Though Mr. T will always have a place in wrestling history, thanks to his appearances at the first two WrestleManias, he wasn’t the only A-Team star to make a name for himself in the sport. Dirk Benedict, who played Face on the 1980s action show, did as well, teaming up with “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in the 1987 wrestling movie Body Slam.
Benedict recently shared with SlamWrestling.net his memories about making the movie, an experience that he says was at times tumultuous, but overall the most fun he ever had making a movie.
Benedict plays M. Harry Smilac, the down-on-his-luck manager of a struggling glam-rock band. A bit of a con artist, as the movie begins, he’s trying to put together a political fundraiser despite having no big name entertainment connections. As if that weren’t stressful enough, he’s also trying to hide from a Korean banker and his hired goons who are trying to collect on a large debt that Smilac skipped out on earlier. Trying to negotiate a deal, he interrupts a meeting between a sleazy promoter and Quick Rick Roberts (Piper). Thinking Roberts is a musician, Smilac inserts himself into the proceedings and negotiates a deal for him. Afterwards, he learns that Roberts is really a professional wrestler, who is so impressed by Smilac’s negotiating ability, that he, and his partner Tonga Tom (played by the Tonga Kid, or Tama) take Smilac on as their wrestling manager. This incurs the wrath of Captain Lou Murano (Captain Lou Albano), a heel manager who manages the tag team champions (played by Tjioe Khan and the Barbarian). Smilac combines his two interests, and soon his band Kick is the opening attraction for the wrestling –- a revolutionary combination of “rock and wrestling” that thrills the fans and infuriates Murano and his old-school cohorts. Ultimately, the two teams decide to settle it in the ring, Murano putting up his team’s championship belts, and Harry putting up his career as a wrestling manager. As with most underdog movies, there’s a typical feel-good ending with Smilac’s team celebrating their victory in the middle of the ring as the credits start to roll.
Like the wrestling industry itself, the movie is nothing that you can take seriously, but its campiness makes it a fun distraction nonetheless, and that, along with the opportunity to work with director Hal Needham, were what intrigued Benedict about the film.
“Hal Needham wanted me for the part,” he recalls, “based on my comedic antics in The A-Team. I read the script and just loved the concept. Hal has a knack for making silly comedies that appeal to the masses, such as the Smokey and the Bandit films (and The Cannonball Run). Farce is one of my favorite forms of acting and this is as close to it as I ever got to do in a feature film.”
Benedict was also intrigued with playing the part of Harry Smilac, a character that he felt was not unlike Face, his character from The A-Team.
“I had great fun with the character. I just loved how shallow, manipulative, and full of (bull) he was. He would lie to his own mother, and yet he had a heart of gold. I really liked how inept he was, when he figured he was the smartest guy on the planet. And, of course, he eventually becomes a good guy and almost honest. Also I enjoy physical comedy and this had plenty of it. I was tossed around a lot, dressed up in drag, did falls. Being silly and getting paid for it is my idea of heaven as an actor.”
In fact, Benedict’s only regret about the movie is that it never got released theatrically, but only to video, a problem he says was caused by interference in the filmmaking process by the writers.
“The film was made by Orion pictures,” he recalls, “and they loved it and had high hopes for it for a summer release. (What caused it to not be released) is so reflective of how precarious show business can be. The writers were two lawyers who came up with a great idea and wrote a script that Hal and I knew needed work. The lawyers were new and didn’t understand the creative process -– the scripts are just blueprints, not written in stone, and quite often they get changed many times during the course of filming.
“Hal and I changed much of the original dialogue, and created a lot of the scenes on the set, all which greatly improved the film. But the two fellows who wrote it were very angry about that. At the end of filming, they took Hal to court for all the changes. It dragged on and on, and we missed the summer release dates. I think Hal won the court case, but (the delay) destroyed the film’s chance for theatrical release. It was very sad, very heartbreaking –- everyone lost.”
“During filming, (the movie’s writers) were a real pain in the ass,” Benedict says, “always questioning Hal about the (script) changes we were making, and how he was shooting each scene. Can you imagine? Hal’s Smokey and the Bandit films have made nearly a billion dollars worldwide and yet they thought they knew more than he as to how the film should be shot.”
“We were shooting the scene where I first meet Roddy Piper and force myself on him as his manager, thinking he is a rock and roll musician. The younger of the two was berating Hal over how he was shooting the scene.”
“I lost it. I grabbed the guy and slammed him up against a wall, and told him how dare he question Hal’s ability to make a funny film, and to just get his dumb ass off the set and let us make the film. Roddy had to pull me off the guy. I became a great hero to the wrestlers and rest of the crew. They had T-Shirts made that said ‘Dirk Benedict Kicks Ass’. The lawyer/producer/writer never did come on the set again. But they did get their revenge in the end (by suing Needham for the changes, which ultimately led to the film not being released theatrically). And of course destroyed their own budding careers as film moguls.” (Note: a search on the Internet Movie Database reveals that the two writers had virtually no Hollywood credentials other than Body Slam.)
On the other hand, Benedict has nothing but good memories about the people with whom he shared the screen. Non-wrestling co-stars included ’80s jiggle queen Tanya Roberts, Charles Nelson Reilly with whom Benedict formed a lifelong friendship, a young Kellie Martin, and legendary little person actor Billy Barty, who Benedict calls a “fabulous guy.”
