Tied Up With Tie-Ins: The A-Team!

It’s a Monday, which called for a bit of nostalgic wallowing in an around tackling the day’s more important tasks. Today, that means another trip to the “Tied Up With Tie-ins,” where I take a gander at a fondly remembered series of novels based on movies or television series.

It’s most definitely an outgrowth of my collecting old books, which often means I’m revisiting something older, such as the many different tie-ins which were all over the place during my childhood and early adulthood. I’m certainly not above covering newer material, including books or book series which in turn inspired a film or television series. One example I’ve added to my “To Do” list for a future entry is the series of “Walt Longmire mysteries” penned by author Craig Johnson and the basis for the Longmire TV series. I’m also gathering notes for a couple of special entries about 1) 1980s movie novelizations, and 2) off-beat choices for movie novelizations. There might be a little overlap between the two pieces (Howard the Duck or Meatballs, anyone?), but I’ll try to keep it to a minimum.

Meanwhile, today’s entry is inspired in part because it was 40 years ago tonight that we were introduced to this team of ne’er do wells:

In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…The A-Team.

(Okay, the opening narration didn’t come until the following week, but forget it. I’m rolling.)

What was to be the show’s now-iconic opening narration explains, The A-Team followed the exploits of four former Special Forces soldiers, who’ve been on the run for more than a decade following their court martial by and subsequent escape from the U.S. Army. Led by Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard), an officer known for his stalwart leadership and unconventional tactical prowess, the team also featured Lieutenant Templeton “Faceman” Peck (Dirk Benedict), Captain H.M. “Howlin’ Mad” Murdock (Dwight Schultz), and Sergeant Bosco “B.A.” (for “Bad Attitude) Baracus (Mr. T). While Hannibal is the brains of the outfit, Peck is the designated con artist, Murdock is the pilot who can fly anything, and B.A. is the wheelman, mechanic, muscle, and the team’s walking safe deposit box for all of their jewelry. No, really.

L-R: Dirk Benedict, George Peppard, Dwight Schultz, Mr. T

Premiering as a mid-season replacement for NBC on the evening of Sunday, January 23, 1983, The A-Team opened with a 2-hour episode, “Mexican Slayride,” which introduced us to the characters and their shenanigans. Actor Tim Dunigan portrays Faceman in this pilot episode, replaced by Benedict after NBC picked up the series after it was decided Dunigan was too young to convincingly play a Vietnam veteran.

The original “feature-length” version of the pilot also lacks the opening narration that will come to be so memorable, and which (later) explains these guys have been on the run for the Army for a decade or so and have set themselves up in Los Angeles as “heroes for hire.” They sell their skills to those who can’t seem to find assistance or justice by following the usual avenues. It’s a basic premise that will be tweaked in several ways and later used to introduce TV audiences to Robert McCall, aka The Equalizer on CBS in 1985.

Melinda Culea as Amy Allen

The team, occasionally hounded by Colonel Lynch who hopes to recapture them and haul them back to the Army, is sought out by journalist Amy Amanda Allen (aka “Triple A,” played by Melinda Culea), who hopes they can help find and retrieve a colleague who’s been captured by some bad dudes in Mexico. Having recently evaded Lynch’s latest attempt to catch them, Hannibal, B.A., and Face spring the fourth member of their team, Murdock, from an Army psychiatric hospital before stealing a plane and traveling with Amy to Mexico. Following the rescue of her friend, Amy opts to stick with the team, hoping to write about them and perhaps correct the public’s (and the Army’s) incorrect perception of them.

The A-Team was something of a breakout hit, starting out as a modest ratings success with its premiere episode. A much larger audience caught the next episode a week later, which aired after Super Bowl XVII, bumping the show into the Nielsen Ratings Top 10. The pilot introduces various tropes for which it will become famous, including car chases in which no one is hurt or killed, fist fights from which there are no lasting injuries, gun fights in which no one is killed or even wounded except in very rare circumstances, unorthodox tactics, and no small amount of pre-MacGyver-esque “improvisational construction” of weapons, vehicles, and other modes of mayhem the team uses to win the day.

For four of the show’s five seasons, the show continued with variations on the same basic formula: The team is hired by someone desperate for help, they seek out and confront the bad guys responsible (usually after breaking Murdock out of the hospital), get into trouble, concoct some crazy scheme or build some weird contraption to defeat the bad guys, maybe escape Army pursuit, and do it all again the next week.

The show’s shorter, fifth and final season attempted to shake up things in response to fading ratings by having the team captured by the Army and tried for their supposed crimes. They escape and are given shelter by General Hunt Stockwell (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s Robert Vaughn), who offers to protect them in exchange for them carrying out missions deemed too dangerous for conventional Army resources. If they behave and do what they’re told long enough, Stockwell will see to it they’re granted presidential pardons for their crimes. Of course Stockwell’s not totally on the up and up, a thread which will course through the final episode of the series.

