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Joe Mantegna brings an old favorite back to TV

”Spenser: For Hire” is set to return with a series of television movies on A&E

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Robert B. Parker doesn’t want to badmouth Spenser: For Hire, the 1985-88 ABC drama based on his best-selling mysteries. ”It was good to me,” the endearingly gruff writer growls from his home in Massachusetts. ”I thought it was a pretty good television show, but that’s sort of like being the tallest building in Keokuk, Iowa.”

He’s considerably higher on Small Vices, the first in a series of new Spenser TV movies that promise to remain more faithful to the books. Parker penned the script (based on his 1997 novel, in which our hero probes the murder of a rich coed) and had a voice in casting. Joe Mantegna (The Rat Pack) replaces Robert Urich as Spenser — no first name — the streetwise, book-smart Boston PI. ”People have said, ‘Where’s Robert?”’ says Parker. ”Well, that was then, this is now. We’re trying to reinvent the franchise.”

So far, they’re succeeding. Mantegna brings a lighter, more whimsical touch to the role than the ploddingly earnest Urich did. ”Joe had read the books before we ever talked about this, and he understands the character,” says Parker. ”He nailed the part.”

Vices also hits home in its depiction of Spenser’s relationship with his live-in girlfriend, psychologist Susan Silverman (Marcia Gay Harden, taking over for Barbara Stock). Readers will appreciate the movie’s attention to detail, like when these gourmands use food prep as foreplay, with their flirtatious banter in the kitchen inevitably leading to the bedroom. Says Parker, ”Network television’s idea of sex is a back rub.”

Parker is clearly more comfortable on cable — A&E has given him the kind of creative freedom he never had with ABC. On Spenser: For Hire, ”I read every script and made suggestions, but no one paid any attention,” he recalls. ”I knew they weren’t going to, but I got paid to do it.” The money doesn’t flow so freely from A&E, but Parker doesn’t mind: ”Networks pay more, but they also f— with it more.”

One downside of filming on a tighter budget is that unlike Spenser: For Hire, Vices had to use Toronto as a substitute for the more pricey Boston. Explains Parker, ”We can get a lot more movie on the screen for the same money there.” As a result, Bean Town won’t play a major role in A&E’s Spenser movies (the next, Thin Air, starts shooting in October).

Other elements from the books do appear, however, like Spenser’s brooding sidekick, Hawk (Shiek Mahmud-Bey, stepping in for Avery Brooks), Mob boss Gino Fish (Vincent Guastaferro), and sultry attorney Rita Fiore (Laila Robins). And watch for Parker in a cameo as shadowy operative Ives. Teases the novice thespian, ”Did the term ‘towering performance’ come to mind?”

Not quite, although Parker has an impressively polished screen presence. Still, it’s not like he has the time to pursue an acting career, what with writing the Spenser novels and TV movies, launching a future A&E film franchise based on his Jesse Stone mysteries, and creating a female detective, Sunny Randall, whom Helen Hunt hopes to play in a series of features (the first Sunny book, Family Honor, comes out Sept. 7). Who does this guy think he is — Stephen King? ”Now that he’s injured,” Parker chuckles darkly about the writer’s recent roadside accident, ”maybe I can catch up to him.”