Dirk Benedict is a television legend. The cigar-chomping ladies’ man struck small-screen gold as womanising space pilot Lieutenant Starbuck in the 1970s Battlestar Galactica series, and again as womanising con man Lieutenant Templeton ‘Faceman’ Peck in ’80s action staple The A-Team. The iconic characters were real men’s men, never far from a drink, a gamble or a smoke.
Indeed, Northern Ireland’s smoking ban is the first thing on Dirk’s mind as he talks about his upcoming Belfast debut, playing Lieutenant Columbo (what is it with Benedict and lieutenants?) at the Grand Opera House.
“I’m an old cigar smoker and unfortunately I can’t go to the pubs anymore,” he says. “The first time I came to Dublin after the smoking ban — I think it was in 2004 — there were all these people standing in the street, and it was raining. I though, ‘Oh, no!’ I loved the Irish pubs, but now you’ve got to stand outside in the rain.”
Fortunately, Benedict has Columbo’s crumpled mac to keep him dry. Dirk has donned the famous beige raincoat for the nationwide tour of Columbo: Prescription Murder, in which he stars alongside acclaimed British actor Patrick Ryecart. The show — Benedict’s first stage role since playing Hamlet on Broadway in 1987 — is an adaptation of the detective series’ 1968 pilot episode.
Benedict is faithful to Peter Falk’s portrayal of Columbo (he even utters the catchphrase, “Just one more thing”), yet Dirk claims not to have watched the long-running original. “People don’t believe me, but I never saw the TV series,” he says.
“I was aware of it, of course, because it was extremely popular in America, and I met Peter Falk when I was at Universal Studios in ’72, ’73. I used to see him walking around in that old mac, and he was a very nice guy — very down-to-earth and charming.”
Although he has due reverence for Falk’s performance, Dirk chose not to meet with the now 82-year-old star or to consult the creators of Columbo. “When the script was sent to me, I said, ‘Well, I’m just going to do this the way I would do it.’ I don’t know if it’s ego or ignorance. I wasn’t nervous until I got to England, and started touring and meeting fans.
“It’s a good thing I haven’t messed this up, or I would probably have to leave the country!”
Dirk says audiences have been split between viewers of the original series and followers of his own work: “It’s 50-50, maybe 60-40 Columbo over The A-Team. I can tell by the age.
“The Columbo fans tend to be 60 or over, and the A-Team people are in their late twenties, thirties. It’s a nice mix. I’ve met a lot of young guys who’ve never been to the theatre, who came to see me. It’s great. I also get to steal kisses from all these pretty young girls that come with their guys!”
Benedict was born Dirk Niewoehner in Helena, Montana, on March 1, 1945. After a typical American childhood of hunting, fishing and football, the struggling theatre actor won small parts in Hawaii Five-O and Charlie’s Angels.
Later, he appeared in the horror film Ssssnake, played Twiggy’s wife-beating husband in W and starred in the short-lived cop show Chopper One. In 1978, he was cast in Battlestar Galactica.
The A-Team followed in 1983, lasting 98 episodes and becoming a huge international hit. Now 65, Dirk admits he is unlikely to top his greatest success. “In terms of doing another TV show, they were all pretty boring compared to the experience I had,” he says. “It was the best. There was no Hollywood nonsense, no agents or managers on the set, no pomposity, nobody in their big motor homes. We just joked and laughed all day long. I couldn’t wait to go to work.
“From day one until four-and-a-half years later when we stopped, every day I looked forward to seeing the guys and figuring out what gun I got to shoot and what girl I got to kiss. It was the most fun experience I’ve ever had as an actor and probably ever will.”
Dirk is “flattered” that his work continues to inspire new generations, but he was unimpressed by the first remake of one of his famous shows. “They turned Starbuck into a girl,” he spits, referring to the 2004 ‘reboot’ of Battlestar Galactica. “How flattering was that? At least we’re not turning Columbo into a girl. Imagine if we did that? It’s an insult to the original character. What they did to Starbuck was unforgivable.”
Still, the new Battlestar Galactica was wildly successful, running for four seasons and spawning a 2010 spin-off, Caprica.
Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck character retained the original’s fondness for drinking and sex, but the show gets a major thumbs-down from Dirk. “It reflects everything that’s wrong with the world today,” he groans.
“They took a family show about morals, spirituality, love and hope and turned it into dysfunction, despair and disenchantment.
“They took a show that was black and white and made it grey. They got rid of all the charm and humour, and made it a dark, nihilistic, depressing experience.”
As for this summer’s A-Team movie, Dirk is trying to keep an open mind, though if it turns out to be a disaster, he certainly won’t hold back. “I’m one of those sad people who always tell the truth,” he shrugs.
