Although its run was short-lived, ABC’s mid-1980s cop spoof Sledge Hammer! made a significant imprint in the minds of primetime viewers. David Rasche starred as the title character, a trigger-happy police detective who “shot first and asked questions never.” In honor of the 30th anniversary of the show’s series finale on February 12, 1988, we’ve got a few facts about the series that should hit the mark.
1. IT WAS THOUGHT UP BY A TEENAGER.
In 1971, 10-year-old Alan Spencer snuck into a screening of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry by buying a ticket to Fiddler on the Roof and switching theaters once he was inside. Impressed by the movie and its sequels, Spencer decided to write a script lampooning the renegade cop trope. At 16, he began circulating Sledge Hammer! around the business to readers who didn’t understand the kind of satire Spencer was aiming for. One agent called it “the work of someone with serious mental problems.”
Spencer persevered: Nearly a decade later, another Dirty Harry sequel arrived in theaters and reinvigorated interest in a send-up of the genre. Reworked as a half-hour sitcom, Sledge Hammer! suddenly became a hot commodity.
2. IT ALMOST ENDED UP AT HBO.
Leonard Stern, who produced the 1960s spy spoof Get Smart, knew of Spencer’s script and connected him with HBO. The network wasn’t sure what to make of the excessive violence and dark humor and wanted Spencer to revise it to fit the persona of Rodney Dangerfield, who they wanted to have starring in the project. Spencer declined and took the idea to ABC, which was receptive to it—provided all of the profanity was deleted. The writer and network cast Second City’s David Rasche and Anne-Marie Martin as Sledge and partner Dori Doreau, respectively. (Martin went on to marry Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton.)
3. ABC WAS CONCERNED THE SHOW WOULD CAUSE HEART ATTACKS.
Composer Danny Elfman created the track for the Sledge Hammer! opening credits sequence, which was shot in romantic close-up of Sledge’s beloved .44 Magnum firearm. In a James Bond homage, Rasche was supposed to then pick up the weapon and fire it directly at the viewer, “shattering” the television screen. ABC nixed the idea, fearing the abrupt visual might prompt heart attacks in susceptible viewers. (He fired it offscreen instead.)
4. IT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE PETER GABRIEL SONG. (BUT USED IT ANYWAY.)
Oddly, Sledge Hammer! the series and "Sledgehammer" the song had absolutely no connection with one another, but both were released within a few months of each other in 1986. With the song a hit, ABC convinced (and obviously paid) Peter Gabriel to allow them to use it in promotional spots for the series.
5. ABC REFUSED TO HAVE SLEDGE ADMIT HE WAS CRAZY.
A man who talks to and sleeps with his gun probably is in need of some kind of mental evaluation. But Spencer’s original catchphrase idea for Sledge—“I’m crazy, but I know what I’m doing”—was axed by ABC, which refused to allow any admission the character might be mentally ill. The phrase became “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”
6. IT HAD A RIVALRY WITH MR. BELVEDERE.
Spencer was not a fan of Mr. Belvedere, the genteel 1980s sitcom about an English butler who charms his American employers. Sledge took several shots at the show—which aired on the same network—prompting Belvedere star Bob Uecker to criticize Sledge while a guest on The Tonight Show. The war of words was never resolved.
7. IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE CANCELED SOONER.
As an acquired taste, Sledge Hammer! didn’t resonate with viewers, who preferred it a distant third to time slot competitors Dallas and Miami Vice. Believing the first season would also be the last, the show’s producers aired a finale that featured Hammer accidentally activating a nuclear warhead that reduced his city to rubble. When ratings improved for the apocalyptic finale, ABC decided to renew it—forcing the show to frame subsequent episodes as having taken place years prior to the explosion.
8. IT WAS A MARVEL COMIC. (FOR TWO ISSUES.)
Lasting just two issues, Marvel’s Sledge Hammer! took the detective into the sequential art world, including a guest appearance by Spider-Man. The cover of the first promised a faithful adaptation of the “show that refuses to die.” (Marvel’s onetime Hulk, Bill Bixby, directed several of the show’s episodes.)
9. A CONTRACT OMISSION MADE FOR A HOME VIDEO WINDFALL.
At the time Sledge Hammer! aired, studios and networks were mostly concerned with rights issues relating to videocassette releases. The network therefore didn’t bat an eye when Spencer, who loved laserdiscs, had it written into his contract that he be a profit participant in any “disc format” releases of the show. Sledge was released on DVD in 2004, a "disc format" the network could never have anticipated, and earned Spencer a significant cut of the profits.
10. NEW LINE WANTED TO MAKE A FEATURE.
In 1992, Spencer received word that New Line Cinema was interested in adapting Sledge Hammer! as a feature film. The creator passed when it became clear the studio wanted to move forward with a new cast and new characters.
11. IT EARNED ITS CREATOR AN HONORARY NRA MEMBERSHIP.
Not everyone took the satire of a gun-loving fascist as a joke. Spencer told Splitsider in 2012 that when Sledge Hammer! premiered, the National Rifle Association (NRA) bestowed him with an honorary membership for contributing to pro-gun awareness. “A lot of people took [the show] very seriously,” he said.