(b. 1 October 1928 in Detroit, Michigan; d. 8 May 1994 in Los Angeles, California), stage, screen, and television actor who established himself with his film role opposite Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and was the star of several popular television series.
Peppard was the only child of George Peppard, Sr., a building contractor, and Vernelle Rohrer, a voice teacher and opera singer. His parents were in their forties when he was born, his mother having had five miscarriages before him. After graduating from Dearborn High School in suburban Detroit, Peppard enrolled as an engineering student at Purdue University in Indiana, where he was one of the founders of the Purdue Playmakers. Then his father died suddenly. According to the actress Elizabeth Ashley, who was married to Peppard, he left Purdue, went home to Detroit, and finished the construction projects his father had failed to complete before dying; then he joined the Marine Corps. When he got out of the service, Peppard enrolled at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) on the GI Bill. He earned his B.F.A. degree in 1955.
Peppard made his professional debut playing the male lead in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. While a college student, he performed in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1952 and 1953. After graduating from Carnegie Tech, he enrolled in Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio in New York City. During this time Peppard lived on Bleecker Street in a $40-a-month flat and worked part-time as a cab driver. His first Broadway appearance was in N. Richard Nash’s Girls of Summer in 1956. While he earned favorable notices, the play was panned by all the major New York critics and closed after fifty-six performances. Peppard received favorable notices in his next Broadway appearance in The Pleasure of His Company (1958), which starred Cyril Ritchard and Cornelia Otis Skinner.
Peppard made his film debut in 1957 with Pat Hingle and Arthur Storch in The Strange One. Next he appeared in Pork Chop Hill in 1959. Peppard played leading roles in Home from the Hill and The Subterraneans, both in 1960. He received the National Board of Review Award for best supporting actor for Home from the Hill. In 1963 he first received top billing in The Carpetbaggers.
Peppard was memorable for his role opposite Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Blake Edwards’s adaptation of Truman Capote’s novella of the same title. According to Alexander Walker’s biography of Hepburn, as a method actor Peppard approached his role as a technician and thoroughly analyzed the contours of his role. Walker further observed that Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the first film in which Hepburn played opposite an actor who was her own age. The next year, Peppard was impressive as the young sheriff in John Ford’s Oscar-winning epic How the West Was Won. He continued to enjoy success as an actor, although much of his later career consisted of more routine adventure films. According to Ashley, Peppard was talented, educated, and intelligent, but he had been shaped professionally at the end of the era of powerful Hollywood studios. Peppard, she wrote, was “caught between being an actor and being a movie star.” In a film career spanning more than thirty years, he appeared in more than twenty-five motion pictures.
His earliest television roles included a memorable part in the CBS drama special Bang the Drum Slowly, starring Paul Newman, in 1956; The Little Man of Alban, with Julie Harris in 1959; and appearances on the Hallmark Hall of Fame, the Alcoa Hour, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Beginning in the 1970s Peppard did extensive TV work. After a modestly successful crime drama series, Banacek (1972–1974), he starred in a less successful medical drama, Doctors’ Hospital (1975–1976). In 1978 he wrote, produced, and directed Five Days from Home. He had been cast in the part of Blake Carrington in Dynasty but was replaced by John Forsythe during the filming of the pilot. Peppard played his best-remembered TV series role as John (Hannibal) Smith, an army veteran leading a team of renegade soldiers of fortune on The A-Team (1983–1987). The show was successful in the ratings, although it was criticized for its violence. Peppard once told an interviewer that the role of Hannibal “is probably the best part I’ve had in my career. It was a good script, and a good script is hard to find.” After The A-Team was canceled in 1987, Peppard returned to the stage and in 1990 appeared in hove Letters, opposite Elaine Stritch, in London’s West End. In the early 1990s Peppard toured the United States in Papa, a one-man show based on the life and career of Ernest Hemingway.
In 1992, as a result of many years of heavy smoking, Peppard had a cancerous tumor removed from his lungs. He finally quit smoking. He was married six times to five women. He was twice married (first in 1966) to Elizabeth Ashley, his costar in The Carpetbaggers and with whom he had one son. Both marriages to Ashley ended in divorce. His other wives were Helen Davies (1954–1964; they had two children), Sherry Boucher (1975–1979), Alexis Adams (1984–1986), and Laura Taylor (1992), who survived him.
Although he spent most of his life as an actor, producer, and writer, in his later years he spent much of his time helping alcoholics and working for various charities. He died of respiratory complications due to pneumonia at the age of sixty-five and is buried at Northview Cemetery in Dearborn, Michigan.
Elizabeth Ashley’s Actress: Postcards from the Road (1978) details her life with Peppard. Alexander Walker’s biography of Audrey Hepburn, Audrey: Her Real Story (1994), references Peppard. He was profiled in Current Biography (1965). Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times (both 10 May 1994) and Newsweek (23 May 1994).
John Kares Smith