This Week Stacy Keach Walks, but the Jury at Cbs Is Still Out on the Return of Mike Hammer

updated 06/10/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/10/1985 01:00AM

The eggs Benedict were perfect. The housekeeper, wearing an "I Love Mike Hammer" button on her blouse, clears the china. Jay Bernstein is sitting pensively at a lacquered dining room table, staring out at the lawn, court and pool and all that is a Bel Air backyard.

He rests both hands on the brass, hammer-shaped head of his cane—an affectation, not a crutch. Bernstein is contemplating the bust of Stacy Keach, 44, the Shakespearean actor turned Mickey Spillane detective, turned prison librarian, currently serving the last few days of a six-month term at Reading Gaol, a grim, overcrowded Victorian prison near London.

Bernstein sighs. "I feel like I'm in prison, too," he says.

Can you imagine such a thing? Of course you can. TV producer Bernstein, 47, is a former press agent, famed for making Farrah Fawcett's hair and Linda Evans' age matters of national consequence. Such an outrageous statement in the cause of a client is, like smuggling cocaine through English customs, surely nothing more than a victimless crime.

In characteristically extravagant fashion Bernstein has dedicated himself to the rehabilitation of Keach's image and the return of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer to the CBS schedule. He says he is "fighting for quality." He is also the executive producer of the series, which means he could make millions if the show gets back on the air, stays there a few years and then goes into syndication.

In pursuit of his goal Bernstein vowed to take on no new projects, to accept no new clients, to live in absolute austerity—scratch that, he still has his regular luncheon table at La Serre—until the program is back in production. In past years Bernstein has not been the most popular fellow in Hollywood—"I wouldn't say I am now," he allows—but no one seems to doubt his dedication to Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer ox his commitment to Keach.

"Jay can get very emotionally carried away with what he believes is right," says Merritt Blake, an agent who has known Bernstein for 10 years. "It may be that you or I won't come to the same conclusion—we might wonder how a man that smart could be that silly—but he's genuine."

Bernstein recently traveled the country preaching a fundamental gospel—that once a man has paid for a crime he should be allowed to go on with his life. Beginning February 4, Bernstein went to 15 cities in 37 days, appearing on morning TV shows and all-night radio talk shows, a sad-faced man with a seductively sincere voice. He got sick in Cleveland and had three suitcases stolen in Chicago, including the one containing his arch supports. He spent $40,000 of his own money bringing his message of understanding to America, and he says, "I'm going to be money poor by the end of the year." (Asked if Bernstein was going broke, his personal lawyer, Seymour Bricker, smiled and said, "No.") Another $10,000 was provided by Columbia Pictures Television, co-owners of the series with Bernstein. Lance Taylor, a Columbia programming vice-president, says, "He's a very persuasive speaker, and you know he's going to find just the right words to identify what he's feeling."

Larry King: Chicago, hello.

Caller: Jay, I want to tell you I love the show. I've been watching it ever since it came on....

King: Does it bother you at all that Stacy's in prison?

Caller: It did a little bit in the beginning because I kind of lost a little bit of respect for him, you know, but I've kind of gained that back.

Bernstein: The only person he hurt in the beginning was himself, and for that he's being punished and he's accepting it and he's not crying about it.

Bernstein insisted that his tour be a pilgrimage, not a crusade. (Okay, he wasn't barefoot and he didn't walk, but flying first class can be tough without arch supports.) All three of the principal cast members of the show, Lindsay Bloom (Velda), Don Stroud (Captain Pat Chambers) and Kent Williams (Special Prosecutor Lawrence Barring-ton), say they would have accompanied Bernstein if asked. None was. "What I was trying to do," Bernstein says, "was not make this into a major confrontation with CBS and not make Stacy into a hero."

He left with a close female acquaintance, actress Kristen Jensen, 22, who is no longer a close female acquaintance. He says the rigors of the trip killed the romance. She says that had nothing to do with it. This is fun, but we're getting off the subject.

Larry King: Chicago, hello.

Caller: I love the show. I think Stacy Keach got a raw deal; if that was one of the Beatles, they wouldn't 've seen no time...England should be ashamed of themselves.

Bernstein hopes remarks like that will convince CBS that viewers have only the highest regard for Keach and believe he has paid in full for attempting to smuggle 1.3 ounces of cocaine (worth $6,000) through Heathrow Airport in April 1984. Keach voluntarily returned to England to stand trial—there are extradition laws, but it is not known whether British authorities would have bothered—and pleaded guilty. Bernstein, with characteristic passion, said on a Chicago radio station, "The guy didn't get a slap on the wrist and 20 hours of public service. The guy got nine months hard time in a Midnight Express foreign-country kind of situation." So much for the reputation of English justice.

