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Sledge Hammer! star David Rasche on the fun of puncturing American gun culture

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

For more Sledge Hammer! coverage in advance of this weekend’s 30th-anniversary reunion event, read our interview with the show’s creator, Alan Spencer.

David Rasche has spent much of his career playing comically flawed authority figures in films like Burn After Reading and In The Loop, along with TV shows like Veep, on which he has a recurring guest part as Speaker Of The House Jim Marwood. But his work as the title character of the mid-’80s ABC cop spoof Sledge Hammer! remains his most enduring role. One of the best decisions made by Alan Spencer, the show’s creator, was to offer Rasche the part without even asking for an audition. (In fact, Spencer said in an A.V. Club interview published yesterday that merely reading reviews of the actor’s work was enough to make him insist on casting Rasche.) Rasche’s combination of dramatic training and Second City comedy experience made him the ideal choice to send up the grim, violent cop archetype that infested pop culture in the “tough on crime” ’80s.

Over the course of two seasons, Rasche played Sledge with a naivete that somehow made the nihilistic, Magnum-toting misogynist a sympathetic figure. Sledge often surveys his world with a strained squint, as if the character is perpetually trying to squeeze a complex world into his narrow worldview. And while Sledge is a bumbler—his swagger can be deflated by an obstacle as minor as a beaded curtain—Rasche also possessed enough versatility to give the NRA poster boy a convincing touch of emotional depth, as in the series finale, when Sledge’s ex-wife remarries and he has to confront his deep loneliness.

Perhaps most importantly, Rasche never sells out Sledge or winks to the audience. Even though Sledge Hammer!’s writing self-reflexively lampoons the conventions of contemporary film and TV, Rasche’s performance doesn’t retreat to that “meta” level—he plays Sledge straight. The resulting combination of earnestness, broad physical humor, and barely detectable vulnerability endeared Sledge to “Hammerheads,” the show’s cultish followers. Rasche is reuniting with Spencer and his castmates, Anne-Marie Martin (who played Sledge’s partner Dori Doreau) and Harrison Page (who played supervisor Capt. Trunk), at SF Sketchfest this weekend. In advance of the event, Rasche spoke to The A.V. Club about his start on the show, its influence, and the blithe fun of working on a program that was ranked 60th (out of 61) in the ratings.

The A.V. Club: Sledge Hammer! is such a unique beast, especially as ’80s network TV goes. How do you describe the show to someone who’s never heard of it?

David Rasche: Well, let’s see. It’s like Clint Eastwood on a bad day, or Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s just an overeager cop who—it really wouldn’t work unless there was an element of innocence about [Sledge]. Because the guy can’t just be malevolent. If he’s malevolent, he’s just this terrible, fucking violent asshole! And that’s not what it is. It’s someone who apparently did not understand—right?—he does not get it. I don’t know if you remember the one where he’s shooting target practice in his apartment. And he’s yelling [at his noisy neighbors], “Hey, I’m trying to do something here!” He doesn’t understand.

AVC: He’s so myopic. He just sees what’s in front of him at any given moment, and that’s somehow endearing.

DR: Yes. I think that’s probably right. And also—we heard that they used clips from the show as an example of how not to act, for police. Training examples of how not to do it. Truly, they did!

You know, there’s a line—I’m not a pacifist, but I’m not a violent person. I mean, I have a gun. I shoot guns, but I wouldn’t say I love guns. It doesn’t work that way for me. But there was an odd sort of line. Some liked the show because it was such an obvious parody of that over-violent reaction to things. And some people liked it because they took it at face value. They thought it was great that Sledge would shoot stuff! As a matter of fact, there was one ad—and this is what I was getting to—they did a commercial before the show was on. What they had was, they had a room, which was an arsenal. And it was my bedroom. I think I didn’t do it. I put up enough of a fuss that we didn’t actually shoot it. They were probably not very happy with me, but it crossed the line. It made him into this total Nazi maniac.

AVC: So you aware of that, then, from the beginning. You didn’t want to push the character beyond certain boundaries.