Now here we are, 40 years after the show’s premiere, and The A-Team continues to be one of those 1980s series that most people seem to know at least in passing. They’ve likely heard the theme music, or heard the catchphrases (“He’s on the jazz,” “I love it when a plan comes together,” etc.) used in conversation. At its peak, it was popular enough to inspire a variety of merchandise including toys, games, apparel, a (very) short run of comics, and – as was the case with many a 1980s TV series – a run of tie-in novels.

A total of ten novels based on the series were published between January 1984 and February 1986. Only the first six were distributed in the United States from publisher Dell Books, while the complete set of ten was published in the UK by Target Books (the same publisher which for many years published adaptations of scores of Doctor Who episode adaptations). The six Dell books are credited to Charles Heath, and I’m not entirely certain that’s not a pen-name although my attempts to research that came up short.

The first installment, simply titledThe A-Team, is an adaptation of the series’ two-hour pilot episode. It manages a decent enough job translating the teleplay to prose form, though even with nearly a year separating the series premiere and the book’s publication the usual sorts of “novelization idiosyncrasies” are present. It’s also the only book in the novel series to feature original cover art. The covers for the rest of the Dell books are dominated by the same publicity still of George Peppard and Mr. T, and also feature smaller promo or action pics of the rest of the cast.

Books 2-5 are also novelizations, each tackling a pair of episodes which are at the very least kinda sorta semi linked in theme or general plot. Book 2 adapts a pair of first-season episodes, while books 3-5 all adapt second season stories:

Small But Deadly Wars – adapting “A Small and Deadly War” and “Bad Day at Black Rock”
When You Comin’ Back, Range Rider? – adapting the 2-part episode of the same name
Old Scores to Settle – adapting “Recipe for Heavy Bread” and “The Only Church in Town”
Ten Percent of Trouble – adapting “Steel” and “The Maltese Cow”

Book #6, Operation: Desert Sun, is an original novel that tells the full story of the mission that got the team into hot water with the Army. It occurred to me while making notes for the books that I’ve never actually seen the show’s fifth season, which I know includes details during their court martial about the mission that resulted in the “crime they didn’t commit.” I therefore have no idea if the book’s version of events is consistent with revelations made in those episodes, but I’m betting it isn’t. Also, the title page of this novel apparently lists the author as Louis Chunovic despite Charles Heath’s name on the cover. As Mr. Chunovic had other TV-related books credited to him back in the day, I have to wonder if he didn’t write the first six novels under Heath’s name as a pseudonym.

The Target Books editions of the first six novels had different cover art, which is normal in situations such as this, and their cover scheme at least leaned toward variety in publicity and stills from episodes. Books 7 and 8 were written by author Ron Renault, #9 by David George Deutsch, and the series’ final book was penned by Max Hart. All four books adapt third-season episodes, with two exceptions:

Bullets, Bikinis and Bells – adapting “Bullets and Bikinis” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s”
Backwoods Menace – adapting “Timber!” and (from the first season) “Children of Jamestown”
The Bend in the River – adapting the 2-part episode of the same name
Death Vows – adapting the first-season episode “Till Death Us Do Part”

To borrow a bit from Mr. T, I pity the fools who never got to read these books. Sure, they’re the usual flavor of fondly remembered TV tie-in fluff common to the era, but they slot in well enough alongside other 1980s “Men’s Adventure” offerings like the Executioner, Destroyer, and M.I.A. Hunter novels to name just a few prominent examples.

Two more books, each a riff on the “Choose Your Adventure” format but dubbed “Plot It Yourself,” were written by author William Rotsler, who in the 1980s wrote similar books for other franchises, including titles tying into both Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which were published as digest-sized paperbacks under Simon & Schuster’s now-defunct Wanderer Books imprint. For The A-Team, Defence Against Terror and The Danger Maze were published in 1985.

Surprisingly – or perhaps not – there was no novelization of the script for the 2010 feature film reimagining of The A-Team. The movie also didn’t do well enough with critics or at the box office to justify a sequel. For me, it was a better than average action movie with a likable cast (Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, and Quinton Jackson) I’d I’ve have watched again.

It’s all but inevitable that the premise will be revisited again at some point. Will that version generate tie-in novels? I guess we’ll have to wait and see if such a plan ever comes together.

Previous entries in this series:
Introductory Post
The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman
Planet of the Apes
Space: 1999
The “No-Frills” Books
Alan Dean Foster!

Die Hard
Alien Nation
Into Infinity
Mission: Impossible
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
Dark Skies
seaQuest DSV
Lost In Space

Lay it on me.

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