With a leather jacket swung artfully over his shoulder and a suggestive glint in his eye, during the 1980s Dirk Benedict brought a touch of cool to The A-Team as the Face.
An important member of the do-good vigilante squadron, he was the smoothest soldier of fortune around, appropriating vehicles and weaponry without ever messing up his pomaded hair and seducing the most promising piece of skirt in sight, while Hannibal hatched plans 'on the jazz', ‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch pulled manic grimaces, and BA Baracus struggled with his flying phobias (and serious layers of bling) to save the day.
In the thick of all the TV-friendly violence - bullets whizzing past that never hurt anyone, explosions that were more cartoon than atrocity - Benedict was the most dashing of the ‘Nam-veterans-turned-mercenaries. It was all very macho and frequently declaimed as sexist. As Benedict once described it, The A-team was a show about guys, written by guys, for guys: 'We smoked when we wanted. We shot guns when we wanted. We kissed the girls and made them cry.'
Even now, 27 years since the first episode aired on American TV, Benedict is still breathless with excitement when he recalls The A-Team glory days.
'It was the most fun I’ve ever had as an actor,' he admits. 'Most days I couldn’t believe they were paying us. It was like being a kid, playing Cowboys and Indians or knights in shining armour, all that good guy beats bad guy stuff, and getting to kiss the girls.
'Those guys were my best friends - they still are. It all had a lot of male energy. It was constant sparring and joking, gags, practical jokes - insanity on location. It was wild.'
Benedict has had a hotchpotch career, ranging from playing Hamlet at the Abbey Theatre - a character he describes as 'rash, obsessed, swashbucking and sexy' - to his Lieutenant Starbuck in the original Battlestar Galactica and, more recently, appearing on 2007’s Celebrity Big Brother. (Benedict arrived to meet Davina in a replica of A-Team van to the original theme tune, smoking a giant cigar. He finished the reality show in third place.)
Now the Montana-born actor is playing Columbo in a production of the first script written for the character. The popular television crime show is based on this original play, written by Richard Levinson and Wiliam Link. So Benedict will don the iconic - slightly grubby - trench coat so well worn by Peter Falk, and collate the evidence until he pinpoints the murderer on the stage of Belfast’s Grand Opera House.
Writers of the Columbo television series have always let the audience know ‘whodunit’ at the start, so that the detective’s game is given less of a revelatory feel. It’s a ‘howcatchem’ drama, with Columbo approaching the truth in his roundabout, but ultimately bang-on way. He’s a detective who likes to give the bad guy enough time and space to hang himself, so to speak.
Columbo: Prescription Murder centres around psychiatrist Roy Fleming (Patrick Ryecart), who is celebrating his wedding anniversary when he is called away to deal with a female patient. In the interim his wife (Karen Drury) is murdered and who else but good old Columbo is brought in to investigate. Benedict is up-front about what attracted him to the role:
'It’s mostly because Columbo smoked cigars - something I like to do all day long. I’d never actually watched the show when it was on TV, and I haven’t tried to make my Columbo a clone of Peter Falk. I’m just doing it my way, y’know? I’m not sure if that’s brave or stupid but that’s how I like to do things.
'I love playing Columbo because he’s similar to my own personality in many ways - very homespun and down-to-earth, dishevelled, with cigar-burns all over his clothes. Every shirt I own has a hole in it. I don’t dress up and I’m not a ladies’ man. I’m more distracted and rambling like Columbo, intuitive, someone who you think doesn’t know what they’re doing but is actually quite smart.'
Benedict is certainly not what you might expect. For one thing he talks with conviction about finding God, entirely unprompted, and about how all the troubles he’s had in his life have shaped him - 'you have to accept the stormy weather in your life... if you want to let God in you have to do all the groundwork first'. Life is 'one miracle after another'.
It all gets pretty deep. He talks with feeling about bringing his sons up in a wooden cabin in the woods of Montana and being peeved by British grumbling and negativity. Then he confesses that he doesn’t own a TV and starts mocking my Belfast accent. I quickly turn things from God and my flat vowels to Columbo.
Is Benedict a natural stage actor or would he prefer to be chasing bad guys with Hannibal, Murdoch and company, dealing in weapons and mendacity? 'To be truthful, I prefer staying at home, smoking cigars and drinking whiskey all day! But I did start my career as a stage actor. I was on Broadway - the whole lot. Then TV and film took over. The stage was my first love and I get a real kick out of interacting with a live audience.'
And what’s next for him after Columbo? 'I dunno. All the TV shows that I get offered just pale next to The A-Team. The only thing I’d like to do is Ricky Gervais’ Extras or The Office - I would pay money to be in something like that.'
Over to you Ricky. Dirk Benedict seems ripe for a send-up in Extras: Part Deux, if it ever goes into production. He won't be appearing in the Hollywood remake of The A-Team, which features our own Liam Neeson as squadron leader Hannibal, set for general release later this year. But remember, if you have a problem, if no one else can help... don't call Face because he's solving crimes in Belfast.
Columbo Prescription: Murder runs at the Grand Opera House Belfast from May 31 until June 5. To book tickets call the box office on 02890 241 919 or visit www.goh.co.uk.