Thursday, October 12, 2017

Happy 30th Birthday "Good Morning, Vietnam"

Good Morning, Vietnam and Off Limits were filmed in Bangkok at the same time. Photo is a night scene from Off Limits. rf (1987)
Note: This is my Vietnam Magazine story before the final edit and minus the slick production layout (with 14 photos). The finished product was published in the Dec. 2017 issue.

Thirty years ago, America’s irritable mood over the costly military venture in Vietnam began to lighten just a little. As the search for missing servicemen was escalating and as veterans were lining up for treatment of mental trauma and exposure to Agent Orange, a Hollywood company took a major gamble: Touchstone Pictures, a distribution label of The Walt Disney Co., made a bet that the time was right for the first major motion picture combining humor and the Vietnam War.

Good Morning, Vietnam, released on Dec. 23, 1987, is not a war movie in the traditional sense. Most of the movie, filmed in Thailand, takes place in the urban setting of 1965 Saigon, and there is very limited on-screen violence. It’s the story of Air Force disc jockey and Staff Sgt. Adrian Cronauer during his time as a broadcaster with Armed Forces Radio Service when he used the phrase, “good morning, Vietnam,” to begin his early-morning show “Dawnbuster.”

Producer Mark Johnson described the movie, with Robin Williams in the starring role, as “a comedy with a very serious underbelly” when he participated in a panel discussion of the film at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on May 6, 1987, four weeks into production. “We’re not irresponsible to do something lighthearted and frolicsome about the war in Vietnam,” Johnson said.

“It’s almost like Bronx meets Buddhism,” Williams said at the panel discussion. “I think right now the [war] numbness is wearing off a little bit. If it works, there’s a certain catharsis in laughter.”

In the film’s official production notes, Johnson said the DJ role was perfect for Williams. “When he sat down in the control booth to do the scenes reenacting Cronauer’s broadcasts, we just let the cameras roll,” the producer said. “He managed to create something new for every single take.”

Williams’ performance made him a star and made the movie a box office success. The film earned $124 million, making it the fourth top-grossing movie released in 1987. Williams won a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination, both for best actor.

Before the accolades there had always been a possibility that laughing at the Vietnam War could be an audience turnoff, and Williams realized it when I interviewed him for a public radio piece during the filming. He said: “It’s like, how long before they made Mister Roberts? How long before they made Hogan’s Heroes?” The Germans are going [in thick German accent] ‘That’s really not that funny mister smart man.’ We can laugh at that now.”

Mister Roberts premiered 10 years after World War II; Hogan’s Heroes, 20 years. Although Good Morning, Vietnam appeared 12 years after the war ended, Cronauer had begun pitching the concept less than five years after the 1975 fall of Saigon. Cronauer wrote a television screenplay with former Army broadcaster Spec. 4 Ben Moses, who had become a close friend when the two men worked together at Armed Forces Radio in Saigon.

In 1979 Cronauer tried to peddle the script to TV networks as a situation comedy. “M*A*S*H was No. 1 in the ratings. WKRP Cincinnati was very popular,” he told an interviewer years later on KMOX radio in St. Louis. “So I figured if you put them together you’d have armed forces radio.” The networks were not interested. The timing was too risky they figured.

In 1982 Cronauer and Moses repackaged the story as a TV movie. By this time, Moses had become a successful television producer, and his agent, Larry Brezner, happened to be Robin Williams’ manager. “Robin and his agent bought an option on the script, and after a drastic rewrite tailored to the talents of Robin Williams, the hit movie Good Morning, Vietnam was filmed,” states Cronauer’s biography on the website, dedicated to veterans who were in the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Office of Information.

Mitch Markowitz, a writer for the M*A*S*H series, worked up the final screenplay. Embassy Pictures expressed an interest in the script but backed out. So did Paramount Pictures. “They decided less than a year ago not to make it,” Johnson said during the May 1987 discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club. “Then Disney Studios picked it up and almost immediately slated it for production.”

Doubts about the project, however, surfaced during the early stages of production. “The overwhelming mood as we shot the movie was that it was a mess . . . it was going to be an inglorious failure,” recalled one of the film’s advisers, Alan Dawson, who served in the war as an Army Spec. 4 in the information office of the 1st Signal Brigade and returned to Vietnam as a war correspondent with United Press International and Metromedia Radio News. “I can’t remember one person who disagreed, except [director] Barry Levinson. Levinson took little pieces of disaster and made a coherent and enjoyable movie.”

