Actors of Legend: George Peppard
Hollywood is not what it used to be. Hollywood has become overcrowded with so many entertainers that somehow got lucky and made it big due to popularity but not necessarily capability. Looking back on when Hollywood was full of legends who took pride in their work rather than just making a movie for a pay check I would like to nominate my own “Actor’s of Legend.”
Another actor that makes the list of “Actors of Legend” is George Peppard. Best known for his role in the 1980’s television series the A-Team as Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, George was no novice to the entertainment field of work. He started acting in 1949 and worked even until his death.
George Peppard made his stage debut in 1949 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. After moving to New York City, Peppard enrolled in The Actors Studio, where he studied the Method with Lee Strasberg. His first work on Broadway led to his first television appearance, with a young Paul Newman, in The United States Steel Hour (1956). Peppard’s Broadway appearance in The Pleasure of His Company (1958) led to an MGM contract. Prior to a strong film debut in The Strange One (1957), he was discovered playing the illegitimate son of Robert Mitchum's character in the popular melodrama Home from the Hill (1960).
His good looks, elegant manner and superior acting skills landed Peppard his most famous film role as Paul Varjak in Breakfast at Tiffany's with Audrey Hepburn. This 1961 role boosted him briefly to a major film star. His leading roles in that film's wake included How the West Was Won in 1962 (his character spanned two sections of the episodic Cinerama extravaganza), The Victors in 1963, The Carpetbaggers in 1964, and The Blue Max in 1966. The Carpetbaggers was based on an epic Harold Robbins novel which used the life of Howard Hughes as inspiration and featured Alan Ladd in his final screen role as Nevada Smith, also played by Steve McQueen in a smash hit prequel the following year.
Peppard started choosing tough guy roles in big, ambitious pictures where he was somewhat overshadowed by ensemble casts; for example, his role as German pilot Bruno Stachel, an obsessively competitive officer from humble beginnings who challenges the Prussian aristocracy during World War I in The Blue Max (1966). For this role, Peppard earned a private pilot's license and did much of his own stunt flying, although stunt pilot Derek Piggott was at the controls for the famous under-the-bridge scene.
Due to Peppard's alcoholism, and notoriously difficult personality on the set, his career devolved into a string of B-movies through the late sixties and early seventies. He then had a notable success with the TV series Banacek (1972–74), (part of the NBC Mystery Movie series), and one of his most critically acclaimed, though rarely seen, performances in the TV movie Guilty or Innocent: The Sam Sheppard Murder Case (1975), as Sam Sheppard.
Among the disappointing films was the 1970 Western Cannon for Cordoba, in which Peppard played the steely Captain Rod Douglas, who has been put in charge of gathering a group of soldiers on a dangerous mission into Mexico, and 1967's Rough Night in Jericho in which he was billed over crooner Dean Martin and Jean Simmons, a reflection of his status at that point in his career. Peppard appeared in the short-lived (half a season) Doctors' Hospital (1975) and several other television films. He was in the cult science-fiction film Damnation Alley in 1977. With fewer interesting film roles coming his way, he acted in, directed and produced the drama Five Days from Home in 1979.
In a rare game show appearance, Peppard did a week of shows on Password Plus in 1979. Out of five shows, one was never broadcast on NBC (but aired much later on GSN) due to a rant where he expressed dissatisfaction with NBC executives watching "as if you're some sort of crook." Host Allen Ludden was visibly perturbed and Peppard was never asked to return to the show after his outburst.
n 1981, Peppard was offered, and accepted, the role of Blake Carrington in the TV series Dynasty. During the filming of the pilot episode, which also featured Linda Evans and Bo Hopkins, Peppard repeatedly clashed with the show's producers, Richard and Esther Shapiro; among other things, he felt that his role was too similar to that of J.R. Ewing in the series Dallas. Three weeks later, before filming was to begin on additional episodes, Peppard was fired and the part was offered to John Forsythe; the scenes with Peppard were re-shot and Forsythe became the permanent star of the show.
In 1982, George Peppard auditioned for and won the role of Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith in the TV action adventure series The A-Team, acting alongside Mr. T, Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz. In the series, the A-Team was a crack squad of renegade commandos on the run from the military for a crime they did not commit while serving in the Vietnam war. The A-Team members made their collective living as soldiers of fortune, but they helped only people who came to them with just grievances.
In the series, Peppard played "Hannibal" Smith. He was the leader of the A-Team, distinguished by his cigar smoking, confident smirk, black leather gloves, disguises and catch phrase, "I love it when a plan comes together." The show ran five seasons on NBC from 1983–1987. It made Peppard known to a whole new generation and is arguably his most well-known role. The role was reportedly written with James Coburn in mind, but Coburn declined and thus the role went to Peppard. Peppard was reportedly annoyed by Mr. T upstaging him in his public image, and at one point in their relationship refused to speak directly to Mr. T. Instead, he sent messages through intermediaries and for this Peppard was occasionally portrayed by the press as not a team player.
George Peppard, Jr. was born on October 1, 1928 in Detroit, Michigan, the son of building contractor George Peppard, Sr. and opera singer Vernelle Rohrer. He graduated from Dearborn High School in Dearborn, Michigan. Peppard enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at age 17 on July 8, 1946 and rose to rank of Corporal in the 10th Marines, leaving the Marines at the end of his enlistment in January 1948
From 1948 to 1949, he studied Civil Engineering at Purdue University where he was a member of the Purdue Playmakers theatre troupe and Beta Theta Pi fraternity. He then transferred to Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1955.
Peppard overcame a serious alcohol problem in 1978, and subsequently became heavily involved in helping other alcoholics. He had smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for most of his life until he quit after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1992. His illness never forced his retirement from acting, and Peppard completed a pilot for a new series in 1994 (a Matlock spin-off) shortly before his death. Peppard died on May 8, 1994, in Los Angeles, California. Although he was still being treated for lung cancer, the direct cause of death was pneumonia. He is buried in Northview Cemetery in Dearborn, Michigan.
Article by Kevin C Davison
“I write to entertain, and for a cause.”