DR: The whole point of it was to make fun of that. For instance, one of the first conversations I had, with our stunt coordinator. It was one of the first fights we had, and he said, “Well, here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to hit him in the face, and then you’re going to poke his eye out, kick him in the balls,” and I said, “Hang on here. Let’s do that fight, and now let’s see how we can poke fun at that fight.” So that was always the task of the stunt coordinator, to create funny fights. Because that was the whole deal, to poke fun at Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, all these tough guys. To poke a hole in their balloon, let the air out a little bit.

AVC: The gunfights were usually more zany than gruesome—people getting guns shot out of their hand instead of getting shot themselves. Presumably part of that was to keep it ABC-appropriate, but it also makes the fighting funnier.

DR: Absolutely. Everybody else was doing the “shooting people” stuff. It’s a parody! It’s a comedy. And to have that kind of actual death didn’t seem to me to be appropriate. [Laughs.] Even in the pilot, there was anonymous gunfire from somewhere in a high-rise. And I got a bazooka and took down the building. You never saw the [shooter]—I guess you can understand he was probably killed, but his death, the reaction was so appropriate.

AVC: A lot of people watched the show as kids. And that worked out because the show could be raunchy sometimes, and certainly Sledge loved guns, but there was very rarely any gore. So it was pretty much okay for a kid to watch.

DR: Yes, it was. And that was—[Laughs.]—and that was my demographic, which was a little embarrassing at the time.

AVC: Was it really?

DR: Well, sure. You’d love to have beautiful young women in the 25-to-30 range, but—[Laughs.] In the end, what I always said was, it’ll all work out because all those 12-year-olds will grow up to be studio executives, and they’ll say, “Hey, remember Sledge? Let’s hire him!” And it kind of happened! A lot of the people, yourself included, who were in that group and have since grown up—I can’t tell you how many times, and this is men and women, people talk to me about it, and they are so affectionate. They say, “Oh, my dad and I used to watch that show. That was our show.” That, I have to say, is very gratifying to note. We provided something where families could get together and laugh at this goofiness.

AVC: Sure. And so many of the jokes would go over a kid’s head, but then the parents could watch along.

DR: I wasn’t going to go to this comedy festival [the SF Sketchfest reunion] because I’ve got so much going on here, and I thought, “I just cannot take this time.” And then, I’m doing this show Veep, you know, with Julia-Louis Dreyfus? And I was on the set, and the writers of Veep came up to me and said, “I loved that show.” So I thought, all right, I’ll go to San Francisco, make the time, and go to this comedy festival. I have to say, truly, that was a motivating factor. The guys who are writing for Veep, they’re my idols. I mean, Jesus Christ, these guys are smart and so funny. That show is so great.

AVC: Alan Spencer pursued you for the part after you appeared in a Dudley Moore movie, right?

DR: Yes. Unfortunately, it was a very disappointing movie. It was called Best Defense, and it was a huge disappointment for everybody because Dudley Moore and Eddie Murphy never appeared together. What happened was, they wrote the movie, and they ended up casting both of them, but it wasn’t really a vehicle for them. It was just a movie. People didn’t like it. I mean, I had the best part. Well, and I got the chance to work with Dudley Moore, who was just hysterical. I tell you, the sheer volume of inventiveness of Dudley Moore. Every time we did a take—every take!—there was something different, something funny. But I had a wonderful part.

And yes, [Spencer] offered me the role [of Sledge after Best Defense]. Those were the days when you didn’t want to do television. There was a time when television was sort of frowned upon among people who wanted to be serious artists. John Travolta kind of exploded that. He was one of the [actors] who made that go away. So the idea of doing a television show and having to move to Los Angeles—and here I am [in New York] doing theater. I thought, “I don’t know.” And I just read the thing, and I said, “This is really funny. This is just really, really funny. So let’s do it.”

AVC: So the comedy came across in the pilot script?

DR: It did! You know, the stuff that they were offering me [elsewhere] were these horrible sitcoms of the day, with the handsome boyfriend and all this trivial crap—I don’t know if you remember the shows from the ’70s and ’80s, but the majority were just—I didn’t want any part of them.

AVC: Yeah, they used to follow Sledge Hammer! with some terrible fairy tale sitcom [The Charmings].

