Ashley Finally Makes The Team. Sun Sentinel|March 17, 1985|By Bill Kelley, Television Writer.
If you squandered several hours of your life back in the early ‘60s watching B-movies like Beach Party, Hot Rod Gang (1958) and How To Make a Monster (1958), and the narrator at the beginning of NBC’s The A-Team each week now sounds alarmingly familiar to you, you’re not losing your mind.
It’s John Ashley — the same John Ashley who was one of the mainstays of drive-in double-features 25 years ago.
How nice, you say. Unlike just about everyone he worked with, Ashley is still employed. He has a job narrating a hit TV show.
Wrong. Ashley isn’t just the narrator of The A-Team. He’s one of its producers. As in piece of the action and big money when the show goes into syndication heaven. As in success, pal.
Ashley has “starred or co-starred in 36 films,” most of which he readily admits are either forgettable, or, indeed, forgotten. Born in Kansas City, Mo., the son of Roger and Lucille Atchley, he attended Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, and Oklahoma State University, then drove to Hollywood and began to appear in minor, syndicated series like Men of Annapolis. His feature film break was a fluke.
“I was going out with a girl and we had a date at 6 p.m.,” says Ashley, “but first she had to read for a part in a movie. 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?` It was the old Hollywood story — I got a part in the film and she didn’t. I think it was 1957.”
The movie was Dragstrip Girl (1957), and Ashley so impressed its producer, Alex Gordon, that he held up production of their next AIP teen epic so Ashley could finish Army basic training at Ford Ord.
Dragstrip Girl was shot on a typical, late ’50s AIP schedule: $65,000 production budget, six-day schedule. Today, it takes 20 times that amount of money and time just to launch the advertising campaign for a major movie. And 15 times as much to film an episode of The A-Team.
Ashley, thanks to his dark hair and surly onscreen manner (he was influenced by Elvis Presley) was almost always cast as the punk villain, opposite one of AIP`s blond leading men.
For AIP and other low-budget independents, Ashley appeared in such films as Motorcycle Gang (1957), Suicide Battalion (1958) and, as a hero, in Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958 – “I remember two things about that one — the monster, which was a man because the makeup artist didn`t know it was supposed to be a woman, and that we shot the ending at Harold Lloyd`s estate, because Harold Lloyd Jr. played a teen-ager in it“), while continuing to do bits in TV series like Sheriff of Cochise.
The closest Ashley ever got to the big time as an actor was his stint as Frankie Avalon’s rival in AIPs Beach Party movies. The first one, in 1963, was made for a few hundred thousand dollars on a 15-day schedule, but it had a cast including Bob Cummings and Dorothy Malone (about whom the New York Times critic would write, “Miss Malone had better hold tight to that Academy Award“), and, more important, Annette Funicello — fresh from her Disney contract — in a swimsuit. It earned millions and spawned four sequels. Ashley was in all of them.
Afterward, his AIP career declined. Too old to play a teen-ager anymore (he was nearly 30 when the Beach Party series began), and not a good enough actor (he had never taken a lesson) to play the second male lead in Vincent Price’s Poe vehicles, he was lucky to land the part of Baby Face Nelson in Young Dillinger (1965), which co-starred Robert Conrad and, in the title role, Nick Adams. It was distributed by Warner Bros., but was made independently and, as Ashley himself notes, “was basically all of (producer) Al Zimbalist`s footage of machine guns and crashing cars from Baby Face Nelson (1957).”
Ashley’s career bottomed out in the late ’60s. His marriage, to actress Deborah Walley (Gidget Goes Hawaiian), ended in divorce, and his acting work consisted of an appearance in The Eye Creatures (1968), a 16 millimeter, semi- professional TV movie remake of an old AIP drive-in movie, which was filmed in Texas for less than $25,000.
Ashley returned to Oklahoma, where he operated a string of movie theaters. An independent producer offered him a part in a cheap horror movie to be shot in the Phillipines (where there were exotic jungle backdrops and production costs could be kept low). Ashley played the hero; the movie, Brides of Blood (1968), made money in U.S. drive-ins.
“I eventually formed a partnership with Eddie Romero (the film’s director),” Ashley recalls, “and we made some more films there. I appeared in a few and co-produced others. I think we made about a dozen in all, including one (The Twilight People, 1973) that was a variation on H. G. Wells` The Island of Dr. Moreau’.
“They were fun. It was a release for me, to live in the Phillipines for three months a year. I bought a condo there, It was like a vacation for me.” He was also married and divorced a second time.