The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Alan Spencer (‘Bullet in the Face’)

I’ve said before – if not in this column, then certainly elsewhere on the ‘net – how a great deal of my long-term tastes were established during my teen years in the ’80s, and one of the shows that was must-see TV for 16-year-old me was the ABC sitcom Sledge Hammer!, created by Alan Spencer. As a result, my eyebrows shot skyward when I first learned about the IFC series Bullet in the Face, since the press release prominently featured Spencer’s previous credits. Too bad the network’s programming and promotional departments weren’t quite as enthused as I was: the show’s six-episode season was noticed by precious few, resulting in a quick departure from the airwaves.

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Thank goodness for Shout Factory, then, a company who knows a future cult classic when they see one: they released Bullet in the Face on DVD a few weeks back – sorry, I was at the TCA tour at the time, or I would’ve been able to promote it more heavily right as it hit the shelves – and were kind enough to set me up with an interview with the aforementioned Mr. Spencer.

After discussing his most recent endeavor in considerable detail, you will be unsurprised to learn that I took a bit of time to geek out as well, enjoying the opportunity to learn more about his friendships with Marty Feldman, Andy Kaufman, and Anthony Perkins, and to find out if we’re likely to ever see Sledge Hammer! return.

Bullz-Eye: How did Bullet in the Face originally come about? It seems to owe at least a spiritual debt to Sledge Hammer!, but from what I can tell, it appears that the project existed in some form – if only as a vague concept – before you ever came aboard.

Alan Spencer: Well, first of all, there’s nothing spiritual about Sledge Hammer! [Laughs.] Basically, the IFC network… An executive I knew at the IFC network said they had a concept in development that wasn’t working. It was called Dieter Horn in Night Port, and if you Google it or use any search engine, I think you can see information about it. They had made a two-minute trailer – kind of a sizzle reel, as people are wont to do – and a Canadian production company was behind it. The trailer shows a spoof of ‘80s tropes about a German cop called Dieter Horn, who was apparently a bad guy who became a cop, and it’s heavily rooted in the ‘80s. It’s never explained why it was German, by the way. I couldn’t figure that out. But it’s a spoof of a Miami Vice sort of city, and it was…  A lot of people are doing ‘80s parodies – MacGruber, and there’s a miniseries now (The Spoils of Babylon) – and it was an ‘80s spoof, and…that didn’t interest me. And I guess they developed scripts for it and it didn’t work, so it was a piece of… The term is “broken development.”

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Since I’m one of the few people that had done and sustained a successful half-hour action comedy, they came to me and asked if I’d be willing to supervise the writers and retool this. It was basically… I was given, like, carte blanche for whatever I could come up with to fix this. So, anyway, I took the one kernel, one idea from it, and threw everything else out. And the only kernel from it was the German, formerly a bad guy, turning into a cop. So that was it. I threw everything out, re-titled it, and came up with all new characters, an all new milieu, and the kind of a graphic-novel city I set it in.

I also threw out the ‘80s baby with the ‘80s bathwater, because a lot of people can’t reference the ‘80s. I lived through the ‘80s already, and that didn’t interest me to go through it again. I don’t have that hair anymore, I don’t wear the pastels, I wear socks… [Laughs.] So I didn’t want to deal with that at all. I wanted something new and fresh. Also, since I had some creative freedom, I really wanted to go for it, so they were kind of thrilled when I decided to write it myself. I just said, “Let me write it,” as opposed to going through the machinations that we would’ve to find some writers. So they were surprised and happy, but I think that was their agenda all along, to have me write it myself.

So I indulged myself. I didn’t imagine this getting made, so I wrote something very, very extreme, and going further than the restraints that I was used to working on in network television. And then, lo and behold, I was surprised. I got a call from the network saying, “We’re not going to make a pilot for this.” I said, “Oh, all right.” They said, “We’re going to go straight to series!” So it was a six-episode order with the contingency that I write them all. I knew something was up before I got that call, because on Facebook all of a sudden I was being getting friended by IFC executives. [Laughs.] That was kind of the hint that something was in the works. That’s how social media works now, right? If social media was existing during World War II, and if all my Japanese friends were unfriending me, I think I would’ve anticipated Pearl Harbor. That’s sort of how it works.

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Revisiting Bullz-Eye’s interviews with “The Expendables”

Perhaps it was always too much to hope that Bullz-Eye might be able to secure an interview with Sylvester Stallone in connection with the release of his all-star action extravaganza, “The Expendables” (not that we’ll ever stop trying ’til we get one), but at the very least, we can take a look back at some of the other stars of the film with whom we’ve spoken and reminisce about coming aboard the production in the first place.

