Road Warrior, Magnificent Seven, Dirty Dozen, Mission: Impossible…and Mr. T drives the car.”
Sounds like the early-’80s fever dream of a teenage boy. But it was a memo from the late Brandon Tartikoff, NBC Entertainment president, and it came to life when The A-Team debuted, helping the Peacock network rise from the ashes.
The missive’s recipients, cocreators Stephen J. Cannell (The Rockford Files, Wiseguy) and Frank Lupo, responded to Tartikoff’s request with an action-adventure hour about four wrongfully accused Nam vets/do-gooders with wacky nicknames, on the lam after escaping from prison: Col. John ”Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard), the cigar-chompin’ leader; Templeton ”Face” Peck (Tim Dunigan in the pilot, Dirk Benedict in the series), the pretty-boy con man; ”Howlin’ Mad” Murdock (Dwight Schultz), the nutso aviator; and B.A. ”Bad Attitude” Baracus (Mr. T), the gruff master mechanic/driver.
”The show was one of those things that just had its own smell,” says Cannell. ”It lived in its own world. And it delivered on its promise that this was gonna be different, funny, and in-your-face.”
With their crazy weaponry and car-crash skills, The A-Team arrived at a key moment for NBC. Tartikoff and chairman Grant Tinker were struggling to sustain award-winning but audience-deprived shows like Hill Street Blues, Cheers, and St. Elsewhere, and The A-Team delivered much-needed eyeballs to a network that had spent years in the ratings cellar.
But some of those eyeballs belonged to watchdog groups, who loudly blasted the show’s brutality — 46 violent acts an hour, by one estimate. (”They were determined to make a point, and we were too big a target to resist,” says Cannell. ”Cartoon violence is a scapegoat issue.”) But as tastes changed, The A-Team’s fortunes crumbled (the family-friendly Cosby Show became NBC’s top draw). In its third year, The A-Team was beaten by wussy shows like Who’s the Boss? and Growing Pains.
The series had an undistinguished burial in 1987, but before it crunched its last Jeep, it provided a career high point for its cast. Peppard, who died of pneumonia in 1994, called Hannibal ”one of the best roles of my career.” Schultz went on to a recurring part on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Benedict did several TV films. And Mr. T was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma in the mid-’90s, and is working on a book called Cancer Saved My Life.