John Ashley went from Sixties B-movie star to A-Team narrator
The A-Team narrator made one cameo designed to delight his drive-thru movie fans.
During each episode of The A-Team, a narrator takes viewers into the action.
When the show first premiered, at least one critic noted that the narrator’s voice sounded "alarmingly familiar" to anybody who spent the Sixties watching B-movies at the drive-in.
John Ashley was a star who made his name in B-movies, often playing the villain punk in often-forgotten movies like Dragstrip Girl and How to Make a Monster.
Perhaps most prominently, in all four Beach Party movies, the good-looking young actor played Frankie Avalon’s rival.
For Ashley, acting in all these B-movies was a complete accident.
He landed his first role in Dragstrip Girl after he made a date with a girl who was reading for the movie. Because their date was scheduled for 6 p.m., he tagged along to her audition, and when the casting agent asked him to read too, he gave it a try and got the role.
"I was sitting in American International Picture’s waiting room and a guy walked out and said, ‘Have we read everyone? What about this young man here?’" Ashley told the Fort Lauderdale News in 1985. "It was the old Hollywood story – I got a part in the film, and she didn’t."
That’s showbiz, and Ashley quickly learned that he had a knack for acting.
Soon he was cast to star in low-budget pictures, where his youthful good looks made him ideal to play a teenager throughout his twenties.
But then when he hit 30, he no longer had that boyish charm, and he worried he needed a back-up plan.
He moved to Oklahoma and opened up a chain of movie theaters that became so successful, he eventually had to sell the business because he simply couldn’t manage it.
During that time, Ashley struck up another partnership with a low-budget director, dipping his toe back into acting.
He decided after selling his movie theaters to move back to Los Angeles, where TV star Robert Conrad (The Wild Wild West) gave him a job at his production company.
From that point on, Ashley was a producer, and that’s the gig that led him to join Stephen J. Cannell’s production company.
For The A-Team, Ashley not only serves as narrator, you see, but he’s also one of the main producers.
"We have three producers," Ashley said. "Frank Lupo supervises the writing, Jo Swerling Jr. – the supervising producer on all Steve Cannell’s shows – kind of backstops me. I’m basically like the line producer on a movie. On a given day, I’ll prepare with the director of the next week’s show, I’ll deal with the problems of the current episode, I’ll go to lunch, then I’ll have a casting session in the afternoon, and I’ll look at the dailies."
Casting young actors was one of Ashley’s favorite parts of the job. He always saw himself in the young hopefuls.
"A lot of them have their own little bits of business," Ashley said. "Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s a little sad. But I know what it’s like. I’ve been there."
Working on The A-Team was perhaps the highlight of Ashley’s career.
"You can never predict a hit, but we were shooting the pilot for The A-Team in Mexico and a lot of crew members said, ‘I got a feeling about this,’" Ashley said. "It’s like catching lightning, this kind of success – it only happens once in your life, finding someone like Mr. T and having him and the show become the phenomenon they have."
Although he started out as a movie star, Ashley liked being behind the scenes on The A-Team while featuring in every episode as a narrator.
He also once made a cameo in the show’s second-ever two-part episode that nodded to his past acting in B-movies.
In the episode, Ashley plays a backer, someone Faceman tries to sweet-talk into investing in a fake horror movie that shares a title with a real horror movie that Ashley shot in 1971 called The Beast of the Yellow Night.
For most A-Team fans, this inside joke probably flies over their heads like a whirling helicopter.
But for fans of B-movies who actually wrote in letters to Cannell’s production company after seeing Ashley’s name in the credits, it was the confirmation they were seeking that The A-Team narrator and the B-movie actor were one and the same.
Lots of fans wrote "asking if it was the same John Ashley who used to be an actor," Ashley said. "It’s kind of a joke around here."