With Zev Buffman at the creative end, Ruth Eckerd Hall brings Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer to the stage

Posted January 14, 2018 6:07 p.m. EST

An actor famous for playing a radio station manager will star this week in the world premiere of a radio play.

Mike Hammer: Encore for Murder brings Gary Sandy, who played Andy Travis on WKRP in Cincinnati, to Ruth Eckerd Hall. And the star power was summoned to Clearwater by a phone call from the very top.

The show brings Zev Buffman, who produced 41 Broadway shows, into the creative end of a play for just the second time since he took over as Ruth Eckerd's CEO in 2012. It also represents an expanded use of the 200-seat Murray Theatre, now home to Hat Trick Theatre and youth productions, since it was refurbished two years ago. The theater has been one part of Ruth Eckerd's sweeping, multimillion dollar expansion, and so far, has been under-utilized. Encore for Murder will introduce the "Mike Hammer Series," Buffman said, as well as expand the reach of the Murray.

Buffman, 87, has Broadway producing credits that include numerous successful revivals including Peter Pan, Oklahoma! and West Side Story. In 1981 he ushered in one of Elizabeth Taylor's first substantial stage roles in a revival of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes.

But at Ruth Eckerd, he has mostly left the creative end to his directors. Buffman in 2012 made an exception, working closely on The BBC Mysteries, a radio theater adaptation of the Agatha Christie book. For help, he brought in a ringer -- Gary Sandy.

Sandy returned to Ruth Eckerd last year to direct a youth production of Bye Bye, Birdie. His long career started with live soap operas and has included numerous television roles and a national tour of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Ann-Margret. He didn't hesitate to say yes to Mike Hammer.

"I'm doing it because it's Zev Buffman," Sandy said. "If Zev Buffman asks me to do anything, I will do it."

The show also stars Netflix and Discovery Channel veteran Mary Rachel Dudley as Rita Vance, who goes missing.

More than just another play, Mike Hammer promises to bring a more theatrical dimension to a radio theater format that is enjoying a revival. Actors will move on a set embellished with visuals depicting 33 graphic scenes, as original music, and 98 sound effects by an on-stage Foley artist paint a film noir mood made popular by Stacy Keach's portrayals of the iconic Mickey Spillane character.

Mike Hammer also kicks off a year of commemoration of Spillane, one of the world's most popular mystery writers in the 1950s and 1960s, around what would have been his 100th birthday. Two of those events will come in the form of stage adaptations of two other Spillane novels at Ruth Eckerd.

While the basic plot came from Spillane, this story is written by his protege, Max Allan Collins, an Oscar-nominated writer himself (for Road to Perdition, based on Collins' graphic novel) and the heir to Spillane's legacy. Collins, a lifelong mystery buff and author of the Dick Tracy comic strip for 16 years, is channeling Spillane to complete more than a dozen unfinished manuscripts he discovered at the writer's estate after his death in 2006.

Collins recalled sifting through reams of paper at the writer's estate in Murrells Inlet, S.C. Collins had written several articles defending Spillane's work, which was criticized as being violent or sexist, before the two men ever met. They formed a long friendship and it was Spillane's wish that Collins finish his Mike Hammer books.

"We gathered all the material we could find in three offices," said Collins. "This included stuff that was on desks but also in desk drawers, from filing cabinets, piled here, piled there. And we sat at the dining room table with literally stacks of papers in front of us. And we sorted through, and sorted and sorted. And every now and then somebody would yell, 'I've got a Hammer!'?"

Though Encore for Murder was just one page, it went into that pile. The novels often ended with Mike Hammer explaining to the bad guy how he made the case. He often wrote the end first. Holding the manuscripts evoked a sense of awe.

Encore for Murder began as a three-hour audio book, read by Keach. Collins shortened it to two hours for its first airing in 2007, at the International Mystery Writers Festival in Owensboro, Ky. -- an event founded by Buffman before he came to Ruth Eckerd, and starring Sandy.

At Buffman's request, Collins trimmed it again, to 75 minutes. Buffman and director Rich Rice, former head of Eckerd College's theater department, are looking for a rat-a-tat-tat flow. "It really is an odd hybrid," Rice said. "It's just lots of fun to think about different ways of doing stuff. I'm outside my comfort zone for sure, but that's all right."

So is Sandy. When Buffman called in November, he told the actor that he'd have to memorize great swaths of narration.

"I just went through the floor," Sandy said. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' I'm telling you, this is nonstop monologue. I mean, I've done a couple of one-man shows in my life, but that was back when I had a brain."

Now Sandy is not only on board, he wants to push the envelope further. While Hammer will fight and sometimes shoot at villains with "Betsy," his .45, the actor has been toying with the idea of carrying on conversations with other characters as if they were next to him in space, even as actors read those parts from across the stage.

"Let's say that I'm supposed to be at a cocktail party at Sardi's," he said. "There might be finger food. Maybe he pantomimes picking up things, eating, wiping his mouth, talking to imaginary people who are next to him. I'm hoping that this central base becomes whatever I can make you believe that it is."

Buffman hopes to establish mystery theater on the stage in a way that at least approaches other media.

"As a Broadway producer, I recognize one glaring thing," Buffman said. "When you look at television, 50 percent of what you see, give or take, is a mystery thriller, cops and robbers. When you get best-seller fiction, 50 percent plus. Films? A huge chunk of them are also substantially the same. Broadway? Zip. We may get one a year or two if we're lucky."

The theater will host two more adaptations of Mickey Spillane novels in May and October, Buffman said. It has given the octogenarian producer a new sense of pride.

"There are celebrations planned around the country that will be better known," he said. "This is the return of a concept to Tampa Bay. This is not a one-off. This is truly the theatrical premiere. And if it goes well we are going to start a tradition."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.