TV GEMS: The A-Team (1983-1987)

Liam remembers his childhood (and ain’t getting on no plane) to review a telly classic. 

The year is 1985.

I’m part of a special forces unit sent behind enemy lines on a top secret rescue mission, and I’ve drawn the short straw! I’m going to drive a custom-made armoured truck through the wall of a heavily-armed fortress, rescue the hostages whilst my colleagues provide covering fire, and escape with zero casualties. The bullets start flying and guards jump clear as I bear down on the wall. Then suddenly, a large hand comes out of nowhere and puts an end to the proceedings.

The armoured truck is an old Go-Kart, the fortress is made from large coloured blocks, the hostages are a bunch of girls combing the hair on their My Little Pony’s, and I am a five-year-old boy playing with my friends at school. Surely a typical scene in every playground, you’d imagine, with kids using whatever was around them and their imagination to recreate our favourite television show of the time: The A-Team.

The A-Team was created largely by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, both of whom had impressive track records in television with such hits as Battlestar Galactica (1978) and Magnum P.I. (1980). The original concept was conceived by Brandon Tartikoff, a TV exec at NBC who first pitched it to them as a cross between The Dirty Dozen (1967), Mission: Impossible (1966), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and Mad Max 2 (1981), with lots of cartoon violence. The backstory for the series would be brilliantly told with John Ashley’s uncredited narration during the famous opening credits…

“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 A-Team would consist of four core characters (and the van) with several others assisting who would come and go throughout the show’s run. The leader of the group and brains of the operation is Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard). Peppard was known for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and he was the first choice for the role, although James Coburn (The Great Escape/The Magnificent Seven) was also considered.

Second-in-command would be Lieutenant Templeton “Faceman” Peck, written for Dirk Benedict who was known for playing the male incarnation of Starbuck in Battlestar Galactica. The part was actually played by Tim Dunigan in the pilot episode “Mexican Slayride,” with Benedict taking it over from the first official instalment, “Children of Jamestown.” Face would be the team’s con-man, acquiring goods and services needed on missions whilst often attracting the attention of female admirers with comedic effect.

Captain “Howling Mad” Murdoch (Dwight Schultz) is an ace pilot and is the only team member not wanted for war crimes. Declared insane, he provides the comic relief.

The final member of the quartet and star of the show was Sargent Bosco “B.A.” Baracus (the one and only Mr. T), who was excellent with a blow torch and would provide the muscle. He’s afraid of nothing or nobody except flying, which is his (oft-exploited) achilles heel. Mr. T had been made a star in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky III (1982) and was a top priority casting for the show’s producers. It is notable that Peppard was the only actor with any real film pedigree and considered himself the star of the show, never talking directly to Mr. T and making Benedict act as a middle-man. This has become a talking point for cast members appearing on chat shows ever since.

Each episode kept to a simple, well-structured format with a clear beginning, middle and end. There would be a short intro or teaser which actually used footage and dialogue from the upcoming episode, and then the opening credit sequence would roll. This sequence one of the most famous in television history and was coupled with an instantly identifiable music score by Mike Post, which perfectly sets-up the viewer for what’s to come with big explosions, trucks in mid-air rolls and character introductions with a smile.

A typical story would begin with ordinary people in great difficulty; they could be farmers, taxi drivers or shopkeepers, and are usually the victim of financial extortion by gangsters, biker gangs, wealthy land owners etc. They then seek out the A-Team for help. Hannibal, who is also a master of disguise, meets them in a public place in full prosthetic make-up, getting the lowdown on the situation before revealing himself, lighting a cigar and declaring ”You just hired the A-Team.” They would then often hold a group meeting with those affected and formulate a plan. Each member of the team would then be allocated a role by Hannibal in which they would showcase their skills. It would often be Face, the weakest physically and the most reluctant of the group, who had to make first contact with the antagonists before a fist-fight commenced which B.A. would dominate, throwing and punching “fools” left, right and centre. Things would soon escalate after this with elaborate comedic set-pieces, fight scenes, gun battles, car chases, and airborne stunts.

In a sub-plot, they are being pursued by the military police, Colonel’s Lynch and Decker, and later by General “Bull” Fulbright, who are always hot on their heels. The crew would often find themselves cornered with no means of escape, highlighting the importance of teamwork. This would often result in creating armoured flame-throwing vehicles during a montage before bursting out to the surprise of the baddies, triumphantly beating them into submission, 80’s style! Another job well done, they leave the community in peace, without taking payment and making a new friend in the process.

The show was a hit for NBC all over the globe. The A-Team and Mr. T were a merchandiser’s dream, and suddenly they where everywhere from bed sheets and lunchboxes to sticker books, comics, action figures, and Mr. T’s Coke-flavoured popsicles. The cast travelled the world, making public appearances and meeting leaders. It had become a monster! Celebrities of the time wanted in on the act, making high-profile guest appearances. WWF superstar Hulk Hogan appeared in the episode “Body Slam,” playing an old Vietnam war buddy of B.A., and perhaps the most bizarre of all was that of 80s British pop icon Boy George, who had a large role in “Cowboy George” from season four.

All good things come to an end, however, as ratings began to fall after season three. The lack of a continuous storyline hindered character development and audiences felt that the show had become too repetitive. The writers tried to develop stronger, more serious stories, but it was too little too late and the show was cancelled with nine episodes still to run of season five.

The stand-out pair for me were actually both from season four. The first in a two-parter, “Judgement Day,” was shot more like a movie and helmed by David Hemmings (known for 1966’s Blow Up), who also directed episodes of other 80s greats like Airwolf and Magnum. The second, “The Sound of Thunder,” was shot by Michael O’Herlihy who had previously directed episodes of the original Star Trek series and Miami Vice. This one had the team return to Vietnam and featured the one and only onscreen death.

The A-Team ran for a total of 98 episodes from 1983-1987, and will be fondly remembered by its generation as the greatest show in (arguably) the greatest era for television. A feature film version was released in 2010 directed by Joe Carnahan and was absolutely appalling. It failed miserably to capture the magic and spirit of the original series, turning our beloved characters into a bunch of loud, brash, unlikeable dickheads.

As B.A. Baracus would surely say, ”I pity the fool who made that terrible A-Team movie!”

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)

  • The crime the team didn’t commit was that their commanding officer in Vietnam, Colonel Morrison, ordered them to rob the Bank of Hanoi. The hope was that this would help bring the war to an end. The mission was successful, but when they returned to headquarters, the A-Team found it burned to the ground, and that Morrison was murdered by the Viet Cong. All the evidence that they were acting under orders vanished in the fire.
  • George Peppard would only refer to Mr. T as “the man with the gold.”
  • In the opening credits, Dirk Benedict reacts to a passing metallic “Cylon warrior.” Cylons are the nemesis in Battlestar Galactica.
  • In his autobiography, Hulk Hogan wrote that the producers wanted him to make more appearances, because he was one of the few guys that got along with both Peppard and Mr. T. He was unable to commit due to his schedule with the World Wrestling Federation.

Liam Brennan

Film buff, aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker.

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