It Never Game Easy

updated 05/23/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/23/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

HIS SMOOTH, SLIGHTLY RAFFISH GOOD looks seemed unexceptional, and so did his resume: A promising movie actor in the '60s {Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Carpetbaggers), he had gone on to be a major TV star in the '70s and '80s (Banacek. The A-Team). But George Peppard was also a hard drinker, until he gave up booze in 1978, and a hard case as a husband, taking six wives—two of them Elizabeth Ashley. "Mine isn't a string of victories," he told his friend New York Post columnist Cindy Adams. "It's no golden past. I'm no George Peppard fan."

Yet many others were before Peppard's 40-year career ended last week with his death at 65 from pneumonia at Los Angeles Medical Center. A native of Detroit. Peppard at first intended to follow his father into building construction. Instead he joined the Marines out of prep school and wound up majoring in fine arts at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He eventually gravitated to Lee Strasberg's famed Actors' Studio in New York City. "He had a wonderful, ironic sense of humor," recalls fellow alumnus Rip Torn. But George Hamilton, who made two films with Peppard (1959's Home from the Hill and 1963's The Victors), remembers him as "weighted down by a sort of inner sadness I could never really fathom."

Sometimes the sadness, which Peppard once admitted grew out of the early deaths of his parents, found its expression in violence. Ashley, whom he met when they were filming 1964's The Carpetbaggers, said in her 1978 autobiography that Peppard once attacked her with a frying pan. "I thought he was going to kill me," she wrote. Peppard denied it but later admitted that when he drank, "I turned into my own worst enemy." He made others, as when he quit his role as the Boston investigator Banacek after three seasons.

Peppard, by then paying alimony to three ex-wives, was rescued from ruin in 1983 when he won the role of Col. Hannibal Smith in NBC's The A-Team, which enjoyed a five-year run. In 1992 he married Laura Taylor, then 33, a West Palm Beach banker who nursed Peppard, a heavy smoker, back to health after a 1992 operation to remove a cancerous growth on his lung.

For all the trouble his drinking caused, Peppard sober inspired affection and trust in his friends. "If George said he would stand by you, you knew he would, no matter what," says actor Pat Hingle. "There aren't many in Hollywood you can say that about."

DORIS BACON in Los Angeles

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