January 30, 1984 12:00 PM

It’s birthday time for The A-Team, exactly a year since the captains of crunch made their premiere following Super Bowl XVII. Since then the Mean Machine has ranked in the Top 10 prime-time series virtually every week, and, in a bloody battle of the network genres, sometimes even routs those aging bed hoppers on Dallas and Dynasty from No. 1.

But hold the birthday presents. The A-Team is getting ever more violent with age. Take an average episode: there’s a gunfight waged from an armor-plated bakery truck loaded with drug-stuffed bread, a high-rise shootout involving a helicopter, and assorted incidents in which people are thrown into walls and off buildings. Increasingly on The A-Team and on its inevitable imitators, America’s TV heroes seem a bunch of oddballs and outlaws with few brains but mucho muscles, heavily armed Robin Hoods who practice lawlessness in the name of law and order.

This is vigilante TV, and it is drawing fire. No wonder. There are seven million preteen children (ages 2 to 11) among the Team’s 42 million viewers every week. They are watching the “most violent” prime-time series on TV, according to a report issued by the National Coalition on Television Violence (NCTV), which found 34 offensive acts per hour on The A-Team (versus an average of seven on other prime-time series). Astonishingly, Mr. T’s spun-off Saturday morning cartoon show, which has an audience of 14 million viewers (half under 11 years old), beats those figures with 45 bashing bits per hour.

The fact that the good guys always win does not assuage David Hostetter, the Washington director of NCTV. “The program shows people resolving conflicts through violence, which is not an accepted or legal way in our society,” he says. “The type of violence on The A-Team is of a very dangerous nature in that no one gets hurt.” When people get thrown off buildings on this show, for example, they invariably land in pools, surrounded by bikinied beauties, alive. On The A-Team violence is fun. That can be harmful, Hostetter says, “especially to children, who can’t discern fiction from reality.”

A Maryland teacher who works with the NCTV had 137 of her grade-school students send a petition to NBC, asking for less violence on The A-Team. The response, from Warren J. Ashley of NBC broadcast standards, is a masterpiece of understatement. “Dear boys and girls,” it said. “The A-Team is a fantasy program…. In real life, shooting guns, especially automatic weapons, would result in serious wounds, if not death. In The A-Team, despite all the shots that are fired, no one has ever been hurt by a bullet. Because no one is hurt, we feel the fighting, shooting and car crashes in The A-Team are action, not violence.”

NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff agrees. “I’ve spent an hour with Mr. T, the toughest guy on TV,” he says. “I’ve spent an hour with NCTV people. They scare me more than anyone I’ve seen on The A-Team. I think it’s a dangerous mentality to go around and try to legislate what all TV should look like.” So don’t expect the Team to turn soft. “As long as 42 million people keep watching the television,” Tartikoff says, “I don’t see any reason to change.”

That’s the bottom line, and business along Network Row proceeds accordingly. A-Team co-founder Stephen J. Cannell created Riptide to follow his NBC hit on Tuesdays; it’s about two former MPs who run a detective agency with a boat, a pink helicopter and a robot. This fall Cannell also delivered Hardcastle & McCormick, about a former judge whose respect for the U.S. Constitution roughly equals Ronald Reagan’s respect for the Communist Manifesto. And the producer is working on two new pilots with less-than-subtle titles: The Hunted and Smith & Wesson. (Last year vigilante video made Cannell’s company about $100 million.) There are plenty of competitors out of the same mold, including Blue Thunder, The Fall Guy, Magnum P.I., Knight Rider, Matt Houston—tough guys who take justice in one hand and a gun in the other.

Cannell, of course, defends The A-Team and his other like-minded properties. “I may be conservative about law and order, but I don’t believe in vigilante justice,” he says. “We don’t have guys being blown away in slow motion. It’s a fantasy…. The A-Team is not to be taken seriously.”

He should tell his four male stars that the A-Team doesn’t turn off its toughness when the cameras are turned off. Listen to George Peppard and you’d think that playing Col. Hannibal Smith, the leader of these Vietnam vets, is as stirring as playing Patton. “Patriotism has a lot to do with the success of the show,” he says. “I was attracted to its unabashed sense of ‘I am an American’ and ‘I am an American soldier.’ ”

He was also attracted to the show’s commercial potential. Almost five years ago, Peppard, 55, was dumped from the pilot of Dynasty and replaced by John Forsythe 16 days into filming. People on the set say it was because he tried to direct the show; Peppard says it was because he resented notes on his acting from the producers. He is humble enough to admit that subsequently he thought he was going to make his living in dinner theaters. “I was about to lose the only asset I had, which was a house,” he says. “What I was saying in my prayers and to my friends was, ‘I’m sure the good Lord will find work for his humble servant.’ ” And there it was, the Team, containing “one of the best roles of my career.”

Today, Peppard makes close to $50,000 per episode. But he says “the money is really secondary.” What matters, he argues, is what the show, as an exercise in escapism and entertainment, means “in terms of service to people.”

