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Behind The Scenes
The boisterous group 'treats' a reporter to a week of risky stunts, explosions and high jinks.
"I love America!" Mr. T is shouting. "I even love the Reagans! I might vote for 'em again--yes, again."
It's a Thursday afternoon at the converted warehouse in Culver City, Cal., that serves as home-base sound stage for NBC's The A'Team, and Mr. T--fresh from his Christmas-season trip to the White House--is fully launched on a running patriotic rap. Pacing the set in a U.S. Army Seargant's uniform, he repeats, "I *love* America! Only place where I could become a movie star, make all this money actin' the fool. You think this would happen in Jamaica? Forget it...do *you* love Areica?" he asks a passing crew member. "If you don't love America, go move to Grenada!"
I witness from a distance: a freelancer, a hired pen. My assignment, should I decide to accept it--and I already have--is to spend a week with the A-Team, documenting their quirks and foibles, trying to glimpse their true natures. Day One is off to a boisterous start.
When an assistant director shouts at some workmen to be quiet, Mr. T jokes: "Yeah, 'specially when I'm talking, you know--or we'll send you back to 'Laverne & Shirley!'" Scene successfully completed, Mr. T, who plays B.A. ("Bad Attitude") Baracus, shoulders his imposing bulk toward the stage-door exit, announcing: "All right, I gotta go be in conference now with Tip O'Neill! You know where to reach me! I'm gonna let the Vice- President take over in my absence!"
An NBC press representative, meanwhile, has buttonholed George Peppard for the purpose of introducing me and explaining my visit to the "A-Team" star.
"Oh, OK. Sure. OK," says George Peppard, who plays John "Hannibal" Smith. He slowly peels off one of his black leather gloves to shake my hand. Then he spies my battered 10-year old hand-held Sony. "Is that a tape recorder I see?"
Turning on his heel, he strides across the stage to an assistant director and murmurs some words in his ear. A moment later, the assistant director loudly calls for attention and makes this announcement: "Gentlemen! We have a representative from--" He looks to Peppard. "TV Guide?"
"From TV Guide! He'll be here for a week--I guess he's doing an article on 'The A-Team'--and he has a *tape* recorder!"
"Keep him away from T!" shouts one crew member, and the stage erupts in laughter. Even Peppard is wearing a thin smile as he walks back to my side.
"Fair is fair," he says. "You get to use it--but we get to know about it." And he walks away.
Nice meeting you, too, Mr. Peppard!
Twenty minutes later, all of the A Team--including the newest member, Marla Heasley (Twnia Baker), this season's replacement for the departed Melinda Culea--is assembling on a different part of the stage, where a crew has set up some wooden crates and a red backdrop for a cover-photo shoot. Peppard has changed into a spiffy blue-and-grey sweat suit. Dirk Benedict (Templeton "The Face" Peck) shows up. Dwight Schultz ("Howling Mad" Murdock) wanders over. Then Mr. T appears, and the energy level leaps once more into the ozone.
"There's been a lotta rumors 'bout animosity on this set!" T trumpets, as the crew arranges the Team into a photogenic cluster. "Now tell me: anybody don't like anybody, tell me right now! Because," he concludes in mimicry of a certain tabloid's catch phrase, "Enquiring minds...want to know!"
T spots me standing on the sidelines. "George," he asks, "is that the guy you told me 'bout, from TV Guide? The little guy in the...maroon sweater? Looks like a...KGB agent."
Now the team is herded in tighter, with Heasley sitting on T's massive knee. "That's it!" he says. "Nancy Reagan got *that* knee!...Let's make up a scandal! I love scandals! Reporter, you could say, uh: 'This lady Had a Baby by A Team!'" (I swear, you gotta love this guy... - ed.)
Once the photo session is completed, my moment comes to meet Mr. T in person. "How you doin'." he says. "Yeah, I was wondering, man, I told my brothers to watch you. I thought you was a KGB agent or something. Or a Klansman!"
The team is shooting in Valencia, at a big RV and camping- supplies store. (Most of the show is filmed on location, with the Culver City stage seeing action only one or two days in six.) Benedict, a licensed pilot, is telling how he spent the weekend in Montana, trying (unsuccessfully) to retreive his snowbound aircraft. "Some of the coldest weather in the country there," he says. "Thirty-five below. Snowing hard. I'm getting over pneumonia, so I guess Montana was not the place to go, really."
I ask Benedict about job-related injuries. "Oh well, it's a physical show," he says. "I separated some ribs, the first episode this season. Then a rib went 'round and threw a couple vertebrae out, threw my back out. That was painful."