Director Joe Carnahan’s big-budget remake hits cinemas on July 30, starring The Hangover hunk Bradley Cooper in Dirk’s Faceman role, alongside Liam Neeson as plan-loving Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, Sharlto Copley as crazed pilot ‘Howling Mad’ Murdock and wrestler Quinton Jackson as jewellery-clad hard man BA Baracus. “I’ve met Bradley Cooper, and he seems like a real nice guy,” says Dirk. “But they’re all serious actors, and they’re [supposedly] going to make it ‘better’. That’s like me saying I’m going to make Columbo better. I’m going to be better than Peter Falk. I’m not going to smoke the cigar, and I’m going to get rid of the old mac It’s just amazing to me how Hollywood does this every time they redo these shows.”
Ballymena-born Neeson takes over from the late George Peppard as Hannibal, but it “should have been George Clooney,” believes Dirk. “I mean, Liam’s a wonderful, fabulous actor, but he’s a serious actor. To be able to do light comedy is a gift. It’s Sean Connery. It’s Roger Moore. It’s Tony Curtis. It’s Jack Lemmon. It’s not Marlon Brando. It’s not Al Pacino. It’s not Liam Neeson.”
Dirk, along with fellow original A-Team star Dwight Schultz, who played Murdock, filmed cameos for the new movie, though he says it is “just a visual thing for a few seconds. If you blink, you’ll miss us.”
Dirk feels the actors should have been given “real parts”, but he doesn’t want to get mired in controversy. “I’m trying to keep my mouth shut, because I’ve already been quoted as saying I don’t like the movie,” he laughs. “I have never seen the bloody movie! I didn’t even read a script.”
Yet Dirk can’t resist a rant about Carnahan’s serious-minded ‘reimagining’ of the tongue-in-cheek classic.
“It seems like they totally changed it,” he says. “We were a corny, silly, slightly camp action TV show. The reason we were successful was because we were funny, silly, a bit of a cartoon.
“That’s what made The A-Team special. It wasn’t the gunfights. It wasn’t the explosions. It wasn’t the car crashes.
“What made The A-Team special, and why it’s still popular — and I meet 10-year-olds who are crazy about it — was the chemistry between those four guys [Benedict, Peppard, Schultz and the mighty Mr T, who still milks the BA character in advertisements for chocolate bars and video games]. If you take that away, you’re not making The A-Team. It’s like making Rambo into a comedy.”
It has been said that Peppard could be difficult on set, but Dirk has fond memories of the veteran star, who died in 1994. “I learned a lot from George,” he says. “He was a real taskmaster about the script, about economy. He would take the script and he would delete lines of dialogue, which drove the producers and the writers crazy. ‘We don’t need this; we don’t need that; we’re going to lose this.’ He was the leader, just like in the show, and he was right.
“There was another guy [Tim Dunigan] playing the part originally, and when I came on, after the first couple of days working, George took me aside and said, ‘OK, now we’re going to be a hit. You were the missing link. We’re going to be the number one show in America.’”
Since The A-Team, Dirk has focused on family life (he raised two sons with actress Toni Hudson, whom he divorced in 1995), as well as occasional writing and directing jobs. He also penned a book, Confessions of a Kamikaze Cowboy, about his battle with prostate cancer.
Dirk claims to have beaten the disease — which was diagnosed in 1975, when he was 30 — by living a secluded lifestyle, eating a macrobiotic diet and taking regular exercise.
“I went away for two or three years and came back with a whole new body, a whole new being,” Dirk says. “It’s based on the premise that much of our illness comes from what we eat. It’s the truth, and it works. Every day I get letters from people whose lives have been changed by reading my book, and it opening them up to the simple notion that your headaches, your diarrhoea, your constipation, your asthma, your obesity, is all because of what you eat. It changed my life, saved my life and made everything possible.”
Dirk’s most recent screen appearance was in the 2007 series of the UK’s Celebrity Big Brother, in which he finished third. He arrived at the Big Brother House in a replica of the A-Team van, smoking a cigar and accompanied by the show’s theme tune.
“I hate reality TV and I had no desire to do it, but I couldn’t say no to the money,” he says.
“I was also slightly curious to see what it would be like to be locked up with those people, and it actually wasn’t that tough. It was the easiest money I ever made.”
But perhaps the coolest moment in Dirk’s long career was seeing Starbuck and Faceman made into toys.
“I have two action figures,” he smiles. “How many actors have that? Not even Stallone has two. I’ve got to put that in my bio: an actor with two action figures.”
Columbo: Prescription Murder runs at the Grand Opera House in Belfast from Monday, May 31, to Saturday, June 5. See www.goh.co.uk for details