert with the magic of his Polaroid camera. Gilbert accepts and, despite assuring Jimmy that he doesn’t live too far away, leads the kind stranger further and further into rough terrain away from the highway. With his wide-eyed innocence, Gilbert is the one who essentially grooms Jimmy and offers ‘the lolly’ that lures the adult Jimmy into danger.
Upon arriving at the family farm, Jimmy meets the broader hayseed clan, all similarly silky and shiny like Gilbert, including the youngest who they refer to as ‘baby’ because the parents died before giving him a name. This is one piece of evidence of how this unconventional, yet desperate to be conventional, family has been caught in stasis since the loss of their mother and father. The clan also includes a bib-and-braced John played by ‘70s hunk Robby Benson and overtly capitalises on Benson’s stock by injecting a superfluous scene where John Savage’s Peter wanders the property with Benson’s titular song playing; something like a cross-promotional video clip. If the film wasn’t creepy enough, the inclusion of this inexplicable aside only amplifies that creepiness ten-fold.
Jimmy gets ‘invited’ to dine with the young family and is taken to meet ‘Ma’ in the locked and boarded kitchen; a robotic Samantha Eggar (Carol Ann) who is too young to be the mother of these children that inch into adulthood, not to mention her very un-Tennessee English accent. In the most chilling reveal to this point, Carol Ann dons the smiles for Jimmy while simultaneously writing ‘help’ in the flour on her cutting board. If there was any doubt that things are not quite right at this farmhouse, this is the moment that Jimmy realises he is in a spot of trouble.
With Carol Ann at his side, Jimmy is unwillingly submitted to an unconventional litmus test, kept against his will and simultaneously assessed as to whether he will assume the role of ‘Pa’ (or not) and become part of this family forever.
Scratch not too many layers off the surface of All the Kind Strangers and it becomes something more than just a sinister tale of children kidnapping adults. Without so much as a kiss or stroke of the skin, it oozes sexuality of the most dangerous kind; that of the unbridled urges of teenagers. Specifically, it is an exceptional play on sadomasochism, one of forced dominance and submission, where the submissive – or in the case of this film, submissives – are in control of the relationship, rather than the persons assuming the dominant role.
This sadomasochistic dynamic – where the submissive is, in reality, calling all the shots – is not uncommon in cinema. A number of films – from Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) to Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2014) – have explored this contradictory scenario for the abundance of narrative fruit it has to bear. While such a theme may not be as explicit in All the Kind Strangers, it is definitely there, and it is the grit that makes this film all the more fascinating. Samantha Eggar’s Carol Ann observes that “It’s all a game, really” and, when it comes down do it, “They want punishment.”
As the eldest child and, consequently, the natural head of the family given the absence of their parents, John Savage’s Peter is in crisis. His actions reveal the burden of responsibility he feels for keeping the family together while simultaneously being resentful for this responsibility and desperately wanting to offload it onto someone else. A number of people have ‘auditioned’ for Peter’s role after being lured by Gilbert; with Stacy Keach’s Jimmy the most recent contender. However, regardless of the impropriety of the situation, Jimmy is a bad choice given his proud bachelor status and proclivity for the accoutrements of an urban lifestyle such as convertible cars and 60-dollar leather shoes.
But Peter is desperate to shoehorn Jimmy into this awkward role-play, whether he likes it or not. When Jimmy acts as the disciplinary, raising his voice and threatening to punish the children, Peter is docile and compliant. When Jimmy attempts to escape, Peter feels forced into taking control again and reluctantly assumes the dominant role by tying Jimmy to the bed. As the one who wants to be the submissive – the child to an authoritarian parent – having to restrain Jimmy is a deep disappointment to Peter.
Another one of the elder children is Arlene Farber’s Martha who is a cat-like creature on the verge of womanhood, sneaking around the household as its eyes and ears. Martha is a mute, something that, accordingly, affords her an air of mystery – the silent one who observes rather than acts. Similarly, her means of communication with her eyes and body amplifies her sexuality and gives her a sense of wantonness that is also threatening to Jimmy’s safety. Her lingering looks at Jimmy, figure-hugging pants and exposed midriff suggest she may want him to perform a different role for her, rather than the one of father that Peter intends.
These parentless children function as both the victim and the attacker, innocent and guilty, vulnerable and impervious. They drink milk at the dinner table and talk about the family sticking together “like in the bible”. They are the cinematic rendering of how children inherently need and seek parental authority; without it, things can go horribly wrong.
Ask Stacy Keach about All the Kind Strangers and, without missing a beat, he mentions the “hot and humid” location and an encounter with the livestock: “I remember getting chased by a huge pig – a mother sow – she was after me.” When the conversation is about to turn to the question of the film’s sadomasochism, sadly, the operator comes on the line to call stumps. But, there is a definite note of delight in Keach’s voice when this enjoyable TV anomaly from his back-catalogue is brought up, which suggests it holds a special place in his long and impressive repertoire. Stacy Keach is one of those kind strangers.