Now listen to Mr. T and you’d think that playing B.A. (Bad Attitude) Baracus is as nice as playing Captain Kangaroo. He knows he has become a role model to kids. The fact that he brandishes weapons and rarely speaks a complete sentence on the show doesn’t bother him. When he sees adoring kids off camera, he tells them, “When I be fightin’ or whatever on TV, it all just fun, we don’t hurt nobody. But I don’t want you to be a fighter. Study to be a scientist, study to be an astronaut. Everyone can’t be Mr. T.”

Now, finally, listen to Dirk (Face Man Peck) Benedict and you’ll hear an actor happy to have a job. “We’re all black sheep,” he says. “None of us ever fit into Hollywood.” Over network objections, Cannell hired him for the Team after his Battlestar Galactica was grounded. (NBC also objected to Peppard, preferring James Coburn as Hannibal.) Benedict insists that he doesn’t care about getting his Face on camera all the time. “True actors dream of anonymity,” he says, “because a true actor has no personality of his own…. The wonderful thing about doing this show is that George and Mr. T soak up all of the publicity.”

Not quite all. Recently, the show aired its dirty linen following the firing of former model Melinda Culea, 28, the token woman on the Team. She was dumped after she taped the first 10 shows of the Team’s second season and was replaced this month by Marla Heasley, 25. “Melinda was very unhappy about the size and importance of her role,” says Peppard. “She came on the set frustrated, angry, a terribly discontented woman.” He said she wanted more time on camera and wanted to join in the fight scenes with a few karate chops. T says she wanted more money. Culea reportedly made $15,000 per show at first and later about $20,000 (versus T’s $40,000 or so—which, though not as much as the veteran Peppard’s salary, still adds up to about $1 million a year).

Peppard denies reports that he and the other stars turned on Culea like a vigilante force. “We just put up with [her discontent] and said nothing,” he contends. But when the producers found out about the tension, he says, “they were furious…. They felt that she was harassing the team.” Nobody harasses the team and gets away with it. After a warning, Cannell fired her.

Mr. T backs up Peppard. “The show was not designed for a lady,” he says. “It’s a story about Vietnam veterans. She wasn’t in Vietnam. I told her to her face: ‘You was blessed and didn’t realize it. You was a sore winner.’ She says that she wanted more work, more time on camera. Can you believe that? How stupid can you get?…Melinda, she came in griping every day. We don’t need that.”

Benedict seems more willing than T to admit a woman to the club. “Because we are four guys, we want a girl around,” he says. “It’s a dream job for an actress—God! All you have to do is show up, smile and look good.”

To some, Culea may not have looked good enough. Peppard reportedly believed that the show needed “more of a bimbo.” When asked about that now, all he’ll say is: “If those were our needs, they were already eminently satisfied.”

Culea, who has since made a Fantasy Island, reportedly found out she had been dumped from the Team when she read a script with no lines for her character. Her story is that Peppard disliked her from the start and was cruel to her, telling her she could not act. She told the producers that the part was not worthy of her. “If you can’t write the role better,” she said, “you don’t need me.” She also complained that T and Peppard grabbed all the attention, which “left me out in the cold.”

Out she went, and in came Marla.

“How do I feel about being a bimbo?” Heasley says with a laugh. “That’s not something I’d like to be. What they said is that they want more of a feminine part on the show because she [Culea] was very tomboyish, and they already had four guys and didn’t need another. I don’t see myself as sexy…. I see myself more practical than sexy.” The producers say they weren’t seeking jiggle or a fighter but simply a woman reporter who could keep track of the Team’s antics.

So far, the cast appears happy with Heasley, who was selected from hundreds of actresses in an open casting call. Her previous acting credits include a Battlestar Galactica, a T.J. Hooker and four spots as a Starsearch “spokesmodel.” “The new girl is working out fine,” Benedict says. With his usual flare for sounding like a George M. Cohan musical, T says: “Like the show, entitled The A-Team, we are a team. Together we stand, divided we fall. That makes it jell.”

After the bad blood and bad publicity of the Culea affair, the Team is now putting on a good show of togetherness. “We like each other, we respect each other,” Peppard says. “There is no back stabbing or bitching. You can get that with men of good heart.” T tops that: “I have a good relationship with all the guys,” he says. “Every morning I say, ‘Good morning, brother, I’m proud of you.’ I think this set have more God than any set around.”

Heasley reports that T is “always teasing and then turning gruff”; he reminds her of her big brother. She says Peppard is “very serious,” but also “very nice—George took me aside the first day and said, ‘We’re all like a family on this set, so we want to make you feel comfortable.’ ” On that first day, though, Heasley went to lunch with the wardrobe lady, not the stars. They disappear routinely between takes into their private trailers—Peppard to chain-smoke and talk on his cordless phone, Benedict to puff Dunhill cigars and write a macrobiotic diet book. The fourth Team member, Dwight (Howling Mad Murdock) Shultz, just disappears. And Mr. T goes off to pray. When he emerges, he can be heard to shout: “I love America—it’s the only place where someone can make so much money playing a fool.”

All the blood and guts, bullets and bombs (and bimbos) may look like giggles. But it’s hard work. “It’s tough because we have tanks and helicopters and 60 extras and we have fights,” Benedict says. “I go into a room and hit this guy and then I throw that guy into a tub. It’s fights all day long.”

Fights on the set, fights off the set, and fights across America about all the fighting on the show. That’s a lot of flak, even for The A-Team.

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