DR: [Laughs.] We were on Friday nights opposite Miami Vice and Dallas. There were 61 shows on television at the time, and we were number 60. At number 61 was Tracey Ullman. So thanks to her for giving us a little cushion off the bottom. But you can imagine, we were opposite two of the biggest shows ever on television, both on Friday night. We were a distant third. Then they did a campaign the second year that only Sledge Hammer had the courage to up against Cosby [on Thursday nights].

AVC: It was so different from anything else on TV, especially at the time. Was everybody working on the show aware of how unusual it was?

DR: I think we were. The show has been, I guess I’d say, borrowed from. Ace Ventura, his car was all shot up. I think we were the first to have—Sledge Hammer’s cop car was the first one to be all shot up. That was my idea, that he drew so much fire—[Laughs.] Of course, all that stuff has been done. A lot of these jokes that are ours, I’ve seen in the intervening years in various things. We had some wonderful writers. Alan did a wonderful job—the pilot is great. And we had this great crew of writers. Tino Insana, who was John Belushi’s first partner. Mike Reiss and Al Jean, don’t know if you know who they are.

AVC: Of course, they’d go on to help shape The Simpsons. I was re-watching one episode over the weekend, and there’s a scene where Sledge is being praised by Trunk and Doreau flirts with him. Then Sledge bolts awake in a cold sweat, and he says, “What a terrible nightmare!” And I thought, “I saw that joke on The Simpsons five years later” [in “Treehouse Of Horror II”]. You could tell that these guys had cut their teeth on Sledge.

DR: [Laughs.] Yeah. They were terrific. We had Mert Rich and Brian [Pollack]—wonderful writers. For me, there was no better opportunity, coming from Second City and loving to be involved in comedy. Every day, you’d walk on the set and say, “Okay, now we’re in a prison cell. What are we going to do? Are we going to fall off the mattress? What have we got?” With the wonderful directors we had and the terrific cast—Anne-Marie and Harrison—we did five scenes a day and we’d need five new comic ideas. Day after day, week after week.

AVC: On the set? You’d be generating these ideas on set?

DR: Yeah! We’d have a field day. You could not have asked for more fun than that.

AVC: Speaking of your castmates, there’s an episode where Sledge and Capt. Trunk stage a fight so that Hammer can be perceived as a “rogue cop” and infiltrate a vigilante’s group. In the middle of the fake tussle, Sledge complains, “You’re not giving me anything to play against here!” Which is especially funny because in reality, Harrison Page did the opposite—gave you so much energy to play against. What was it like to play scenes with him?

DR: The thing about Harrison is, he is the dearest person you’ll ever meet. He’s so kind, and if you thought that he was a tough loudmouth, then you haven’t met the man. Because he is tender and caring and so kind. And he was always nervous. He was always afraid [his performance] wasn’t enough, or he wasn’t doing it right. That’s one of his dear qualities. Rather than being arrogant or some sort of false confidence that’s offputting, he was a thousand percent trying his best—hoping it was good enough, worried that it wasn’t.

And of course, Anne-Marie. If you’re going to put together a show like this, and you need an Angie Dickinson [type], who better than she? She was gorgeous, and she was a delightful person. We were very lucky to have this combination of people. It doesn’t happen all the time.

AVC: The presence of Doreau helps soften the edge of Sledge’s antics. But you kept her from turning into a pure straight-man type. She got some comedy moments of her own, too.

DR: A lot of that is her. She’s very talented, so whatever she had to do—she could turn her reaction into moments that were funny on their own. She wasn’t just feeding [Sledge’s comedy]. You know, you can’t be a bad boy without somebody scolding you. But she could do it with such exasperation—delicious exasperation! She was the master. You look at Abbott & Costello—not that we were them—but you tend to not notice the person doing the reacting. In this case, you couldn’t take your eyes off of her, because she was and is such a beauty. But also, I have to say, in terms of people, she was so sweet and kind, and that comes through. You believe the person.

AVC: One of the best episodes of the series is “Desperately Seeking Dori,” where Doreau basically turns into Sledge. Do you recall that one?

DR: Of course!

AVC: She’s so funny acting like Sledge, but the interesting thing is, you have to raise your own “Sledge-ness” to keep up with her and remain the “alpha Sledge,” so to speak. It’s fascinating in this episode to watch you half-delighted and half-dismayed to have another one of yourself. Do you remember playing that one?