More trying than the physical hazards, he says, is the sheer drudgery of the schedule. "This is a grind. It consumes you. It's a bit like professional athletics: they use you up, you know? They'll push you. You do 12 pages, they want 15. Do 15, they want 17. The trouble with that is, something's gotta give. And working in today's economy, the days are numbered [that] you can put shows like this on television. (Sad but true. *Sigh* - ed.) When you can do an 'Alice' or 'Three's Company' in four days, on one set that costs $1.98, and get the same ratings, and come in each day at 10 and leave at 3 in the afternoon--I mean, who wants to do *this*?"
But wouldn't the ratings indicate he'll be doing "this" for at least four years?
"In four years, " Benedict says, "we'll all be wearing hairpieces and pacemakers."
The scene being shot this morning has reporter Tawnia Baker (Heasley) meeting up with the team for the first time. The morning's sequence calls for Heasley to deliver a rapid series of complicated speeches. She's a bit unsteady finding her rhythm at first and stumbles over some dialogue. After a take is printed, Peppard tells her, "Looks good, Marla."
"George has been really helpful," Heasley says later. "He will take me aside and tell me little things that you should know when you're doing a series. He's been around for a long time, so he's got some very good advice."
Peppard can be seen between takes talking something over with Mr. T, apparently giving practical advice. "When the season's over, do all of that sort of thing you want," he says, "but in the meantime, never mind."
"Good idea," says T.
A few moments later, a bushed-looking Peppard asks a publicity person to verify an appointment the next morning at L.A. tv station KABC-TV. "I'm doing an interview with Barbara Walters for Good Morning America," he explains. "Live to New York, 5:15 A.M. I've got the day off."
"You can use it, after that," says the publicity man.
"I can use it now," says Peppard.
A luxury condo tower on Wilshire Boulevard. The A Teamers have taken over the entire floor of vacant suites. In one apartment, The Face and Tawnia are involved in a tete-a-tete, to be interrupted by the appearance of bad guys who toss The Face out the window into (according to the script) a convenient swimming pool below.
On the balcony of another apartment down the hall, Benedict's double waits to do the seven-story fall the second unit has spent all morning coordinating. The stunt is set to go. I make my way to a vantage point in an empty room that provides a clear view of the setup. The double, his hair and suit identical to Benedict's, is loosening up by hopping lightly back and forth on a wooden platform built eye level with the balcony ledge. At a signal from an assistant below, the stuntman leaps into space. He waves his arms, turns slightly and hits the air bag with a solid impact clearly audible though sealed glass seven stories above. Conditioned by decades of television viewing, I fully expect him to rise, give a victory wave, and hobble off to the sound of the second unit's cheers. But the stuntman does not rise. He lies flat on his back on the air bag, his face pale with shock and pain. Half a dozen people move in to check his limbs and torso. A brace is placed around his neck. Very tenderly he is lifted onto a stretcher and carried toward a waiting ambulance.
Interior: a cliffside estate in Paradise Cove, west of Malibu. The Team is wrapping up some close-ups before breaking for lunch. Dwight Schultz sits off-camera in a director's chair, giving an autograph to a 10-year-old boy.
Schultz had done almost all of his acting on stage, in regional theaters and in New York, before flying to L.A. to read for the part of Murdock. His normal speaking voice is restrained and articulate, leagues away from the comic cadence he affects for his bizarre role. I ask him if signing onto the A Team has changed his life dramatically.
"It's like a jolt of electricity," he says. "I guess I've done about 10 years of normal living in one--including getting married. The rapidity of the work, the speed with which you go before the camera and just do it--you're filming rehearsals, in effect--that's still very novel and invigorating to me. And usually your days are completely consumed by this.
"People complain about that, but...I don't see how you can. You're doing what you want to do. It's not a struggle, it's a thrill--something to be grateful for."
One former Team member, the departed Melinda Culea, has been vocal about her dissatisfaction with her series role. What about her absence this year?
"Well," Schultz answers in a roundabout fashion, "the last thing I did in New York was an off-Broadway play. It was tremendously successful. The reviews were the best I have ever received from the big three major critics. There were lots of rumors of it going on to Broadway. One day I picked up the paper and read that the show was indeed going on to Broadway--but with another actor, not me. I was shocked. Obviously something had been wrong, but I'll never know the reason I was replaced.
"And I think it's much the same case with Melinda. There were lots of little problems...But whatever happened in the offices over there, we'll never really know. They made the decision it was the best thing to replace her.
"But every actor is replaced at one point or another. That's what this business is about : replacing, and being replaced...being on top one year, then unemployed the next two or three, then up again. That's the name of the game."
The company has broken for lunch. Schultz nods his head at the now-empty set. "But this is just a terrific bunch," he says. "It's been a joy. I couldn't imagine something more fortunate." He pauses, and for a moment his eyes reveal a sliver of Murdock's manic gleam. "Except a leading role in a major motion picture, with Meryl Streep as my co-star!" Then he laughs.
