GEORGE PEPPARD: Ready, Set, Action Character
For most of his career, George Peppard has been a superstar waiting to happen. He co-starred with Robert Mitchum, Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Julie Harris, Paul Newman, yet his own professional status never quite rose to their level.
Peppard, 62, became best known for his arsenal of action and military films, several of them classics, including “Pork Chop Hill” (1959), “How the West Was Won” (1962) and “The Blue Max” (1966).
He found it tough escaping those roles. And the battles in his personal life were often as tumultuous as his war films--conflicts on the job, drinking problems, four marriages, four divorces.
After a period of B movies in the 1970s, Peppard was cast opposite Linda Evans in the pilot of “Dynasty” but was then asked to leave the series to make room for John Forsythe.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Peppard came back in a flash of gunpowder in 1983 as the dapper Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, the machine gun-toting leader of ABC’s demolition-derby series “The A-Team.”
On Monday, Peppard is at war again in “Night of the Fox,” an ambitious miniseries based on Jack Higgins’ best seller, airing on KTLA. Peppard plays a British secret service agent during World War II whose mission is to rescue--or kill--a shipwrecked American in German territory before he has a chance to give away plans for D-Day.
Peppard spoke with Daniel Cerone about “Night of the Fox” in a midnight phone interview from his hotel room in London, after two exhausting performances of the play “Love Letters” with Elaine Stritch.
Is “Night of the Fox” a return to the old-fashioned war movies you used to star in?
Yes, it is. We have a huge cast of soldiers and tanks and fortifications and ships and explosions and action. But it’s not hurried. We’re used to a cut-cut-cut feel from films and television now. Higgins wrote a story that unfolds. The show is a good old-fashioned melodrama. It’s a spy story with double identities, an illicit love affair and lots of plot twists.
Did you ever want to escape those old military roles?
(He laughs) Are you kidding? Look, an enormous amount of my film work has been spent charging up a hill saying, “Follow me, men! This way!” Even though I did “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” nobody seemed to think I could do comedy. I always played the man of action. And men of action are not terribly deep characters, and not real vocal characters. Martineau (from “Night of the Fox”) is a delightful departure. He’s a thinking man, and he talks.
You found prominence with a new generation of fans on “The A-Team.” How do you regard that experience?
I love it. It’s the first time I ever had money in the bank. Four California divorces and 25 years of alimony will see to it you have no money in the bank. It was a giant boost to my career, and made me a viable actor for other roles.
You never worried that “The A-Team” might hurt your career?
Hurt my career? (Before “The A-Team”) I couldn’t get arrested.
Well, this business has a short memory for one thing. People want to know, “What did you do yesterday? " Another thing, in some areas I had gained a reputation for being, quote, “difficult.” And a lot of people are of the attitude, “Who needs it?”
Are you difficult?
I don’t think most of the people I’m actively involved with believe that I am. Well, I shouldn’t say that. I did have some very highly publicized disagreements with executives, both with studios and prominent television executives. I’ve more or less quit three different television series.
What was the lowest point of your career?
The 10 years just before “The A-Team.” I had no money. I moved out of my house and leased it. I got an occasional job, in New Zealand, in Spain. I had a nice role in a Roger Corman movie, “Battle Beyond the Stars.” I played a character called “Space Cowboy.” But there weren’t enough roles to live on.
Was that also when you had a drinking problem?
I haven’t had a drink in 12 years. I turned into my own enemy. I finally recognized the snake that bit me, and the fact that alcohol is poison for me. I was very ashamed. I talk about it purposefully...I don’t mind being used as an example if it can do somebody some good. Life was great after I quit drinking. My career was in the toilet, but I felt fine.
Any more marriages in your future?
Are you kidding? Getting married and having a bad divorce is just like breaking your leg. The same leg, in the same place. I’m lucky I don’t walk with a cane.
What kind of actor would you like to be regarded as today?
Well, remember I trained for seven years before I started getting screen work as a stage actor. I love working for an audience. Aside from that, despite all the uniforms and the guns, I think I am at my base a character actor.
So you’re not concerned that you never became a superstar?
Being a star has never interested me. Stars, per say, are a pain. Stars to me are in the sky. The important question is, “How good an actor are you?” And now I have some hope, because I’m of an age where I could be considered for character roles.
“Night of the Fox” airs on KTLA Monday from 8-10 p.m. (Part 1) and Tuesday 8-10 p.m. (Part 2).