Monday, 30 July 2018

Nostalgic For My Childhood - The A-Team, at 35

The A-Team was created by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, from a pitch made to them by NBC president Brandon Tartikoff who called it a combination of “The Dirty Dozen, Mission Impossible, The Magnificent Seven, Mad Max and Hill Street Blues, with Mr. T driving the car.”  Although Cannell had high hopes for the show he told Debra Pickett of The Chicago Sun-Times it was George Peppard who said it would be a hit “before we ever turned on a camera.”  He was right.  The pilot, Mexican Slayride, aired on 23rd January 1983 and the first regular episode, which was broadcast after Super Bowl XVII on 30th January, reached 26.4% of the total US television audience.  It began showing in the UK on 29th July 1983 on ITV (Friday nights for the first series, Saturday tea-time for the remainder).
The A-Team (first series line-up)
clockwise from top left - Dwight Schultz, Melinda Culea, Dirk Benedict, George Peppard, Mr. T
"In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... the A-Team.”
The opening voice-over (by producer John Ashley), which started “ten years ago” in the first series.

An explosion, timed to the lighting of Hannibal's cigar, from
the episode "Deadly Maneuvers"
The strength of the concept was its simplicity.  The A-Team, formed during the Vietnam War from members of the 5th Special Forces Group, were tasked by their commanding officer, Colonel Morrison, to rob the Bank of Hanoi, which would help bring the war to an end.  They succeeded but the base and Morrison were destroyed in a Viet Cong attack, meaning all proof they were acting under orders was gone.  Arrested and imprisoned at Fort Bragg, they escaped before standing trial with their captor, Colonel Lynch, becoming their nemesis.  The Vietnam War was a recurring theme, beyond the opening credits, with several episodes featuring old friends or enemies from their combat days and the team always stood up for the oppressed, on the side of good - even if each adventure featured a lot of gunplay, fighting and things exploding (often for little reason).

Naturally episodic, the only overall story arc was the characters desire to evade their pursuers and clear their names.  Sticking to a proven formula - somebody in trouble finds the team and hires them to resolve the problem - certain elements became very popular, such as their ability to create weapons and vehicles from whatever junk and old parts happened to be in the building they were trapped or imprisoned in.  While initially a boost to the series popularity, this formula also became the downfall and ratings dropped during the fourth series, leading to a format change for the fifth (in 1986-1987).  With the A-Team finally apprehended, they began working for the CIA and were involved with international intrigue rather than taking on local thugs but the change wasn’t a success and the show came to an end after almost five years and 98 episodes.

Another popular element was the highly distinctive - and eminently hummable - theme tune (instantly recognisable to most people of a certain age), composed by Mike Post & Pete Carpenter.  Oddly enough, re-watching the pilot episode, I was surprised to see it wasn’t more prominently used.

Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, played by George Peppard, was the leader of the group, whose plans were effective if unorthodox.  A master of disguise, he smoked cigars, wore black gloves, had a ready smile and a terrific catchphrase in “I love it when a plan comes together”.  He was also an actor, specialising at playing monsters (like the Aquamaniac) in low-budget horror movies.

Although written with James Coburn in mind, George Peppard auditioned for the role - urged on by his young son - and won it.  Once a big Hollywood star, a run of poor career choices - as well as his alcoholism (which he kicked in 1978) and notoriously difficult personality on set - had led him to television and a career slump.  “I thought the pilot was terrific,” he told The LA Times in early 1983.  “I realised the role would give me the chance to do the sort of thing I've never been allowed to do in movies. I mean, I get to disguise myself as a Chinese person, a Skid Row drunk, a gay hairdresser - [I’ve] wanted to change from leading man to character actor for years now but have never been given the chance before.”  Cannell, who’d been one of the writers of Peppards earlier series Banecek, understood his occasional mood swings and offered him a big salary and creative control in the series.  In 1990, Peppard said, “It's the first time I ever had money in the bank.  It was a giant boost to my career, and made me a viable actor for other roles.”  Perhaps now his best-known role, it wasn’t without its difficulties.  Believing himself to be the bigger star, he was reportedly annoyed at Mr. T upstaging him with his public image and at one point their relationship was so bad he refused to speak to his colleague, sending messages through intermediaries (including Dirk Benedict).  In a later interview, Benedict suggested Robert Vaughan was added to the cast in the fifth series because of his long-standing friendship with Peppard, in the hope it would ease worsening tensions between Peppard and Mr. T.

"The A-Team are...the worst shots in the world."
- George Peppard

Lieutenant Templeton “Faceman” Peck, played by Dirk Benedict in the series, was the team’s smooth-talking con-man, who could lay his hands on anything they needed.  Effectively the second-in-command (and the team accountant), he was raised in a Christian orphanage and liked the ladies, though feared commitment.  In later series, he drove a distinctive white Corvette with orange trim.