As we walk outside toward the company's lunch tables, we pass an equipment truck whose open door features a formidable array of Mr. T posters and photographs. "He is amazing," Schultz says, looking at these pictures of his co-star. "The man is a tycoon. He's so smart. When he started out, he said, 'Before this is done, I'm gonna get money even from people who hate me. I'm having a *dart board* made.' That's what he said!"
The big action sequence after lunch involves two helicopters in a chase past a pool-side coctail party.
Preparations are elaborate. Stunt and effects coordinators stand by the main camera and relay instructions from the director to the copter pilots via walkie-talkie. An assistant with a bullhorn shouts directions and warnings at atmosphere people and onlookers: "Pay attention to me, please! We can't afford to make mistakes! If you don't have to be here, go to the other side of the building!"
At the call of action, the pool-side tableau moves into life. The helicopters wheel and hover, the gusts from their blades bending the palm trees. A table overturns, scattering food and crockery. Stuntpeople leap into the water. The stench of explosives fills the air, and a thick mist of dust obscures everything.
Director Gil Shilton, wearing a gray-checkered cap and blue nylon windbreaker, calls up anxiously to the second camera operator on the roof above him: "We got the stuff? OK, great." With the speed of an army unit, the crew grabs equipment and heads for the trucks, on the move to another location before they lose the light. A crew member, jazzed by all the action, thumps me on the arm as he strides past. Beaming, he says: "Pretty interesting stuff, huh? You're with the A Team now!"
Mr. T is subdued. He sits quietly in a chair in the lobby of the Arco Center, a Long Beach skyscraper. On his head is a goofy cap with a red rooster's comb, a gift from A-Team co-executive producer Frank Lupo. "Feels like a draft in here," T murmurs. One of his brothers immediately wraps an orange-and -brown wool shawl around T's huge shoulders. Mr. T has two of his own brothers with him on the set who keep him within sight at all times, big men with builds to match his own. One of them weilds some sort of steel exercise bar with plastic grips at the ends and middle.
Thinking to exchange pleasantries during this idle moment, I approach him. "Morning, T," I say.
In an instant, Mr. T transforms himself into a rigid Buddha, a stone statue wrapped in a brunt-orange shawl. Glaring straight ahead, he concentrates on making me invisible.
"Is there a problem?" It's one of his brothers, the one in the purple sweatsuit and the flowing LeRoy Neiman mustache.
"I don't think so. I just wanted to talk to T for a minute."
"Oh, I don't think there's much chance of that, unless it's a matter of life or death."
"Hmmm. How 'bout during lunch then? Or maybe later this afternoon?"
"I'd say that's a definite no. He don't like to give up his lunch. He don't like to give any kinda interviews while he's working."
The brother smiles, as if we share some private joke.
T's lassitude passes once lunch is called. He and all the cast move quickly to run the gauntlet of fans (mostly youngsters) who stand waiting outside the Arco Center. "I'll pose for pictures later, after work," T promises as he trots toward the food tables, "but not now, please!"
In the vacant lot where the caterers have set up, Mr. T wastes no time finding the desserts. "Put a whole pie on there, man! Gimme a whole pie! Aw, man! This what we *got* to have!"
Meanwhile, Benedict sits in his trailer perusing the Nielsen ratings. "No. 2," he says in a tone close to wonder. "60 Minutes is No. 1 and A Team's No. 2...."
Talk turns to the A Team's network, and Benedict says, "NBC doesn't like to discuss this show too much publicly. They're a snob about their own prodcut. They've come out as a network that's interested in Emmys, 'quality programming.' In their minds, this is not an Emmy kind of show; this is succumbing to 'mass entertainment.' It's such a terribly hypocritical predicament to put yourself in...."
Benedict was raised in Montana ("My childhood was Hemingway: hunting, fishing, riding"), and he says he got into acting because it seemed to him "a great adventure." Classical training and reperatory work led to Broadway roles and then on to Hollywood, where the thought of staying on a series for a number of years is not a happy prospect.
"Not because I find it professionally frustrating. Hell, I'm in the No. 2-rated show! How often does *that* happen? This is a great adventure in itself, but...after a while it becomes the Known. No surprises. It's the Known. I want the Unknown. So the idea of doing this for five years--well--I just gotta take it a day at a time."
A knock on the trailer door signals the end of the half-hour lunch period.
"Scuse me," says Benedict, "I gotta bruch my teeth."
From the sink, he asks, "Have you talked to all the guys?"
"Well, there ain't a dummy in the bunch. 'Cept me, maybe. I'm the dumb blond." Teeth brushed, he checks his wardrobe in the mirror. "You don't have to be bright to be a TV star," he says. "You don't even have to be a human being! You can be a chimpanzee or a dog. I mean, what are we *talkin'* about!