DR: I do, I do. That was a funny one. Another of the funniest ones was when Sledge lost his gun. He went into a bar, and he was talking about his gun, and the bartender thought he was talking about his girlfriend. “She gets so hot!” and so on. Then Sledge comes back having found the gun again. Bartender says congratulations. And he says, “Yeah. Now I’m gonna go out and shoot her!” [Laughs.] That’s great writing. There were a bunch of things these guys came up with. We did, what, 43 episodes? [It was 41. —Ed.] No small number. That’s a lot of shows to keep up with that one conceit and keep it interesting.

AVC: The show quickly ventured beyond this concept of a Dirty Harry parody. You did Elvis, Humphrey Bogart, A Clockwork Orange. There were so many pop culture references.

DR: That was one of the sad things about the show’s demise. Because we could have gone anywhere. “Sledge Hammer goes to space.” “Sledge Hammer goes underwater.” They were clever enough to have created and evolved a character who—he didn’t have to just keep shooting jaywalkers. He could behave inappropriately and violently almost anywhere.

AVC: One of the funniest things about Sledge is that he comes across as earnestly, matter-of-factly believing all the nihilistic stuff that he says. Were you ever tempted to play the character in a more winking manner? Because you don’t wink. You don’t let yourself off the hook as you play him.

DR: No. I have to say, I really appreciated the fact that they took away the laugh track after six shows or something like that. Part of the fun of it was to do a show that, if you were a viewer, you could turn on the television, look at it, and say, “Oh, a cop show!” And you’d have to watch for five minutes before you’d say, “Wait a minute, what the hell is going on here?” It really had the look, the feel, the tone of any cop show. Any Clint Eastwood movie. It had that serious patina, and then it just went bizarre.

AVC: You related this anecdote about being the 60th-ranked show out of 61 on the air. What was it like working on such a low-rated show? Was there an air of gloom about it?

DR: Never. We just had fun. We did what we did. We were up against Miami Vice and Dallas, John! Are you kidding? Those are two of the biggest juggernaut shows ever. So we were really happy to be on. I mean, we knew what we were. We were this weird, strange thing that was poking holes in sacred cows. That’s mixing metaphors. [Laughs.] But whatever! You know what I mean. Cop shows were sacred, guns were sacred. We loved our serious cops and solving crimes, like Dragnet. Right? No screwing around here, no sir. This is not funny. To poke holes in that was delightful.

AVC: In “All Shook Up,” the Elvis impersonation episode, how did you confront the challenge of impersonating Elvis without being able to sing any actual Elvis Presley songs?

DR: I wrote those songs! Nobody on the show was musical, and I write music. I wrote a song called, “I Wish I Was Married To Your Wife.” [Laughs.] One of my great jazz tunes. But, yeah, I knew they needed it, so I wrote some music. We couldn’t buy anything, but it had to sound sort of like [Elvis]. I watched endless hours of him. Listened to him on tape. Ran it in the car all the time. I did my due diligence! But you know, it’s not me doing Elvis, it’s Sledge doing Elvis, so I’m another step removed from the whole thing.

AVC: Did you enjoy getting to try on these different guises? Like RoboCop Sledge, or Crocodile Dundee Sledge.

DR: It was a dream. Who could ask for more? I think that RoboCop was one of my favorite ones, where my hand kept moving [of its own accord]. We had some terrific directors. [Charles] Dubin—

AVC: Bill Bixby did a bunch of episodes in the second season.

DR: Well, I don’t know if you remember Bill Bixby, but talk about delightful people. When he came—not that anybody was depressed, but when he appeared, he was so ebullient. He had such an effervescent, childlike, eager energy going. He just picked everybody up. He put that show on his shoulders and said, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had.” He was completely collaborative and encouraging. It was also sort of a sandbox for him because, you know, doing Courtship Of Eddie’s Father [an early-’70s family sitcom that starred Bixby]—how interesting can that be to do every week? He did the Bogart show, and he was a fan of Bogart. So he went to Bogart movies and talked to the DPs and tried to get it just so. There’s nothing on like it now. It was a peculiar moment, and it was so great to be part of it.

