January 23, 1983 The A-Team debuts on NBC
In the pilot episode of the NBC television series The A-Team, which airs on this day in 1983, the go-getting newspaper reporter Amy Allen (Melinda Culea) seeks the help of a mysterious group of Vietnam-veterans-turned-soldiers-for-hire to find her missing colleague in Mexico. An elite commando unit in Vietnam, the so-called A-Team was wrongly imprisoned by the Army. They escaped and began working as mercenaries, doing whatever needed to be done for their various clients while consistently eluding the fanatic Army officers sent to catch them. The A-Team went on to become a huge hit and make a star of the-then little known actor Mr. T.
Produced by Stephen Cannell and first envisioned by Brandon Tartikoff, NBC’s president, as a volatile combination between films such as The Dirty Dozen, The Magnificent Seven and The Road Warrior and TV programs such as Hill Street Blues, The A-Team became a bona fide phenomenon during its five-year run. Despite its late entry to the 1982-83 ratings season, The A-Team was on its way to a No. 1 ranking by season’s end. It also topped a list of the most violent shows on TV, compiled that year by the National Coalition on Television Violence.
George Peppard, who memorably starred opposite Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), played the A-Team’s leader, John “Hannibal” Smith; he called his A-Team role “probably the best part I’ve had in my career.” The show also featured Dirk Benedict as Templeton “Faceman” Peck and Dwight Schultz as H.M. (Howling Mad) Murdock, but its breakout star was the mohawked, gold-bedecked Mr. T. Born Laurence Tureaud in a tough Chicago neighborhood, Mr. T got into show business after winning a c ontest as the “World’s Toughest Bouncer.” He was spotted by Sylvester Stallone, who cast him as a boxer in Rocky III (1982). As the surly A-Team mechanic B.A. (Bad Attitude) Baracus, Mr. T uttered some of the show’s most memorable catchphrases, including “You better watch out, sucker” and “Pity the fool.”
Campy and outrageously violent, The A-Team was particularly popular among children and teenagers, and with male audiences. Over the years, the show’s producers experimented with adding a woman to the mix–including Culea’s Amy Allen, Marla Heasley as Tawnia Baker and Tia Carrere (who later starred in Wayne’s World) as a Vietnam war orphan meant to provide a link to the soldiers’ past–but these stints were relatively short-lived, and the team’s testosterone-heavy vibe remained intact. By its fourth season, the show’s popularity was waning, due partially to its formulaic nature and partially to the growing trend towards family-friendly comedy that was being driven by the success of The Cosby Show. In the spring of 1986, Cosby-inspired shows such as Who’s the Boss? and Growing Pains on ABC were beating The A-Team handily in the ratings each week.
A-Team producers tried different tricks to win audiences over, including one episode centered on the popular game show Wheel of Fortune and various guest appearances by such prominent personalities as the pop star Boy George, the professional wrestler Hulk Hogan and the Chicago Bears defensive lineman William “Refrigerator” Perry. The show hung on into a fifth season, but aired only 13 episodes, ending unceremoniously in March 1987.