"It's the bottom line, isn't it?" He laughs. "It's unbelieveable. But human beings start to believe it! A dog doesn't. Benji doesn't say, 'Yes. I'm different from those other pooches.' Huh? He's just a *mutt*. And that's all we are: a buncha mutts, and we're in a show, so all of a sudden people want autographs and somebody'll come in your trailer and interview you, but--the fact that we're having this conversation ain't got *nothin'* to do with Dirk Benedict. *What-so-ever*!"
Back in the lobby of the Arco Center, a woman from the crew is taking up a collection for the stuntman injured two days earlier. "It's George's idea," she says. "No names; it'll just say 'from the company'." The man suffered some displaced vertebrae and will be in the hospital for a week, but it looks as if he'll be working stunts again before long.
The A Team's first work of the afternoon involves the four guys, new girl in tow, blasting their way through a private door and past the lobby guard to escape in a hail of gunfire. As the scene is blocked, Mr. T takes issue with the way he and Peppard have been told to come into view.
"We woudln't expose ourselves like that," T tells Peppard, "maybe got our legs all shot up. Man, we're professionals. We'd take cover."
"Well...let's see," says Peppard.
He paces through the motions, seeing whether he can duck a bit lower a bit sooner. When the scene is finally filmed the choreography will look virtually the same, but T's input will have been given due weight.
Moments before the actors' weapons are loaded with blanks, director Shilton takes a look at the Lloyd's Bank branch adjacent to the lobby. Suddenly, something occurs to him. He asks, "Has anyone told the people in the bank there's going to be shooting out here?"
An overcast morning outside the Culver City sound stage.
Mr. T sits outside wearing a green bathrobe and his rooster cap, reading a magazine, a scowl of intense concentration on his face.
George Peppard, though, stands at his dressing-room trailer door with a smile and an open hand.
"Thomas! Come in, come in. Can I offer you a pop, or coffee? I hope I didn't offend you that day."
"Oh, hey," I reply.
"A newsman on the set should be known. Personally, I like tape recorders. That way, we know exactly what was said. So: turn on your machine. What do you want to talk about?"
The intense schedule everyone's alway mentioning seems as good a place as any to start.
"Well," he conceeds, "it's damned hard work. But then again, we're damned well paid. I feel very much that this show is a blessing, and that its success is due to the fact that God has smiled on us."
The role of Hannibal came to him, Peppard says, after a "really bad five-year period" of little employment. "I got a little movie here, little movie there, took another mortgage on my house...I was supposed to do a Broadway play. Someone else was cast. And I called my agent and said, "I want to do a television series."
"Two weeks later I was in [executive producer] Stephen Cannell's office. This all occured 14 months ago, and here we are today. So if you want to ask me if I'm a man who believes in prayer--yes, I certainly do."
And they've been going like this, on the killing schedule, for the last 14 months?
"We've been going like this for about...25 years," Peppard estimates, crinkling his blue eyes in a half-laugh. "I think we have about 10 years more before we finish this season, even. It's endless. At times it just seems inhuman. I mean, you can hear my voice--this is about a tone lower than normal, maybe two. I'm just tired. I'm 10 pounds overweight. I can't get along on five hours of sleep a night. Right now I'm running on about two gallons of gas. I'm just trying to get through today! Survival is the real thing here."
But he doesn't go through all this alone, he points out. There's the crew--"a hundred-member family"--and the rest of his cast.
"When you're working these long days and everyone is weary, you look into another actor's eyes for help. And if they're not professional enough or good-hearted enough to make that effort, then your misery quotient goes up a notch. But if you look over there and there's someone working for and with you--it lifts you.
"When this season started I told the cast I wanted them all to become giant stars. I said if they could become big enough so that I could come on at the beginning of the program and say, 'Now team, this is the plan,' and then come back at the end and say, 'Beautifully done!' I would have achieved my ambition."
He's reluctant to talk of his past films, says he rarely looks at them.
But surely he watches The A Team?
"Always," he says. "That's part of the 'what-did-we-do- right, what-didn't-we-do-right, what-can-we-do-better.' Also, you know, there's some stuff I'm not in, and then I have some fun out of the rest of the cast. I've even laughed a couple of times at Hannibal, and that's unusual. There I have to give credit to the writers. Sometimes he's just irrepressible. You *know* he's going to pull off something that's typical of him, and if I'm just adequate in doing it--it comes out all right."
From somewhere nearby comes a burst of weapons fire. "Must be the A Team," says George Peppard.
Article Taken From On The Jazz Newsletters Volume 1 Issues 1,3 and 4. Article written for TV guide by Tom Nolan.
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