Robert Urich and Barbara Stock, Spenser: for Hire
Question: I've read all of Robert B. Parker's Spenser books and thought they did a decent job of depicting the character on TV's Spenser: For Hire, given the TV programming of the time. (Can you imagine that show on FX now?) But I never could figure out why they got rid of Susan, Spenser's girlfriend, and then brought her back. Can you shed any light on that? Thank you, and I love your column.
Answer: You're very welcome, Gayle, and thank you. I imagine the fact that they actually shot Spenser: For Hire in your stomping grounds gave the show the authenticity that only someone who lives in Boston could appreciate.
Anyway, guidance counselor Susan Silverman (Barbara Stock) was shown the door — or, more accurately, shipped off to San Francisco — in the show's second season because the writers just couldn't figure out what to do with her. When Spenser struggled in the ratings, ABC and the series' creative types panicked, instituted "improvements," and Stock was out of a job. (Good thing the network's learned its lesson and wouldn't think of breaking a show like Commander in Chief when it didn't need fixing, huh? Yes, I'm being sarcastic.)
Trouble was, Susan's replacement for the place in Spenser's heart, Asst. D.A. Rita Fiore (Carolyn McCormick), didn't fare any better, plot-wise, nor did the show fare any better in the ratings. So Spenser's humbled star, the late Robert Urich, was forced to eat some crow and beg Stock to come back. Stock was no dummy, after all, and knew that Urich had creative input on the show. He may not have had a direct hand in her exit, but he certainly didn't stand up for her, either. "I didn't fight it," he admitted later. "I'll take as much of the blame as anybody."
So thus Urich found himself dialing his former costar up. "You might hang up on me," he recalled saying, "but this is what I propose. It's a new ball game here. We've got new people. If you can forgive me because I didn't have the foresight and courage to say 'Let's ride it out to the end,' will you come back?" She asked for time to think about it, and he said he'd call her the next day. He called back an hour later. "I didn't do that very well, did I?" he asked. Well enough, it seems, since Stock returned, though she never pretended to be too sentimental about why. "I did it because it was the right thing for me to do in my career," she said.
Such pragmatism was the hallmark of the series, which was critically well received but never managed to attain hit status, debuting in September 1985 on ABC and leaving the air three years later. Many fans of the books, who were quite vocal in their anger when Susan was unceremoniously sent packing, were pleased with the show overall. And Parker himself had some nice things to say about it, too.
"When I agreed to the TV series, I did so with a clear sense that a thing is what it is, and not something else," Parker wrote in TV Guide in 1987. "It is the business of television to put on good television, not to replicate my books. Their Spenser succeeds in this. It is not entirely my Spenser, but it's good television."
What did Parker see as the chief differences? Well, the TV Spenser and his cohort Hawk were more mainstream, more appealing to a large TV audience. "Thus, their Spenser is the spokesman for a Norman Rockwell-esque vision of apple-pie America, about which my Spenser would murmur, 'Isn't it pretty to think so,'" Parker wrote. "Their Hawk, magnificently played by Avery Brooks, is less amoral than my Hawk, more rigidly adhering to some kind of private warrior code. Since neither their Spenser nor their Hawk is allowed to shoot first, they are sometimes required to look either slow or silly while they stand around waiting to return fire. Because television thrives on extended action, their villains seem more evenly matched with their Spenser and Hawk. Television hates a one-punch fight."
Of course, Parker was as sensible as Stock in his approach to both his books and the show: "The books are mine. They were here before the series, they will be here when it's gone. Spenser: For Hire has no more effect on my writing than Monday Night Football. In short, I like the show, and I like the novels. If I were you, I'd watch their Spenser and read mine, and enjoy them both. A thing is, after all, what it is, and not something else."