In Memoriam: Mickey Spillane
by Alan Rode
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I was dreading this day. I knew Mickey Spillane was desperately ill, but I certainly wouldn’t say anything publicly out of respect for him and his family.
Like a jillion other people who spent time with him, I loved Mickey, and didn’t want to think about him not being around anymore.
I became acquainted with Mickey when his close friend Art Lyons had him as a guest at the Palm Springs Film Noir Festival several times when I was one of the guest moderators.
Mickey was one of the most friendly and disarmingly pleasant people that I’ve ever met.
Spillane dispassionately dispensed his philosophy of writing that I eagerly sought out as a junior acolyte requesting dispensation from Mount Olympus:
“Never spend more than two weeks writing a book—it’s a waste of time—throw it in the trash if you’re not done. Every book has a beginning, middle and an end. The trick is to make the ending better than the beginning and middle so they will run out to buy your next book. As R.H. Macy used to say, never disappoint your customers…”
Writing really seemed to be easy for Mickey. It was work worth doing well and he rapped it out of his old Smith-Corona in two-finger style like a blue collar artisan painting a house or mortaring bricks in a wall.
The world’s best selling fiction writer hated being called an author. “I’m just an old comic book writer”, he would say. And so he was. Mickey started out writing stories for “Captain Marvel”, created Mike Hammer after World War II and with the advent of the paperback book, never looked back.
Spillane knew that his books were the “chewing gum of American literature” Mike Hammer was lambasted by contemporary critics for being lurid, misogynistic and sadistic. After 53 books and over 200 million copies sold, Mickey pleaded ‘guilty’… all the way to the bank. Admirers were customers and writing was a trade, not an evocation. Critics might have griped, but the checks cleared and that’s all that mattered.
Mickey considered most Hollywood types as sharpies or phonies and he disliked the distortions of his work on screen. When I asked him about “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955), he replied, not unkindly, “I can’t really answer your question because that film is not my book.
Interestingly, his favorite Hollywood person was the actor, Basil Rathbone who impressed him as being authentic, erudite and with a great sense of humor. A lot like Mickey himself. Spillane’s Lite beer commercials gave the public a humorous look at the man. Mickey enjoyed telling stories about his Lite Beer commercial faux pau more than anything.
His Mike Hammer character, which spawned numerous films and television programs, was as tough as they came. Mickey looked the part and played it in a couple of movies, but underneath the famous crew cut and rough-hewn New Jersey features beat the heart of a pussycat.
Mickey didn’t swear, didn’t smoke, and was a Jehovah’s Witness, but he didn’t wear it on his sleeve and somebody else would have to tell you about it.
Spillane bantered about things like his cats, his wife, how his Dad chased him around with a banana stalk when he was a kid and the car that John Wayne gave him for a script. I wish I had written down all the stories.
After a screening of “The Girlhunters” (1963), he came up to me in the lobby afterward and said, “Boy, that was awful. All I did was take that dumb raincoat on and off”. Mickey was right. The movie was awful, but he was so much fun.
I have some pictures of us. At the Camelot Theatre and the Deck Restaurant in Palm Springs with friends, talking up a storm. My most treasured image though is the memory of my wife walking arm-in-arm with Mickey, both of them yakking like long lost friends, as we were all looking for our car at 2:00 am in a darkened parking lot.
Whether one appreciated his work or not—I certainly did—nobody can question his unbelievable success as a writer and as a literary icon of the previous century. I wonder how many attics and home libraries still hold worn Pocket Book editions of “I, the Jury”, “My Gun is Quick” and “One Lonely Night” waiting for the next generation of garage sales. Spillane’s writing was akin to heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey’s fighting style. Both men were relentless artists who stayed on the offense with each having a unique left hook that could knock you on your deletion.
I will personally miss Mickey Spillane, the friendly and humorous gentleman who was so generous with me for four summer days and then immediately sought me out the following year exclaiming, “Hey, big guy, whaddaya think—85 and still alive!”
The world is certainly less than the sum of its parts without the icon of the working class mystery no longer writing, telling stories and holding court.
Mickey, you’ve done well. Rest well.
Alan Rode is a film historian, writer, and board member of the Film Noir Foundation.
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