Faceman was written with Dirk Benedict - popular from playing Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica - in mind though NBC didn’t want him as they felt he was too old.  The role in the pilot was played by Tim Dunigan though he later said “I look even younger on camera than I am, so it was difficult to accept me as a veteran of the Vietnam War.”  After watching the pilot, the network executives gave Cannell & Lupo their way and Benedict was cast.  His previous role - and the fact the series was produced at Universal and often filmed on the backlot - gave rise to a wonderful little sequence that featured afterwards in the credits, where a Cylon strolls past a puzzled looking Benedict.

"I enjoyed it immensely. By nature I'm terribly serious, so as an actor I tend to want to be silly. It was a comedic show, almost like a cartoon. We just had to hang on to enough reality to make it possible for adults to watch it. The actors I worked with, especially Mr T and Dwight Schultz, were very funny people. It was pretty much four years of laughter."
- Dirk Benedict

Captain H. M. “Howling Mad” Murdock, played by Dwight Schultz, was an ex-US Army pilot who was either mentally unstable or very good at pretending to be.  Although he piloted the team on the Hanoi Bank raid, he was never officially a member and so wasn’t tried by the military but interned in a Veteran’s Hospital.  Regularly broken out - often by Face - he accompanied the team on their missions, flying all manner of aircraft and often falling foul of BA, who was as annoyed by Murdock as Murdock was frustrated by him.  His insanity was never proven, with his symptoms varying from episode to episode, though his imaginary dog Billy was mentioned a few times.  The H. M. initials were never explained.

Dwight Schultz was a successful stage actor (he won a Drama-Logue Award in 1980 for a revival of Crucifer Of Blood, starring alongside Glenn Close) who began working on television in bit parts.  Cast as Murdock, he was told the role would be written out quickly but the reaction of the preview audience to his character was so strong he was not only written back in but went on to become one of the break-out stars of the show.  His wife, actress Wendy Fulton, appeared in the series three episode Bounty, with her character falling in love with Murdock.

“Cannell and Lupo were both writers, and wrote great scripts, but later on, they weren't writing them, others were.  The first seasons were the best...”
- Dwight Schultz

Bosco Albert “B. A.” Baracus, played by Mr. T, was the team’s highly skilled mechanic and resident strongman, quick to anger and - according to the novelisation - got his nickname of “Bad Attitude” due to his penchant for hitting officers while serving in Vietnam.  He hated to fly, pretended to dislike Murdock (referring to him as a “crazy fool” though often showing great friendship towards him), got on well with kids and didn’t drink.  He regularly commented about Hannibal being “on the jazz” and one of his key phrases was “I ain’t getting’ on no plane!”  The fantastic A-Team van was his.

According to Cannell, the show was built around the Baracus character which was essentially the public persona of Mr. T.  After serving in the US Army (as an MP), Mr. T became a bouncer in the Chicago area (to stop banned customers going back inside the premises after being evicted, he took to wearing their jewellery so they could quickly reclaim it) and then a bodyguard, drawing the attention of Sylvester Stallone who cast him as Clubber Lang in Rocky III (1982).  It’s in that film where he says, “I pity the fool” - he never once says it as B. A.  His popularity with the public - and his standing with the producers - created a lot of tension with George Peppard over the years and during the fourth series, Mr. T quit and had himself airlifted off-set (they were filming on an ocean liner at the time), only to be talked back into the show later on.

“It takes a smart guy to play dumb.”
- Mr. T’s response at a press conference when asked if he was as stupid as B. A. Baracus (I assume the reporter left quickly afterwards)

For the first series (and half of the second), the team was assisted by Amy Amanda Allen, a reporter who worked for the LA Courier.  She was replaced for the remainder of the second series by fellow reporter Tawnia Baker.
Amy Allen, played by Melinda Culea, drove the plot of the pilot episode, hiring the team to find her colleague Al Massey.  Becoming an unofficial fifth member of the team after that, she was often involved on various jobs (sometimes using her newspaper connections) but had little impact on the dynamic.  Her later absence was explained away by an overseas assignment in Jakarta - she was occasionally mentioned but never seen again.

Melinda Culea was an actress and model who relished the chance to play a feisty reporter but became increasingly unhappy with the role, feeling she didn’t have enough to do.  Peppard apparently considered her character to be a “fifth wheel” but, according to other cast and crew members, he was never less than kind to her on set.  An article in People magazine from January 1984 indicates her complaining didn’t go down well with the executive producers or studio heads and she was fired midway during the second series, only realising when she read a script and found she wasn’t included in it.  Peppard told the magazine, “We just put up with [her discontent] and said nothing,” but when the producers found out about the tension, “they were furious…. They felt that she was harassing the team.”  According to People, Culea told the producers the part wasn’t worthy of her and said, “if you can’t write the role better, you don’t need me.”

