Thursday, June 08, 2006

The A-Team: The Legend Lives On

So a British TV network did a show called "Bring Back the A-Team". The host, Justin Lee Collins, apparently makes a specialty of doing shows where he goes around trying to find and re-unite the cast of a popular TV show -- and "The A-Team" is really, really, really popular in England; I can't stress that enough. Most of the "A-Team" fan fiction and a lot of the Mr. T webcomics come from England. So Collins' fan-worship of Mr. T and Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz is totally believable.

Anyway, the special included the above-named actors; it didn't include George Peppard, who's too busy being dead, but it did have Marla Heasley, who was the "token female" on the show for a few months in 1984. But the one surviving regular who did not appear in the reunion was Melinda Culea. And so the legend lives on.

What I mean by that is that the Melinda Culea "A-Team" story is one of my all-time favourite show-business stories, and it's fascinating to me, in part, because it's not a very well-known or widely-analyzed story, which means I can read anything I want into it.

The story is actually pretty simple, in outline: Culea was hired to play Amy Allen, a reporter who tagged along with the A-Team and was supposed to help them line up cases and publicize their exploits. She was there for the huge success of the first season, but the writers couldn't figure out what to do with the character -- or, put it another way, they realized that there was no reason for the character to be on the show at all.

By the second season, her part had been reduced to almost nothing: a couple of lines in each episode, or a chance to deliver some exposition. She started complaining about having nothing to do, and told the producers, accurately: "if you can’t write the role better you don’t need me. You can get any number of young, pretty girls as guest stars for a lot less money than you’re paying me." She reportedly also started lobbying the writers to let her character actually participate in the fight scenes, something that is common now but never happened with female characters back then (heck, even Batgirl was never allowed to actually hit anybody; she had to get on a table and kick them). The other actors, but particularly Peppard and Benedict, didn't care for her complaints and thought she should consider herself lucky to be on a show that didn't really need a female lead.

At some point during the second season, Culea discovered she was fired, in the most humiliating way possible: she received the script for that week and found that her character wasn't in it. She told TV Guide that she wasn't sure what had happened but thought it might have something to do with "Peppard, who never liked me." Peppard, Benedict and Mr. T all had some rather snippy things to say about her when asked.

Now, was this a case of horrible injustice done to a great character or a great actress? Hardly. The character of Amy was never really needed (though she is a somewhat more consequential character in the pilot), and Culea was nothing special -- a competent but uninspiring actress, and a good-looking woman who didn't look all that good on film. There was no reason not to let her go; she said so herself: if they couldn't write the part better, they didn't need a female lead (though they did try another female lead, Heasley, for a few episodes after they dumped Culea).

And yet, the story fascinates me. Partly because I've heard the occasional rumour that there's more to what happened than was reported at the time; but even based on what was reported, it's the outline of a great story. A young actress gets her big break as the female lead in a pilot; the pilot gets picked up and the show becomes a monster hit -- but nobody writes about her, nobody writes for her, and neither she nor her character are really treated as a full member of the group. She tries to lobby for a stronger part and a stronger character, to be a full member of that group in every sense, and the star of the show turns against her. She is forced off the show and into obscurity. The end. Now, how much does that outline correspond to what actually happened? I've no idea. But that's why I'm oddly glad that Culea declined to show up for the reunion: it keeps the real details of the story as murky as they ever were, and allows one's imagination to make anything of the story that one wants -- it can be the story of how badly women are treated in the man's world of TV, or it can be the story of a veteran actor who didn't like a young woman who talked back, or it can be the story of an actress who thought she was more important to the show than she really was, or all of the above, or none. It's an inkblot showbiz story: you see in it what you want to see.

I actually tried several ways to do a fictionalized version of this story (in fiction, you don't have to worry about what really happened and can make the story mean whatever you want). I did do a short story called "Token Female," about a young man obsessed with the firing and unable to enjoy the show because of it. But I really wanted to do it as a longer story about two women: the token female on an action show, and the token female on the writing staff of the same show. The problem was that there just wasn't enough story material to do a longer version -- or, more specifically, there wasn't enough story material featuring the two women together (since they wouldn't have seen each other very much). Someday I'll find the right way to do that story, though. And anyone else who wants to try and crack it is welcome.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Absolutly agree with your comments re Melinda Culea. An ongoing saga still debated on many web sites. However the line about disappearing in obscurity not quite. That would be good for the fiction Melinda showed in up 84 in 3 great epsodes of Family Ties where Gary Goldberg had positive comments about the epsiodes. Her filmography is much more than I thought. I last saw her in Family Law 2001 where she was quite more than competent although as you suggest not truly outsanding.
Sometimes the right vehicle can comes along after years and make over a twenty overnight success. Look at Virgina Madsen. Years doing low bugdet, a strk trek voygaer episode and then sideways and now she is starting to make it.

Anyways I have Melinda pop up over the years she always gives a solid performance. Was it that she had so little to do that made her look than competent (it is hard to work when your all allowed to do is smile) and in A Nice place to visit she gets more air play than in five shows and comes off resonably well. I also read they had to buy out her contract for the remainder of the season --- more grist for the rumour mill. Your suggestion of a story or script is delicious and I tempted to try it although I have usually written for magazines. And yes I was glad she did not attend reunion.