Vintage Hunk: George Peppard

By: Mike McCrann

George Peppard was a totally sexy blonde Adonis and a major movie star for about 5 years. Beset with multiple personal demons, Peppard survived 5 marriages and alcoholism to return to the limelight in two hit TV series.

George Peppard Junior was born in Detroit, Michigan. His father was a building contractor and his mother an opera singer. At 17 Peppard enrolled in the Marines, then later studied Civil Engineering at Purdue and finally got his degree from The Carnegie Institute. That's when Peppard followed his true vocation: acting. He enrolled in the Actors Studio during the 1950s. This legendary Lee Strasberg shrine to the art of acting was never more luminous than during this period. Everyone from theater greats Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page to future movie stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward all frequented this holy temple devoted to Thespis.

Peppard's first TV appearance was in Bang the Drum Slowly opposite Paul Newman in 1955, and Peppard was a natural as the guitar-playing baseball player Piney Woods. Following his male ingenue role in Broadway's The Pleasure of His Company (played by Tab Hunter in the later film version), Peppard made his feature film debut in The Strange One and soon got an MGM contract. Peppard's first great movie role was playing Robert Mitchum's illegitimate son in Vincente Minnelli's 1960 melodrama Home from the Hill, but it was in 1961 that Peppard got his most famous film role— opposite Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Truman Capote's novella of a free-living call girl from the back woods and her gay best friend was adapted in true Hollywood fashion. It became a heterosexual comedy / drama with elfin aristocratic Audrey Hepburn playing a role totally alien to her persona and upbringing, and sexy straight George Peppard playing the writer based on gay Capote's real life. So why is this film so beloved, and why does it work despite the seemingly insurmountable casting and script changes?

1. Audrey Hepburn created one of the most delightful characters in film history. Looking elegant and chic in her Givenchy outfits, she simply takes the role and makes Holly Golightly a charming original. Hepburn had greater roles and more critical acclaim for many of her other films but Breakfast at Tiffany's will always be her most beloved.

2. Henry Mancini's musical score and the great hit song "Moon River" were the perfect unseen co-stars for Hepburn. Mancini would win two Oscars for his brilliant work and Hepburn's actual singing of the iconic song is just about the most perfect instance of a non-singer creating a great musical moment.

3. George Peppard was totally sexy in the role of the author/kept man, and his numerous shirtless scenes helped vamp up the sexual tension in the film. Peppard's charmingly relaxed performance is first rate. He supports Hepburn in the best sense of the word. A stronger actor like Paul Newman or Marlon Brando would have thrown the whole balance off.

4. Director Blake Edwards created a comedic masterpiece that has it all - comedy, tragedy, pathos. Yes, the ending in the rain with Hepburn and Peppard kissing while holding the runaway cat while "Moon River" fills the soundtrack is pretty maudlin. Schmaltzy, to be sure. But it is also one of the great sentimental endings in film history. Did you really want Audrey to go off to Brazil by herself?

Apparently Peppard was getting to be a prima donna this early in his career. Edwards later wrote of Peppard: "I begged them not to cast him. I liked George; he was such a ham, so vulnerable really. He was a piss-poor actor and a great deal of fun, and someone who was VERY tortured. And I had a love for him."

Whatever problems Peppard had, he was at the zenith of his movie career. He followed Breakfast with good roles in the epic Cinerama Western How the West Was Won and in 1964 made the smash hit The Carpetbaggers. This film version of Harold Robbins' trashy best seller was one of the most reviled films of the decade but it made a fortune and Peppard was pretty wonderful as the Howard Hughes character. Plus, it was on this film that he met and married his beautiful co-star Elizabeth Ashley, who was at the peak of her career fresh from her Broadway triumph Barefoot in the Park with Robert Redford.

Unfortunately, Peppard's movie roles quickly declined in quality. A few were very good, including the war thriller Operation Crossbow, and this was followed by Peppard's best film in 1972, the cult fave The Groundstar Conspiracy. But by this time Peppard was pretty well finished in movies as his rampant alcoholism and prickly personality made him a pariah in Hollywood. He finally overcame his alcohol problem and was prominently involved with helping others with this addiction; he was also lucky enough to get the TV series Banacek and later The A-Team, which made him famous all over again. Sadly, his health was so undermined by smoking and the alcohol abuse that he died in 1994, at age 65, from lung cancer and the resulting pneumonia.

George Peppard's reign as the blond stud of films in the early 1960s ended due to his self-destructive nature, and new Adonis Robert Redford was soon the heir apparent. While much of Peppard's films and TV work can seem forgettable, he will always have one film masterpiece to keep him enshrined in cinematic glory. Audrey Hepburn and Henry Mancini are the heart and soul of Breakfast at Tiffany's, but it's George Peppard as the sexy stud who grounds the film, allowing the other elements of this classic to shine forever.