According to Bernstein, Keach earns about $2.50 a week as a prison librarian, is allowed one visitor every 28 days, may make no telephone calls and may write only two letters a month. These social restraints have not prevented him from becoming involved with Polish actress Malgosia Tomassi, 42, even though he is still married to his third wife, actress Jill Donahue. According to the London tabloids, Tomassi visited him in prison five times, and they plan to vacation in Bermuda after his scheduled release on June 7. (He gets three months off for good behavior.)

The most influential man in Keach's life after June 7 won't be the prison warden but Harvey Shephard, senior vice-president of programs for CBS Entertainment. Shephard will decide whether Mike Hammer goes back into production.

Much of what Bernstein did on his 37-day tour was beseech radio listeners and TV viewers to write letters to Shephard. He asked sympathizers to tell Shephard how good they felt about Keach and how much they missed Mike Hammer.

Caller: Mr. Bernstein, we miss Mike Hammer so much and I've been praying for him all along.... I want to get the name right. It's Harvey Shephard?

Bernstein: S-H-E-P-H-A-R-D...and we're all praying for Stacy.

Quite bluntly, Shephard is unmoved by the mail. He will not say how many letters he's received, and he says the ones addressed to him are shipped directly to audience services. He says it will not be the number of people who write to him that determines whether Mike Hammer returns; it will be the number of people who watch the Mike Hammer reruns currently being shown on Saturday nights.

"Ultimately," he says, "the viewers decide." That means Nielsen ratings, and those make Bernstein very nervous.

"You can't control it," he says.

Bernstein is obsessive about control. This is evident in everything he does, including eating breakfast. One morning at his house, he observed a guest cutting watermelon improperly. He got up, took the knife and fork from the startled guest, and demonstrated Bernstein's better way.

On the set of Mike Hammertoe manifestations were more serious. Bernstein was as much fun to have around as Mike Hammer at a mob picnic. More than 25 people, four of them supervising producers, either left the show or were fired. The current supervising producer is Larry Brody, who has been writing scripts since Keach went into prison.

"I've worked for monsters," he says, "and Jay is only a monster if you haven't encountered the real monsters. He's not a megalomaniac and he doesn't take pleasure in manipulating people. He's a yeller and a screamer. He's also honest, and when an honest man is a yeller and a screamer, you're subject to confrontations. People in this business aren't used to confrontations. They're happier being stabbed in the back."

Caller: I was a faithful viewer of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer starring Stacy Keach, but he not only let you down, Jay Bernstein, he let down Mickey Spillane and CBS and worst of all the public, and I for one will not watch the show if Stacy Keach is back on the program.

Bernstein: Well, thank you, sir, for your opinion.

Bernstein never raised his voice during the tour, except maybe at the guy running out of the airport with his luggage. He says his single goal was "to make CBS so crazy with letters they would put the series back on." Indeed, CBS did put the series back on, beginning nine weeks of reruns on May 4, but Shephard says the letters had nothing to do with the decision. He had two comedies "doing terribly" in the time period and believed Mike Hammer would get better ratings.

Letters seemed to have saved Cagney & Lacey last year after CBS canceled the show. At least that's the conventional wisdom, but Shephard says the decision was based on more than the volume of mail received. He considered "what was written, the feelings in the letters," and he knew that saving Cagney & Lacey would provoke an enormously positive reaction from critics. "You don't have TV critics across the country saying, 'Save Mike Hammer,' " Shephard says.

Lest he seem the kind of guy Spillane would describe as "cold-blooded and deliberate," Shephard says he is rather fond of the program. "I've always felt Stacy was the best Mike Hammer I've ever seen," he says. "I enjoy the show."

Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer went went on the air as a series in January 1984, in the 10 p.m. Saturday nighttime slot. Against Fantasy Island and The Yellow Rose, it drew a 28 percent share of the audience. The next season, moved to 9 p.m. against The Love Boat and Partners in Crime, it faded to a 22 share, which Shephard calls a "marginal" performance.

After the first two weeks of the current rerun schedule, Mike Hammer was in third place. The shows had great action, such as Hammer driving a bus over a bad guy and the usual collection of unreasonably endowed females making guest appearances.

Shephard, who has an eye only for the ratings, says that if Mike Hammer doesn't finish ahead of NBC's Hunter, the outlook for the series is "bleak."

Such realities never seem to bother Bernstein. Two weeks ago he flew to London, where he met briefly with Keach and held press conferences for British journalists. The Daily Star reported that Bernstein was "choking back tears" when he talked about the overwork that drove Keach to cocaine.

For the rest of the cast of Mike Hammer, more than 200 people who lost their jobs after Keach went to jail, the waiting is a lot less eventful. Perhaps for them, as for Bernstein, it is a bit like being in prison, although when people in the entertainment business talk about being behind bars, they're usually sitting in the back of their limos.

They could learn a lesson on patience from Mike Hammer. He'd tip his stool back, nudge a Lucky out of the deck, say something dirty to himself and get a little bit drunk. Not much, just enough to get through the Nielsens.

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