“(Sly and I) are sort of friendly. We’ve been seeing each other on and off, just saying ‘hello’ in Beverly Hills. Even though I live in Europe, I’ve been back here on occasion, and we always talk about the good old days. And I just got a call, and he said, ‘You want to check out this script, see this character, and see if you like it…?’ And he was very nice about it. He’s a down-to-earth kind of guy. And I read it, and I loved the writing. It’s, like, I realize that, with Sly, when he sits down and writes something, that’s when he changes things in his career and lots of people take notice. He’s a terrifc writer. I mean, look, he wrote one of the better screenplays ever, ‘Rocky.’ I mean, that’s a fricking classic. So I read the script, and I was, like, ‘This is great! It’s like ‘The Dirty Dozen’ with a sense of humor, and the action is terrific!’ And he wanted me to play this crazy Swede… (Laughs) …who’s this over-the-top, super-dangerous guy, but he wrote the character in a very funny way, kind of like Nick Nolte. One of those guys who drinks too much and who’s, like, a loose cannon. So I was very interested straight away, and then we had some talks. I had a couple of ideas, and he was very, very nice about it. And he actually developed a friendship between me and him that we’ve had in real life, and also the stuff that goes back to ‘Rocky IV,’ where we do have a falling out in the movie, but then we go back and forth, and…it’s really good. I think people are going to enjoy it. ” – Dolph Lundgren

(Be sure to check out my 2008 interview with Dolph, too!)

“I was privileged and honored to work side by side with Sly. Most of my scenes take place with him, and I’m telling you, man, he took me under his wing, and it was a brilliant thing to be able to be under one of the Trinity. There’s a trinity of action stars: Sly, Arnold, and Bruce. And to say that I know all of them is…it’s just a really unique place to be. What can I say? They invented what the movie-going experience is right now. I don’t know what else to say. ‘Rocky,’ ‘Rambo,’ just everything he’s done is iconic, and it wasn’t lost on me. I love the man, and…I’ll just tell you this: I don’t die. I’ll give that away for you. And I can’t wait to do another one, ‘cause Sly’s the king of the sequels…and in my whole career, I’ve never done a sequel to any one of my projects. So I’m, like, ‘Sly, I’m ready for ‘Expendables 2,’ okay?’” – Terry Crews

“I was actually down at my ranch in South Texas, and my guys called me and said, ‘Hey, we’re trying to get you a meeting with Sylvester Stallone. He’s casting a movie called ‘The Expendables.’’ Several months went by, and he’d already cast ‘The Expendables,’ but he still wanted to meet me for potentially playing the part of Dan Paine. So I went in to meet Sly, it was the first time I’d ever met him, and I’m a huge fan. I remember watching ‘Rocky’ back in ’76 or whenever it was, then getting up the next morning, drinking eggs, and running down the street…and now here I am meeting with this guy! (Laughs) And, again, it was just two guys from two different backgrounds, but Sly has a big athletic background, with all of his college activities, his boxing, and all of his action movies, and he’s a big MMA pro wrestling fan as well. So we were still coming from two different worlds, but we met in his office one day, we hit it off like we’d known each other for ten years, and he offered me the part on the spot. I accepted on the spot, I was in ‘The Expendables,’ and it was an absolute thrill of a lifetime to be in that movie with all those people.” – Steve Austin

And, lastly, although our conversation took place well before he’d signed on to do “The Expendables,” I’d be remiss if I didn’t also offer up a link to…

The interview took place in conjunction with the DVD release of Roberts’ very first film, “King of the Gypsies,” and whenever I think back on our conversation, this is the story I remember most fondly:

“I’d been working about two or three weeks (on ‘King of the Gypsies’), and when we went into our night shoot, I had my first scene with (Sterling Hayden), in the back of a car. I show up early like I always do, and he shows up late, like he always did, and I’m waiting for him to get ready. The assistant director comes and knocks on the door and says, ‘Mr. Hayden would like to speak with you.’ And I’m, like, ‘Cool, man, great!’ So I go over there, and I knock on the door. (does a perfect Sterling Hayden growl) ‘Come in, come in!’ So I open up this door, and it reeks of hash! And he says to me, ‘Have a seat, son! So, what are we doing tonight?’ I say, ‘We’re doing scene 85.’ ‘I know the number! What the fuck happens?’ I say, ‘Well, it’s a night scene, and you want to bring me back into the fold because you don’t think your son is too capable but you think your grandson is,’ I being the grandson. He goes, ‘Okay! How’re your improvisations?’ I said, ‘I’m pretty good.’ He says, ‘Well, that’s what we’re doing tonight: we’re gonna improv the whole thing. Now that I know what we’re doing, we’re just gonna shoot from the hip, okay?’ I said, ‘Great!’ He said, ‘Y’wanna get high with me?’ I said, ‘No, if I get high, I can’t talk.’ And he says, ‘Well, I can only talk when I’m high!’ (imitates Hayden’s raspy laugh) So that’s kinda how we started. And we bonded, and I probably haven’t ever enjoyed working with an actor more until I worked with my wife.” – Eric Roberts

  

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