40 Years Ago: ‘The A-Team’ Creates Heroes From ‘Outcasts of Society’
In 1983, NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff was searching for ways to improve his network’s sagging ratings. After watching the films Road Warrior and The Dirty Dozen, he couldn’t escape a thought: “There's gotta be a way to combine the two for television.”
A chain of events was set in motion that brought The A-Team to television. Tartikoff’s initial idea was to create a unique and engaging team of renegade heroes – or, as he described to the New York Times, “the people you go to to do something when no one else can.”
Tartikoff enlisted Stephen Cannell, the talented writer and producer behind such previous hit shows as The Rockford Files and The Greatest American Hero.
Tartikoff said, “‘Remember The Road Warrior? It’s like that but not that,’” Cannell later told GQ. “Remember Belker, that crazy guy on Hill Street Blues? That guy could be in the show. And you know that guy Mr. T in the Rocky movie? He drives the car.’ And that was the pitch.”
Cannell said “Brandon hadn’t pitched me the show but he pitched me the attitude, which was really clever,” noting that he felt like Tartikoff was empowering him to “break all the rules.”
Watch 'The A-Team' Opening Credits
Cannell and writing partner Frank Lupo quickly got to work on the concept. The heroes would be given military backgrounds, as former members of a Special Forces unit during the Vietnam War who had been accused of a crime they didn’t commit.
“I always wanted to do a show on soldiers of fortune, and it was a midseason order and he needed it right away,” Cannell admitted. “They needed a script in 12-15 days. It was a real hurry-up job. Frank and I took every character we came up with and twisted it further. The pilot is insane – it has an invisible dog, and they’re on the run from the government.”
The four main characters would be John "Hannibal" Smith, the group’s leader, played by George Peppard; the smooth-talking lady’s man Arthur Templeton "Faceman" Peck, played by Dirk Benedict; pilot and wild man H.M. "Howling Mad" Murdock, played by Dwight Schultz; and muscular mechanic Bosco Albert "B.A." Baracus. As per Tartikoff’s original idea, the latter role was written for Mr. T.
The A-Team premiered on Jan. 23, 1983. Each week, the titular crew would solve crimes, hunt down bad guys and generally fight for justice. Though the show famously never showed a death on screen, action sequences, explosions and gunplay would be commonplace. For its time, The A-Team was the most violent television show. It was also incredibly popular.
"The show isn't working because we are flipping jeeps over, but people are getting a kick out of the characters, who have specific things that make them funny," Cannell told the Times back then.
Though the series was far from high art, fans flocked to watch the adventure. "I am not going to sit here and say I am very proud of The A-Team," Tartikoff added. "We are not looking for Emmy Award nominations, but to get the blood pumping at the network. In that, The A-Team has exceeded my expectations."
In his mind, the show fit those "crazy times," Tartikoff said. "These are underdogs, outcasts of society at a time when there are a lot of disenfranchised people. The show is escapist and fun to watch."
Watch a Fight Scene From 'The A-Team'
The A-Team was a rating juggernaut for its first three seasons, ranking among the most-watched shows on television. Things began slipping in season four, and by 1987 the series was done. Still, its legacy has remained intact.
“It was a guy's show,” Benedict said in 2006 on the British TV series Bring Back. “It was male-driven. It was written by guys. It was directed by guys. It was acted by guys. It's about what guys do. We talked the way guys talked. We were the boss; we were the God. We smoked when we wanted. We shot guns when we wanted. We kissed the girls and made them cry ... when we wanted. It was the last truly masculine show.”