3 March 1997



Sam Raimi's gone big time. But he hasn't gone Hollywood.

"We're too busy to go Hollywood," jokes Raimi, the filmmaker and producer who first gained cult fame more than a decade ago as the young director of the loopy and kinetic Evil Dead horror movies.

But entertainment life goes on.

And now Raimi, whose stylish, comedy-laced ghoul-movie carnivals never crossed over to the big-money mainstream, finds himself atop a thriving pop culture fiefdom that includes the globally popular syndicated TV shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.

In addition, he's about to launch his first colorful actionfest for a major network, Spy Game, a lighthearted, live-wire update of such 1960s spy shows as The Avengers, The
Man From U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy. It debuts at 7 tonight on ABC.

Raimi would never engage in extravagant self-promotion. He's way too modest and sweet-natured to proclaim himself an emperor of cool, new-wave eye candy for the masses. In fact, Raimi and longtime business partner Rob Tapert are just beginning to savor their good fortune.

But then Raimi and Tapert dreamed up Hercules, a syndicated series that debuted in early 1995 and quickly developed a loyal following for its high-energy mix of fantasy, cheeky comic dialogue and the Hong Kong-style action sequences that Raimi adores.

It didn't hurt that long-haired Herc was played by a fabulously good-looking actor, Kevin Sorbo. He's a hubba-hubba action hero for the '90s.

Hercules was soon followed by Xena, the eye-popping spinoff starring Lucy Lawless as a leather-clad warrior princess who never backs down from a good fight. The athletic Lawless, like Sorbo, has become a pop icon, feted at fanfests by devoted "Hercheads" and "Xenaphiles."

Raimi began directing at age 13 in Birmingham, Mich., with homemade Super-8 movies, including a 30-minute horror short that became the spark for the original Evil Dead. He met Tapert at Michigan State University in the late 1970s, where they teamed up with Raimi's longtime pal Bruce Campbell.

The trio launched Renaissance Pictures on a shoestring budget and left MSU to finish Evil Dead, which was released to an instant cult buzz in 1983.

Campbell, the acting specialist in the group, starred in Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, which also included Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. He's since gone on to TV, starring in Fox's humor-fueled Western series The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. Campbell has a recurring sitcom role on ABC's Ellen and also has guest-starred in and directed episodes of Hercules.

Meanwhile, Raimi and Tapert rave on with Renaissance Pictures.

The duo produced Hard Target and Timecop, a pair of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. And Raimi has continued to direct his own films, including The Quick and the Dead, a hellzapoppin' 1995 Western that starred Sharon Stone. It drew mixed reviews
and quickly died at the box office.

It's the surprising success of Hercules and Xena that has Raimi and Tapert on a happy television roll.

And Spy Game represents their best chance yet to achieve major network success with their sly and lively storytelling, which features a breezy comic-book sensibility with a smart edge.

"Everthing that Rob and I have tried to work on has a little humor," says Raimi. That includes American Gothic, the darkly comic saga of an evil small-town sheriff. It fizzled instantly on CBS last year despite rave reviews.

"We shouldn't have made a show that was so serialized," says Raimi, alluding to Gothic's continuing storyline. "It was too much work for the audience if they'd missed the previous week's episode."

No such problem with Spy Game, which costars Linden Ashby (Mortal Kombat) and Allison Smith (Jerry McGuire) as an action-ready pair of Generation X spies in the post-Cold War
'90s. Each episode is a self-contained, enjoyably over-the-top espionage caper.

"We loved all the gadgets and gimmicks of the '60s spy movies, the James Bond pictures, The Avengers, Raimi says. "But we thought we could update it by putting it in the modern world, where all these spies are no longer employed by the Soviet Union
or the United States. They're now 'free agents' and in themselves are a threat."

And though the network crapshoot is always iffy, Spy Game should earn even more fans for Raimi's spirited approach to popular entertainment.

"Success has come later for me in these TV shows," Raimi says. "I appreciate how lucky I am. It's a lot of hard work. But it's also incredibly fulfilling to come up with a story. Or to listen to someone else come up with a story, and then go cast it
and produce it. That's so enjoyable."