Tawnia Baker, played by Marla Heasley, was a reporter who’d heard about The A-Team through Amy and first appeared in the episode The Battle Of Bel Air.  Never fully incorporated into the line-up, she was dropped after  the third episode of the third series, married off to an explorer.

Having grown up in the entertainment business (her father and uncle were professional ice skaters), Marla Heasley had planned to go into fashion merchandising but became a model instead and moved into commercials (she’d already appeared in The A-Team, as a co-ed briefly involved with Face in the series 2 episode Bad Time On The Border) and was brought in by the producers to try and stem the calls of sexism that surrounded the otherwise all-male cast.  During an interview on Bring Back The A-Team in 2006 she said that although she never experienced any difficulties on set with anyone, George Peppard told her, on her first day, “We don't want you on the show. None of the guys want you here. The only reason you're here is because the network and the producers want you. For some reason they think they need a girl.”  On her last day, Peppard took her aside again.  “I'm sorry that this is your last day,” he said.  “This has nothing to do with you, you were very professional, but there’s no reason to have a girl.”

In the first series, the team’s nemesis Colonel Lynch was played by William Lucking.  He was replaced in the second, third and part of the fourth series by Colonel Decker, played by Lance LeGault and his aide, Captain Crane (Carl Franklin).  During the latter part of the fourth series, the team was hunted by General Fulbright, played by Jack Ging, who later hired the A-Team to find his daughter Tia (Tia Carrere).  Carrere was due to join the show as a permanent member but was already under contract to the soap General Hospital so couldn’t and was replaced by Frankie Santana, played by Eddie Velez.  In the last series, the A-Team worked with General Hunt Stockwell, played by Robert Vaughn, who was often assisted by Carla, played by Judith Ledford.
As well as sexism, the series also gathered criticism over its violent content, which was shown in a highly sanitised way - people rarely bled or bruised (though they occasionally limped or needed a sling) and the A-Team never killed anyone.  Indeed, there were only a few on-screen deaths - General Fullbright was killed in an explosion - and the programme was careful to show that people were seldom seriously hurt (a jeep crashing would cut away to something else, then back to the occupants climbing out and looking dazed).  According to Cannell, this element became a running joke for the writers who often tried to test the limits of realism on purpose.  At one point, it was estimated that an episode contained up to 46 violent acts to which Cannell responded with “they were determined to make a point, and we were too big a target to resist. Cartoon violence is a scapegoat issue.”  It did, however, prove too violent for Germany who bought the rights in 1989 but only chose to broadcast 26 of the 98 episodes available.

In keeping with a lot of TV shows of the era (see any other Cannell-created programme or The Fall Guy, which I wrote about here), the A-Team had an eye-catching vehicle, a 1983 black and metallic grey GMC Vandura can (with a red stripe and rooftop spoiler).  The van was kitted out to assist the team in their various adventures, with some items (like Hannibal’s disguise kit and the gun locker) appearing often, others only when they were needed (like a mini printing press and audio surveillance kit).
At the 1984 launch for the Galoob action figures
As befits such a popular show with children, there was plenty of merchandise available including action figures produced by Galoob, the A-Team van by ERTL and Hot Wheels, trading cards, toy guns and a View Master set based around the episode When You Comin’ Back, Range Rider?  Marvel Comics produced a three-issue A-Team series and a comic strip also appeared in Look-In magazine (which I wrote about here) that ran from 1984 to 1987.

The A-Team was also perfectly placed to be novelised (which happened a lot in the early 80s) and Dell in the US and W H Allen (through their Star and Target imprints) in the UK took up the challenge.  The first paperback, The A-Team, wasn’t numbered (perhaps the publishers wanted to wait and see if it was successful before launching a series) but adapted the pilot episode, Mexican Slayride.  I thoroughly enjoyed it back in the day and recently re-read it, chuffed to discover it was a lot of fun.

There were ten books in the series (the last four of which were only published in the UK), the first six of which were written by Charles Heath.

