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George Peppard, Versatile Actor, Dies at 65

May 10, 1994|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

George Peppard, the actor who first achieved prominence opposite Audrey Hepburn in the film "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and was better known to modern audiences as the tough, cigar-chomping mercenary Hannibal Smith, leader of television's "The A-Team," has died. He was 65.

Peppard, who underwent successful surgery for lung cancer two years ago, died Sunday night of pneumonia at UCLA Medical Center. Publicist Cheryl Kagan said that Peppard's cancer had been in remission since a tumor was removed from his right lung, but that he entered the hospital Thursday with breathing problems that developed into pneumonia.

A longtime heavy drinker and smoker, Peppard abandoned alcohol in 1978 and kicked his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit after the lung surgery in 1992.

Known as difficult in his professional and personal life, the versatile actor suffered long periods of unemployment and four divorces, two from actress Elizabeth Ashley, whom he met while filming "The Carpetbaggers."

"Getting married and having a bad divorce is just like breaking your leg. The same leg, in the same place," joked the tall, ruggedly handsome Peppard a few years ago. "I'm lucky I don't walk with a cane."

Peppard proved as pragmatic as he was outspoken. Although he originally disparaged the small screen in favor of films, he achieved his widest success and perhaps greatest pleasure starring in three NBC television series--as the Polish American detective "Banacek" from 1972 to 1974, as a neurosurgeon on "Doctors' Hospital" from 1975 to 1976, and as the Vietnam veteran colonel on "The A-Team" from 1983 to 1987.

"I'm concentrating on big-screen roles. . . . (I) turned down two television series," he told The Times in 1961. "In a series you don't have time to develop a character. There's no buildup; in the first segment you're already established, with absolutely no background."

Peppard appeared in more than 25 films after making his debut in "The Strange One" in 1957. But his first were the best--"Pork Chop Hill" in 1959, "Home From the Hill" in 1960, his role as the writer supporting Hepburn's Holly Golightly in "Tiffany's" in 1961, "How the West Was Won" in 1962 and "The Carpetbaggers" in 1964. Although he appeared with the superstars--Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, James Stewart, John Wayne--he never became one himself.

"I don't know of one good actor who hasn't gone to hell when he got big enough," he raged to syndicated columnist Hedda Hopper in 1962, although he later conceded that he admired Stewart, Wayne and others when he got to know them. "When they start getting the million-dollar salary and the percentage, they start doing everything except what they're equipped for--they start producing and directing."

But a decade later, Peppard ate those words, telling a Santa Monica court he was giving up acting in favor of directing and producing in order to make enough money for alimony payments. His greatest effort proved to be the 1979 film "Five Days From Home," which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in. Peppard employed family members, including his third wife, actress Sherry Boucher, and managed to market the film independently to some critical praise but little financial success.

Conceding that television wasn't so bad after all, he made the pilot for "Dynasty" in the role of the patriarch--only to be ousted in favor of John Forsythe. Peppard went through several years in which he joked that he "couldn't get arrested," much less find work.

Then, with the tough-guy stereotype he always attributed to his role as a megalomaniacal tycoon in "Carpetbaggers," Peppard was tapped for leader of "The A-Team," which he came to rate as the best role of his career.

"I thought the pilot was terrific," he told The Times shortly after the series debuted in 1983. "I realized the role would give me the chance to do the sort of thing I've never been allowed to do in movies. I mean, I get to disguise myself as a Chinese person, a Skid Row drunk, a gay hairdresser--I wanted to change from leading man to character actor for years now but have never been given the chance before."

He remained delighted with the series, which spawned a popular live-action show at Universal Studios amusement park, well after it ended.

"It's the first time I ever had money in the bank," he said in 1990. "It was a giant boost to my career, and made me a viable actor for other roles."

Among those roles was that of a World War II British secret service agent in the 1990 television miniseries "Night of the Fox." He also returned to the stage, appearing in "Love Letters" in London and "The Lion in Winter" in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he met his fifth wife, Laura. Most recently, he appeared in the March 3 episode of the television series "Matlock."

Born in Detroit, Peppard was educated at Purdue University and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, then studied at the Actors Studio in New York. In the 1950s, he worked in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, summer stock in New England, New York-based television dramas and such Broadway plays as "The Pleasure of His Company."

Peppard earned a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and served as grand marshal for the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade in 1983.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by three children, Brad, Julie and Christian, and three grandchildren.

The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Lord's Place, P.O. Box 7117, West Palm Beach, Fla. 33405, which aids the homeless.

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