AVC: How long did you have to practice that gun move in the opening sequence?

DR: Not long! I’m good with a gun, John! [Laughs.] It was the end of the pilot. We had shot the pilot, and we hadn’t shot the opening credits. It was like 11 o’clock, 11:30, and everybody was moving slowly. They finally figured out exactly what they wanted it to be. You couldn’t aim a gun at the lens. That was no good. We had to figure out something else. So I think I did it, like, twice. That was it. There was no time. It was the last thing shot for the pilot.

But we knew right away that we had something. When the show got picked up, you know, they have these “upfront” things [presentations to advertisers] in May. And the response was over the moon. People loved it. Everybody came up to me: “God, it’s so funny, that show!” So we knew we were onto something, and there was definitely an audience. I don’t know. Had we had something like Miami Vice as a lead-in, who knows what would have happened. But we didn’t. We were out there in the desert. [Laughs.]

AVC: Of course, one benefit of that ratings plight is that it created one of the most famous season finales ever, when Sledge blows up the city with the nuclear bomb. Were you all really confident the show would be canceled at that point?

DR: No one knew! No one knew. You know what, they just did the same thing. I just did a show—DirecTV is doing programming, and I did a show called Billy & Billie. And they did the same thing. [They weren’t] sure it was going to be picked up, so they killed off all the characters.

AVC: What about the ultimate series finale? When Sledge proposes to Doreau—were you happy with the way the show wrapped up?

DR: You know, I don’t remember that. I’m that old. I was never unhappy with the shows. I didn’t get into [the writing]. I had an area. My area was my character. My area was what they gave me to do. My concentration was on accepting that and trying to do it as best as I could. Alan was the head writer, and he was off with the writers, and they did that part. I was not very judgmental about the direction of the show. I had enough on my plate just to succeed doing the show.

How old were you, John, when the show was on?

AVC: Only 5 or 6.

DR: Yeah, that’s what I thought!

AVC: But what I admire about it in adulthood—I taped it. We had to load up the VCR every time Sledge was on because I was going to watch them over and over again. And what I admire about the show is how, when I go back to it 10 years later, and 10 years after that, I discover new things. That’s a testament to what we talked about earlier, that cross-generational appeal that it has.

DR: It’s one of the great shows. They were terrific writers. It’s all very nice to have a character and to have a job, for me. But if you don’t have the material, what do you do? I admire them.

I’m glad you like the show so much. You know, it’s a little disappointing. I don’t know why—I don’t know if you know this, but we were hugely popular around the world. This show was a smash all over the world. I go to Germany, people can’t believe it. It was a huge deal in Germany. In England, I’d have people park my car and say, “Are you Sledge?” South America—Argentina, Ecuador. In New Zealand, it was second to The Cosby Show, it was so popular.

But for some reason, Americans? I don’t know. They didn’t get it like the rest of the world. I don’t know why that is, but I can tell you, the response around the world was enormous. It’s sort of disappointing when they do, on television, retrospectives of cops, Sledge is never in the mix. It’s NYPD Blue and stuff like that. We were just odd enough to be outside those things.

AVC: It does defy genre. But it still has this cult following.

DR: Oh, you bet it does.

AVC: What do you make of that? Maybe it wasn’t the hugest hit when it was on, but it has a dedicated following.

DR: It’s curious. I don’t know. That’s what I’m saying. I went to New Zealand when it was showing, and I was like a god. It was on the front of the newspaper: “Sledge Hammer to visit Auckland.” It was a major event! Something about the American sense of humor. I think part of it was, there was a lot of tongue-in-cheek misogynist jokes. Purposely making fun of misogyny.

AVC: Well, also, Sledge is a caricature of this part of the American psyche. Maybe in other countries, where they’re used to viewing America from afar, they got that joke more readily.

DR: That could be. That could absolutely be. Because as you know, there is a very strong gun culture [here], just not laughing. Dirty Harry, not a funny movie. Deadly, deadly, deadly serious. Everybody loved that. [Adopts gruff Clint Eastwood voice.] “Go ahead, make my day.” Well, you know, Clint… [Laughs.] We tried to puncture that.