He was born in 1928 about 35 miles from here and his wild and woolly bones are now resting there, quiet and tamed. His father was a building contractor and his mother a voice teacher who occasionally snagged a part in an opera. They all enjoyed a prosperous life until the Depression hit, and like many others, they lost it all. His father took work wherever he found it and it was often out of Michigan. George began working at an early age to help out in whatever way he could. He had greatly loved his mother but he learned to dislike her, perhaps for reasons of how she treated her beleaguered husband. His tempestuous relationship with her formed a basis for George's future relationships with his wives. George was anything but beleaguered.
So gorgeous and talented with a beautiful speaking voice, it was only a matter of time that the movies would come calling. His first role was as one of the cadets in 1957s The Strange One with Ben Gazzara starring as a sociopath at a military academy. In 1959 he made Pork Chop Hill, a decent Korean War film that didn't turn out to be one of star Gregory Peck's most touted movies. It would be the first of a slew of war films Peppard would do.
In 1960 came one of the two best roles I think he ever had as Robert Mitchum's illegitimate son, Rafe, in Vincente Minnelli's very popular Home from the Hill. (You'll be hearing more about it before we leave our homage to the 60s.) He more than held his own against Mitchum and far outshone costar George Hamilton, playing his half-brother. Additionally, he was the real hero of the piece. A new stud-muffin had arrived.
If that's the good news, the bad news is that Peppard was showing his first signs of temperament. Never diffident, he often displayed a capriciouness that people became wary of. He had decided Hollywood was too bourgeois for his tastes. It had none of the refinement and seriousness of the Broadway babies and he could hardly stand it. He clashed with Minnelli over the director's rushing things; Peppard needed more time to feel the character. Mitchum told him to start cleaning it up or his third movie was gonna be his last.
The same year he made The Subterraneans, based on a Jack Kerouac novel. The staunchly Republican Peppard, usually fairly straight-laced, couldn't quite make out what the free-thinking Kerouac was all about. No one seemed to understand much about the film either being as it was about misunderstood bohemians. I dug the flick. Leslie Caron and Janice Rule were groovy. Peppard turned in a bright performance even if he didn't understand much of the point of it all. The director, Ranald McDougall, found him a handful.
Peppard's most honored performance is that of Paul Varjak in Blake Edwards' charming 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany's. While the lion's share of deserved attention went to Audrey Hepburn and Henry Mancini's score, Peppard was not slighted. He played Hepburn's gorgeous upstairs neighbor, trying to be a writer while accepting the checks and the goodies from a wealthy Patricia Neal. Of course Peppard became a pain in the ass because he thought Paul was written with too much vulnerability. He thought the character needed to man up. I'm not sure who won, but Peppard and Edwards almost got into a physical fight and hardly spoke to one another unless absolutely necessary.
He was on his way now. The public clamored for more of him. He was rushed into one film after another, leaving a trail of blood and tears and good work along the way. Other than Debbie Reynolds as his aunt, no one had a bigger role in the mega-watt Cinerama western treat, How the West Was Won (1962) than Peppard. In 1963 came the all-star The Victors about a group of soldiers and their exploits all over Europe during WWII. Joining Peppard were Hamilton, Albert Finney, Melina Mercouri, Jeanne Moreau, Eli Wallach, Romy Schneider, Peter Fonda and Elke Sommer. No wonder it was a hit.
Peppard and director Edward Dmytryk probably scratched one another from their Christmas card lists after making 1964s The Carpetbaggers. It was an eagerly-awaited film that was based on Harold Robbins' high-gloss trashy book about a millionaire-creep and those in his orbit. Part of its immense appeal was trying to figure out the real names of the thinly-disguised characters. Peppard headed a large cast as Jonas Cord, a character that I believe was most like him over any other he ever played. That is not a compliment.
Carroll Baker played a floozie girlfriend. She had been his mother in How the West Was Won. Alan Ladd accepted second-lead as Cord's mentor and he and Peppard had one helluva good fight scene toward the end of the film. They probably both loved it since there was no love lost. Ladd, an oldtimer in films, found Peppard to be unbelievably brash. The good news (at the time) was Peppard had a second leading lady in newcomer Elizabeth Ashley with whom he had a six-year marriage.
|With 2nd wife Elizabeth Ashley|
He then made three highly-regarded war films. I was completely drawn into Operation Crossbow (1965) about allied agents trying to infiltrate a German missile site. He was wonderful in the lead, although Sophia Loren, in a small role, was top-billed. (These things happen when your husband is the producer.) That must have galled Peppard. The Blue Max is not only one of my three favorite Peppard roles but one of my favorite war films. He was perfectly cast as a handsome, talented, ambitious, arrogant, disliked German pilot out to acquire a famed prize for 20 kills. James Mason and Ursula Andress were outstanding in support. In 1967 he went to Spain to film Tobruk with Rock Hudson, about an attack on a German fuel depot. It was not as successful as the other two.
The last film I enjoyed Peppard in was a little throwaway western in 1967, Rough Night in Jericho. It costarred Jean Simmons, whom I loved, and Dean Martin, who was better in this, as a nasty villain, than he usually was. It could have spelled out rough times for Peppard for his once-glorious film career had come to an end and his 20 years of doing junk had just begun.
It's been said that in his good years, the 60s, Peppard fought long and hard because he wanted to be the best actor he could be in good films. But then things altered for Peppard and he exchanged actor for movie star. He got caught up in the whirlwind of cars, homes, parties, sycophants and publicity. Soon it got out of hand for him, a vicious circle that resulted in Olympian drinking and outrageous behavior on film sets. It also brought about a financial need to take just about anything offered to him... mostly at Universal. No wonder he was so bitchy with me.
Soon the bad movies more or less stopped and Peppard, like most good movie stars in their waning years, turned to television. He found success in Banacek for two years in the 70s and then The A-Team for four years in the 80s. He not only had been offered the lead role of Blake Carrington in Dynasty, but actually started filming it when he was fired. The producers didn't have the same vision that Peppard did but they had the power. John Forsythe assumed the role.
After Elizabeth Ashley, Peppard would marry three more times. In 1978 he would finally give up booze and, to his credit, spent a considerable amount of time counselling alcoholics. In 1992 he gave up cigarettes after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He died in Los Angeles in 1994 at age 65 of pneumonia.
A 60s Embarrassment