When Sharlto Copley was 11 years old, his mother forbade him to watch The A-Team on TV. The show was as great a hit in South Africa as it was in the rest of the world but, said Copley, “My mom thought it was too violent. I watched it anyway at my friends’ houses. The show was huge when I was a kid. I had my ‘A-Team’ gang, we celebrated BA Baracus’s birthday – we even made a special cake – and I just followed everything they did, but especially Murdock.
“When I finally heard that I had got the role of Murdock in The A-Team movie I called home and told my mom that I was just getting her back for not letting me watch the series when I was a kid.”
It certainly is a coup for a South African actor who has made only four movies. Admittedly, one of those films was the celebrated District 9, which was an impressive calling card. It was while the promotion for that film was in full swing that Copley had the first approach from the producers to play Murdock in The A-Team.
It was a professional dream come true, but also a much more personal event for Copley.
“He was one of the few people who made an impact on me as far as doing voice impersonations and crazy dialogue,” the actor said.
“It was so original and so different. I copied him all the time. Eventually I created a discussion involving 19 guys, all with different accents and voices, all talking at the same time, and all created by me.
“I learnt that from copying Murdock.”
Copley kept this up for years, creating characters and using them in the short movies he had started making.
“By the time I was 19, I was doing impersonations and making effects for short films and it all came from Dwight Schultz.
“I really think of him as a man who was ahead of his time. I know that the original script for the TV series was written way more conservatively, then Dwight took it over and re-invented Murdock. He created it all, from the ground up,” said Copley.
“I also think he opened the door for comedians like Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and Jim Carrey.”
The point is that Copley had been doing these variations on the style of Schultz for years, so when he was sent the script, he had a huge store of technique and knowledge on which he could draw.
We have to remember that The A-Team was not some secret undercover army unit. These guys had all been kicked out the army. They are ex-US Army Special Forces, “soldiers of fortune” who take money from the good guys and, in exchange, take out the bad guys. At the beginning of the TV series, they were branded as “war criminals” and it was credible that Murdock could have lost a few marbles after that upheaval.
Copley said: “I read through those TV scripts very carefully and in 98 episodes, that played out over four years, I found no sign of his being crazy. Murdock just is what he is. I like that kind of curious mystery about the character and decided to use it in my own performance.”
He took the role of Murdock seriously. “It was great to get the offer to read the script of the new movie as a step towards getting a role, but the script they sent to me did not impress me. I did not feel that I could play Murdock as he was written in that script. I read it while we were on the press junket for District 9 in America and we spent a lot of time sitting in hotel rooms. We were in Texas, and I just locked myself in my hotel room, set up a camera and began improvising,” he said.
“After two hours I came up with all kinds of little skits and impersonations that Murdock could do in the movie. I was running with the idea of how to make him a little more crazy and funny. I called the film ‘Things that would happen to Murdock in a hotel’.
“Next day I sent it to the film’s director, Joe Carnahan, and told him: ‘If you’re open to doing this with Murdock, and incorporate a little more of what Dwight Schultz brought to the part, I’d love to be involved.’ And then I waited.
“Thankfully Joe said yes. He agreed to try things throughout the shooting period, just encouraging improvisation and pushing some of the craziest stuff in the movie between Murdock and the other guys.”
Copley’s loyalty to a youthful TV idol had paid off – but the story did not end there.
Carnahan and co-writer Brian Bloom wanted to incorporate some of the characters and touches from the original TV series into the new film. It has, after all, been 24 years since the TV series ended. Two generations have grown up since then, but Carnahan wanted to include the original audience in various ways
One of those was a cameo appearance by Schultz. You can imagine the state in which Copley was on the day that his childhood hero played a walk-on role in a film.
The South African invited Schultz to see the audition movie he had made for Carnahan and asked Stephen J Cannell, the creator of the original A-Team, to join them.
“After Dwight had seen the film,” said Copley, “he turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, ‘You are Murdock.’ The next day he put the film on his website and he wrote ‘Murdock is dead, long Live Murdock.’ It was deeply personal to me. I really wanted to honour the characters that were such a big part of my childhood and my life.”
It might be tough for Copley to find another project that has the same resonance and interest level for him. There are whispers of a possible A-Team sequel, but that will be settled by the film’s box-office performance.
There is also the possibility of a sequel (or possibly a prequel) to District 9 , of which Copley says: “I would pay Neil Blomkam p to be in his movie. I would be back in a flash if they thought of doing another District 9 film.”
It seems, however, that Copley is pausing for breath, to take stock of what could happen next. “It was a busy and physically tiring shoot on every level,” he said.
Not many people get to drive down Hollywood Boulevard in a heavy-duty military tank with Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, standing on the vehicle waving to the cheering crowds as they head for the Hollywood premiere of The A-Team.
“When I found myself booked in first class for the first time, I thought, ‘This is it. I’ve arrived.’ But for this press junket and the premier, we are flying around in a private Gulfstream G4. The experience is getting bigger and bigger,” he said.
“I don’t accept this as my reality now and I know it is not always going to be like that, but I’m enjoying it, right now, while it lasts. I know from my own past that life is an up-and-down thing. And you just have to run with that.
“As a child at school I wanted to become an actor but after school I kind of dropped the idea. It was only when District 9 came up for me that it has all started again.
“I feel I am back in touch with my childhood energy and inventiveness again. I feel as if I lost myself in those years when I was trying to be a big deal in business.”
Copley made short films which have appeared at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as commercials and music videos. He co-founded his own production company and once owned a talent agency.
“The acting has brought me back to my own original self, the guy I remember when I was 12. The ambitions that I had and the ego that I had in that other career were temporary,” said Copley.
“I hope I’ll find something great but I don’t expect it. Life is temporary. Things change and I can’t sit around waiting for someone to send a Gulfstream G4 to take me around.