The A-Team (adapted from the pilot by Frank Lupo and Stephen J. Cannell)
Small But Deadly Wars (adapted from the episodes A Small and Deadly War written by Frank Lupo and Black Day at Bad Rock written by Patrick Hasburgh)
When You Comin' Back, Range Rider? (adapted from the eponymous episode written by Frank Lupo)
Old Scores to Settle (adapted from the episodes The Only Church in Town written by Babs Greyhosky and Recipe for Heavy Bread written by Stephen J. Cannell)
Ten Percent of Trouble (adapted from the episodes Steel written by Frank Lupo and The Maltese Cow written by Thomas Szollosi and Richard Christian Matheson)
Operation Desert Sun: The Untold Story (apparently original, though the title page credits the novelisation to Louis Chunovic)
Bullets, Bikinis and Bells by Ron Renauld (adapted from the episodes Bullets and Bikinis written by Mark Jones and The Bells of St. Mary's written by Stephen J. Cannell)
Backwoods Menace by Ron Renauld (adapted from the episodes Timber! written by Jeff Ray and Children of Jamestown written by Stephen J. Cannell)
The Bend in the River by David George Deutsch (adapted from the eponymous episode written by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo)
Death Vows by Max Hart (adapted from the episode Till Death Us Do Part written by Babs Greyhosky)
cover scan of my copy
There were also two “plot it yourself” books (basically Choose Your Own Adventure titles, so beloved of kids in the 70s and 80s), both written by William Rotsler and published by Simon & Schuster (in the US) and W H Allen (in the UK).

A film version was released in 2010, featuring Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos (only in the extended version on DVD, they were cut from the cinema release).  I thought, as a film, it was enjoyable nonsense but it could have been any group and didn’t feel like they’d captured anything of the old A-Team spirit.  Mr. T, interviewed at the time by WENN, agreed - "People die in the film and there’s plenty of sex but when we did it no one got hurt and it was all played for fun and family entertainment.  It was too graphic for me, it’s nothing like the show we turned out every week.”

Stephen J(oseph) Cannell was born on 5th February 1941 and created and produced several hit TV shows, as well as being an accomplished novelist.  He died on 30th September 2010 from complications of melanoma.

George Peppard (jnr) was born on 1st October 1928 .  He quit a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1992 and died on 8th May 1994, from pneumonia.

Dirk Benedict (Dirk Niewoehner) was born on 1st March 1945.  He continued to act after The A-Team and has also written several books.

(William) Dwight Schultz was born on 24th November 1947 and remains an in-demand voice artist.  He and Dirk Benedict have remained good friends and are often seen together guesting at conventions.

Mr. T (Lawrence Tureaud) was born on 21st May 1952 and still appears on TV.

Melinda Culea was born on 5th May 1955 and now works as an artist and writer.

Marla Heasley was born on 4th September 1959 and hasn’t been seen on-screen since 1993.


Back in 1983, I was the perfect audience for The A-Team and loved it, though I drifted away during the third series.

Although you could argue that nostalgia was clouding my judgement, catching the show much later I still found a lot to enjoy;  yes it’s formulaic, yes it’s silly, but that first series especially has a certain something about it - the construction and writing, the interplay of the characters, the moments of humour - that still shines through.  The quality clearly drops in the second (let alone third) series (though both are very enjoyable) and I’ve still never seen the fourth or fifth series, nor do I particularly want to.  Having said that, I do like how they ended the last episode, Without Reservations, broadcast on 8th March, 1987.

Hannibal:  Chasing thugs through the park...it's got a nice ring to it, doesn't it?
Face:  It has a terrible ring to it.
Murdock:  Just think, if we get a pardon, we may never have to eat a knuckle sandwich again.
B.A.:  I wouldn't bet on it, Crazy Man. Looks like Hannibal's on the jazz again.
Face:  What, what, wha-
Murdock:  No, you - you tell me right now, you tell me right to my face, you tell me that you don't have a plan.
Hannibal:  Well I - I was thinking, what are we gonna do when this thing's over? I mean, what are we really qualified to do?
Face:  Go after...thugs in the park?
Hannibal:  And...outlaw motorcycle gangs, organized crime figures...why, there's a world of slimeballs out there.
Murdock:  I knew it. I just knew you had a plan.
Hannibal:  Comforting, isn't it?
B.A.:  I'll get the van.


Happy 35th, The A-Team




sources:
NBC - About The Show
People magazine article The A-Team Draws Fire
LA Times obituary of George Peppard
A Team Resource
Starlogged
Wikipedia

3 comments:

  1. Nice piece Mark. I liked the first series of the A-Team when it started when I was twelve, really liked it. Unfortunately the second series was, even at the time, where I realised most US TV series run out of ideas so quickly. I gave up soon after the second series started, I caught some later episodes at the very end and couldn't believe just how bad it had become. Still, that first series was such good fun.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Jonny - as we've said before, I got to the third series and the quality had dropped so much I've never bothered with four and saw half of one series five episode and that was more than enough for me.

      Delete
  2. That quote at the end you mention is from "The Grey Team" not "Without Reservations". "Without Reservations" aired last but "The Grey Team" was in fact the final episode as evident by the t-shirts Murdock is wearing.

    ReplyDelete