“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.”
It tells you something about a TV programme when people who weren’t born when it was first broadcast know the entire cast, theme tune, catchphrases and even what car the characters drive. The A-Team captured the ludicrousness of cult 80’s TV, but at the same time recreated something that still endures to this day: a sense of adventure.
The setup was simple: Four US Special Forces soldiers were ordered by their commanding officer to rob the Bank of Hanoi, to bring an early end to the Vietnam War (how it was supposed to do that was never really established). When they completed their mission, they found their commander had been killed by the Viet Cong, and their ordered destroyed, leaving them with no proof that they’d been under orders. Imprisoned and awaiting court martial, they escaped and went on the run.
And that was basically it – the four members of the team answered the call of the oppressed, the bullied, and the downtrodden, righting the wrongs done to them while at the same time evading the constant pursuing forces of the military police.
The core cast – George Peppard as Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, Dirk Benedict as Lt. Templeton “Faceman” Peck, Dwight Schultz as Captain H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock and Mr.T as Sgt. B.A. Baracus – would endure for five seasons, not without conflict at certain stages, but always with a chemistry that made the show one of the certified hits of the decade. It helped, that like competing properties Knight Rider and Airwolf, it had an iconic piece of hardware. The 1983 GMC Vandura van, customised with its metallic grey and black paint, red alloy wheels and go-faster stripes, plus a penchant for being some kind of mobile battle station that could be modified into everything from an ice cream truck to a tank.
The show’s creator, Stephen J. Cannell, was picked up by the NBC network, after failing to produce a hit for its rival ABC. Pitched to him as a combination of classic ensemble movies and TV shows with “Mr. T driving the car”, Cannell wasn’t 100% sure of its potential, but later revealed on the Season 5 DVD extras, that George Peppard was convinced it would be a hit.
Peppard was one of the key attributes in making the show that little bit more legitimate than its contemporaries. In contrast to the likes of rival stars David Hasselhoff and Jan-Michael Vincent, Peppard was an established movie star at the time. He’d taken starring roles in the likes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Blue Max, and added star quality to the show. Later, it would be reported that he resented Mr. T’s popularity when he considered himself the star of the show – to the extent Robert Vaughn, Peppard’s close friend, was added to the regular cast to ease tensions.
Mr.T’s role was specifically written for him, but the part of Hannibal was put together with James Coburn in mind, before he turned it down and Peppard successfully auditioned. Cannell and writer Frank Lupo had Dirk Benedict in mind for the role of Face, but NBC insisted on another actor – and the part went to Tim Dunigan for the pilot episode. Dunigan later admitted he felt he was too young for the role, having been in high school when the Vietnam War ended. He was replaced by Benedict from then on. Dwight Schultz had bit parts before his casting as Murdock, but it became his definitive role. His major contribution to the show? Coming up with many of the slogans and designs on the T-shirts Murdock would wear in each episode.
The supporting cast varied – Melinda Culea played reporter Amy Allen in the first series, but left midway through the second due to creative differences with the shows producers – specifically, wanting a larger role and more action scenes. Her replacement, Marla Heasley, played Tawnia Baker, another reporter. She was written out on screen, but claimed in the documentary “Bring Back The A-Team” in 2006 that on her first day on set, George Peppard took her aside and told her:
“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.”
In the same documentary, Dirk Benedict offered this rebuttal:
“It was a guy’s show. It was male driven. It was written by guys. It was directed by guys. It was acted by guys. It’s about what guys do. We talked the way guys talked. We were the boss. We were the God. We smoked when we wanted. We shot guns when we wanted. We kissed the girls and made them cry… when we wanted. It was the last truly masculine show.”
There were still attempts to being a regular female character into the team. In the season four finale, “The Sound of Thunder”, their nemesis General Fulbright enlists the A-Team’s help to rescue his daughter Tia from renegade Viet Cong forces. Tia was played by Tia Carrere (who would later make her name in the likes of Relic Hunter and True Lies), and she was planned to be a regular the following year. Her commitments to the TV series General Hospital made that impossible, but given Peppard’s reticence to be accepting of female characters, it would probably never have worked anyway.
The sexist issues aside, the almost cartoonish violence in the show was touted as a reason for its early success – and arguably the reason for its eventual failure. There were plenty of punch ups, barroom brawls and shootouts, but people were rarely shown to be wounded or shot as a result. People scrambled out of helicopter or car crashes, as the show went to great pains to emphasise the non lethal consequences of its actions. The aforementioned General Fulbright and his killer (a Viet Cong general) were the only two characters ever seen killed on screen. The other bad guys were arrested, ran out of town, or pummelled into submission. Critics of the show lambasted it for both failing to show the fallout from the explosions, gunfights and knockouts, and for the increasing level of violence within the show. It’s also been suggested that the light hearted approach to confrontation contributed to the falling audience numbers during the last two seasons. New York Times critic John J. O’Connor wrote in 1986 that audiences were “clearly fed up with mindless violence of the car-chasing, fist-slugging variety”.
And fall the ratings did. When it started, The A-Team was a ratings winner, consistently in the top five shows as judged by the Nielsen Ratings system in the US, and topped out its first season with an average of over 16m viewers. That increased to a high of 20m for season two, with only a slight drop to 18m for season three. From there though, it was all downhill, with season four topping out at 14m, before NBC executives decided change was needed for the fifth season.
The basic premise of the team helping out those less fortunate than themselves while on the run from the military was jettisoned for its last ride – as was the iconic theme tune (replaced by something even more cheesy – you can hear it here). Instead, they found themselves arrested and working for shady retired general Robert Vaughn. While the show expanded the team’s history and links with the Vietnam War, it continued to lose viewers. Dipping below 10m for the first time, NBC decided to pull the plug. The last episode, although not the last one to be filmed, was aired on March 8, 1987, just over four years since it had first hit screens. Chronologically, and spiritually, the last episode was “The Grey Team”, as a group of pensioners help the team retrieve a briefcase of fake government secrets (as bad as it sounds). At the end, they tell Vaughn’s character Hunt Stockwell they’re no longer his property, forsaking their promised pardon and going back on the run. The cast, of course, knew that their time was up, and Dwight Schultz’s T-shirt carries the simple word “fini”.
Then, 23 years later, a new A-Team appeared. Director Joe Carnahan realised a vision that many people had wanted to see: An A-Team movie. Starring a heavyweight cast of Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper, initial promotional images looked good, and there was the hope, particularly amongst the die hard fans, that it might recapture at least some of what made the original series good. Sadly, that didn’t transpire, and while it turned a profit, it didn’t make enough money to warrant a sequel. Neeson himself has since questioned the merits of the movie, and both Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz, who had cameos in it, said it lost the essence of what made the original series popular.
For many, the TV show remains the definitive version, and for all its criticisms, it provided many a young boy (and girl) a fantasy to act out, a group of tough guys who helped out others, with clear lines of right and wrong. The good guys won, and the bad guys lost. It really didn’t need to be any more complicated than that.