“One of my favourite scenes,” he fondly reflects “was with Lou, Billy, and Charles where Harry appeared on a wrestling talk show. I was there in my flashy wardrobe –- I was very involved in picking Harry’s wardrobe, and it was so wonderfully silly –- like a peacock, and every time Harry opened his mouth, Billy Barty’s character would yell out ‘faggot’ at him. I just loved the zaniness of the scene. What a cast of characters.”
Some of wrestling’s modern legends played key roles as well. In addition to Piper, Tonga and Albano, a number of others had minor roles and cameo appearances. The Korean banker’s hired goons, for example, are played with a perfect air of comedic menace by the Wild Samoans, Sika and Afa. During the final scene, the climactic battle between Smilac’s men and Murano’s Cannibals, seated in the front row are Ric Flair, Freddie Blassie, Shiek Adnan Al Kaissy, and Bruno Sammartino. Benedict has great respect for the wrestlers’ ability to act, and was particularly impressed by the talents of Albano and Piper.
“Lou is what he is all the time. Very, very out-going, to put it mildly, very funny and a non-stop yakker. I enjoyed working with him enormously. It’s funny, all of the wrestlers have the acting gene. What they do (as wrestlers) is so much a ‘performance.’ I didn’t realize it before doing the film, and it surprised me how they could ‘turn it on’ when the cameras rolled, and how different they were on camera vs. off.”
“Albano had a great sense of comedy,” he remembers. “He and I had great fun doing our scenes together. He was always looking for ways to make it funny. You know he has these rubber bands that are stuck through his skin, like pierced rings, but rubber bands. In one scene my character, Harry, pulls one of them out. Well when we came time to do it, I told him to go to make up and have them put one on him with latex and I would pull it and it would not hurt him nor damage the real ones he had on his face. He thought I was nuts. He told me, ‘just pull one of the real ones, whichever one you want.’ So I did. There was a little blood but he thought nothing of it. He thought me a bit of a wimp for even suggesting such a cheat.”
Benedict also became close friends with Roddy Piper during the filming, and the two of them used to talk a lot when the cameras weren’t rolling.
“Roddy told me many stories of his early days, and they were quite amazing. He told me how fans would cut his legs with razor blades as he entered the arena down the aisles en route to the stage. He is a very tough guy, not only physically but internally. He has a very good and very strong character, which is the key quality, I believe, behind his success (in wrestling and in acting).
“I realized immediately that he understood the trick of performing in film. Acting in film is very different from stage and very, very different from the performance required in a wrestling arena, which has to be big and a bit over the top to register for those fans in the cheap seats. He had a natural instinct for being real and honest and got continually better as the filming went. I was not surprised by the success Roddy has had acting in film and have been so happy for his success in that area. He deserves it. I really thought of him as an actor in a wrestling movie, like myself, rather than a wrestler who was doing a little acting on the side. He is a complex man and made me look at professional wrestling in a completely different way.”
He means that in another way as well, since it was while filming Body Slam that Benedict learned of wrestling’s scripted nature. That secret wasn’t revealed to him a year or so earlier when Hulk Hogan made a guest appearance on The A-Team.
“Oh, the ‘code’ was kept, you better believe it,” he says. “In fact, (during Hogan’s shoot), one never even discussed the possibility that wrestling wasn’t completely real. (For me), the issue was first raised during the movie … (however, even then it was) dealt with in typical pro wrestling fashion.”
“During the final match in the film between Roddy and Tonga Tom against The Cannibals, we had about two or three thousand extras. In shooting the scene it involved many different camera set ups and angles and required the wrestlers to do moves over and over and it became obvious that they weren’t really hitting one another. People could see that the blows were being ‘pulled.’ The audience began to giggle and laugh. I’m sitting quietly watching, waiting for when I will be needed, when all of a sudden there is a confrontation between Roddy and one of the Cannibals. Some shoving, words are exchanged, and all of a sudden a REAL fight breaks out between the four wrestlers, and they’re exchanging real hits and real blood begins to flow. Hal Needham, who weighs all of 160 pounds but is an old stunt guy and has no fear, jumps into the ring to try and stop it. One of the wrestlers, I forget which one, grabs him and tosses him against the ropes. The assistants hustle Hal out of the ring. Some of the wrestlers who are watching, jump into the ring and break up the fight after a couple of minutes. The audience is stunned. Silent. Gasping. Things get calmed down and we continue the day’s work. Later that night I mention to Roddy how scary it was and how fortunate no one got hurt and ask him what the fight was about. He smiles at me, winks, and explains that the ‘real’ fight was all actually ‘fake.’ The wrestlers didn’t like the fact the audience was beginning to believe it was all fake and so knew they had to do something. So they just upped the intensity and staged a fake/real fight, and of course fooled everyone -– Hal, me, the three thousand in the audience, everybody. It was fantastic.”
When he’s discussing the movie, it’s clear that Benedict is proud of the end result, and disappointed that it wasn’t given the chance he thinks it deserved. He enjoyed the character, so much so, that if the opportunity presented itself, he would be the first to line up for a sequel.
“The last time I watched the movie was about eight years ago when I showed it to my two sons. They absolutely fell in love with it, and for a long time, it seemed they would watch it every other day. The film has quite a following, considering how hard it is to find (it is not available on DVD, and is out of print on VHS). I’ve had people yell ‘Harry Smilac’ at me as I walked down the streets of various cities. It’s really quite amazing. I’d do a sequel in a heartbeat. Can you imagine Harry, at 50, still running cons and trying to get the girl?”
“It was a pleasure and privilege to work (on the film),” he concludes. “I’m very proud of it.”