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Dwight Schultz: Typecast As Versatile

July 20, 1985|LEE MARGULIES | Times Staff Writer

Typecasting works in strange ways. Ask Dwight Schultz, one of the co-stars of NBC's popular series "The A-Team."

Schultz plays the zany "Howling Mad" Murdock, a free spirit who, under the guise of being a classic example of what Mr. T's character calls a "crazy fool," acts differently every week. One episode will find him talking like James Mason, another like Darth Vader, another like Marlon Brando in "The Godfather." In still another he'll be cavorting with an invisible dog; the next week trading quips with a sock puppet on his hand; then impersonating a chicken.

In one of TV's most rigidly formatted series, Schultz paradoxically is called on to demonstrate unusual versatility in providing comic relief for the action-adventure show to balance the heavy doses of gunfire, car crashes and fist fights.

For a theatrically trained actor with a love of repertory, the role of Murdock offered Schultz what he considered an ideal opportunity: the chance to gain the high visibility of a TV series without having to repeat the same characterization every week.

"When I read the original script, I thought the part was wonderful and very funny," Schultz says, recalling his decision to try out for the series in 1982. "I thought I could adapt it to my talents, which involve versatility as opposed to charisma and personality. It seemed to me you could do almost anything with the role, limited only by what they'd allow you to do."

His friends warned him about the dangers of being typecast by a TV series. Then 35, Schultz had been acting long enough to know what they were talking about, but he thought the nature of the Murdock role would preclude that from happening to him.

But as George Peppard's "A-Team" character might say: that was one plan that didn't come together.

"No matter how versatile you are, you're only seen as being versatile in a very limited format," Schultz complains. "Casting directors ask, 'Can he be real?' They see me as only being capable of doing off-the-wall humor, of making funny sounds, of doing Jonathan Winters voices."

He has a long list of theatrical credits, including roles in such Broadway plays as David Mamet's "The Water Engine," Tom Stoppard's "Night and Day" and Paul Giovanni's "The Crucifer of Blood," which he also performed at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles in 1980-81. He's also acted in theaters in his native Baltimore, Philadelphia, Houston, St. Louis and Williamstown, Mass.

Moreover, Schultz in person is nothing like the character he portrays. Whereas Murdock is brash and hyperactive, the lean, 6-foot-2 actor is soft-spoken and pensive, with a low-key intensity suggesting a strong purposefulness.

But none of that counts for much when he auditions for feature film and TV movie roles, he maintains. "It isn't enough to have worked on stage. You must show your ability on the screen; casting directors accept it only after they've seen it."

There's not much he can do about it, Schultz concedes. "You just do your best and keep fighting them on it," he says. "Somehow you have to break the mold and prove you are an actor."

What sustains him in the meantime, he says, is his own knowledge of and pride in what he's done in the past, plus the satisfaction of being in a top-rated series, which has given him popularity and financial rewards beyond anything he'd thought possible.

Indeed, even with his serious-minded bent as an actor and occasional producer--he and his wife, actress Wendy Fulton, produced J. M. Barrie's "Mary Rose" at the Gene Dynarski Theatre in Los Angeles earlier this year--Schultz offers no apologies for "The A-Team." Yes, it is farcical and cartoonish, he acknowledges, but at least the show does it well. There is something to be said, he argues, for quality of execution.

"I know what I'm doing," he says. "This is not David Mamet; this is not William Shakespeare. This is geared to Middle America. The goal is to be successful. It's selling a product."

He dismisses complaints that the show is overly violent, contending that most children can easily see that the series no more pretends to reflect reality than does a comic book. He believes it's providing the same sort of action-packed fantasy adventure that the old movie serials did.

"If you think 'The A-Team' is a bad show, that's a good reason not to let your children watch, if they can't decide for themselves," he maintains. "But if they're watching it and liking it, you should ask them why they enjoy it. Maybe you'll learn something."

As to the sources of inspiration for making Murdock different each week, Schultz says there are many: faces in magazines, images of animals, the vocal rhythms of people around him. "It's a collaborative effort," he says. "Some weeks I will make the material work; other weeks the writers will make it work, or the director will come up with an idea."

Like any good actor, he also uses his experience--including the frustration of being typecast. "I keep myself alive on the set by thinking of the things I want to do, the type of roles I'd like to play," he explains. "Frequently I wind up using that in Murdock--to get it out at the moment."

Schultz went into television after deciding that it was becoming more and more difficult to survive as a stage actor without the name recognition that producers could exploit to help sell tickets. So even if typecasting is preventing him at the moment from expanding his career to include good character roles in films and TV, he hasn't lost sight of his initial goal in joining "The A-Team."

"If I can go back to the theater and work regularly after this, I'll be very, very happy," he says.

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