Williams leaps from a jeep during the convoy scene filmed outside Bangkok. rf
Even Williams had reservations, according to Johnson’s recollections in The Hollywood Reporter after Williams’ death in August 2014. “He did his best stuff in front of British crew members and Thai and Australian extras,” the producer said. “He would do some specific, iconic American humor . . . and the crew would just be sitting there. He thought his material wasn’t working.”

Williams’ fears were unfounded. Reviews were dazzling, including “two thumbs up” from the critics on the TV show Siskel & Ebert. Gene Siskel, who had written Army press releases at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, said the film “is the answer to a lot of moviegoers’ prayers at long last . . . that Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam has finally found a film worthy of his talents as an improvisational comic genius.”

The cast of characters included a young Forest Whitaker and another comedian, Robert Wuhl. Thai starlet Chintara Sukapatana played William’s girlfriend Trinh. Two Vietnamese debuted in key parts. Tung Thanh Tran, who played Trinh’s brother, Tuan, had escaped from Vietnam at the end of the war and was a high school student in Chicago when he auditioned for the role. His character would turn out to be Viet Cong. Cu Ba Nguyen was the gregarious saloonkeeper Jimmy Wah. Nguyen was a former military prisoner who once staged a daring escape from Cambodia, according to the production notes.

No American veterans of the war were among the actors given top billing, although a couple found their way into the movie as extras. Available non-Asian faces were in short supply in 1987 Thailand, in part because production also had begun on another Vietnam War film, Off Limits, a crime thriller set in Saigon, starring Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines.

Casting directors who needed blacks and whites for certain scenes faced a limited pool of prospects among expatriates, backpackers and international tourists. They posted “Wanted” signs in hotels and guest houses. Visitors from Europe, Australia and Nigeria were among those dressed up in U.S. Army fatigues.

“We explored shooting in Vietnam, but the Disney studio would not go for it at all,” producer Johnson said during the discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club. “I think they’re worried about being perceived or doing business right now with a country that was quite recently an enemy of the United States.”

Constructing sets and city streets in the United States, however, would have cost millions of dollars, so Good Morning, Vietnam was made entirely on location in Thailand, which had a reputation for welcoming moviemakers. Director Levinson strongly believed in giving the troupe a sense of place. “The first and most important thing is to have the actors spend time together so they can develop a rapport,” he said in the production notes. “Inevitably the bonds they establish will translate to the screen.” It’s precisely the same kind of camaraderie that veterans themselves experienced in Vietnam.

Working in temperatures soaring above 100 degrees and frequent monsoon rains, the movie’s cast battled the same discomfort as a logistics unit during the war. Fittingly, Bangkok’s meteorological offices were converted into the Armed Forces Radio Service studios in Saigon. The Malaysia Hotel served as the radio operation’s exteriors. In 1965, the actual radio station was in the Brink Hotel (known as the Brinks), now the Park Hyatt Saigon Hotel.

When the crew needed to build a Vietnamese village, designer Roy Walker chose the resort island of Phuket to re-create a perfect rural landscape, complete with rice paddies. Walker was familiar with Thailand. He had worked there on The Killing Fields four years earlier. The land’s fertility was underestimated, according to the production notes. “The rice grew so quickly . . . the Good Morning, Vietnam team had to harvest the crop and replant before shooting could begin.”

British set decorator Tessa Davies and Dawson, her assistant, strove for authenticity in the look of the movie, from the uniforms and patches to the teletype machines and the 2½-ton cargo trucks. Fiberglass replicas of wartime Saigon’s two-tone Renault taxis—familiar to long-legged GIs who remember cramming into the yellow and blue cabs—were stamped out of the original molds. A small fleet of the reproductions was used for Off Limits as well as Good Morning, Vietnam.

Reproductions of Saigon's omnipresent Renault taxi cabs. Photo is reversed to protect copyright. rf
The historical evolution of the conflict was also respected, said co-producer Brezner in the production notes. “In early 1965, no one was taking the Vietnam situation very seriously, but by the end of the year, the number of troops had increased by the thousands,” he said, adding, “1965 was the year that Jekyll became Hyde.”

Even the basic storyline was grounded in reality: Military broadcasters provided a vital morale boost throughout the Vietnam War. There was censorship of the news and occasional controversy over the selection of music.

But the movie version of Cronauer strayed far from the real Cronauer, whose film alter ego didn’t emerge until the script went through several rewrites. “In one version, I was captured by the Viet Cong,” Cronauer revealed in the KMOX radio interview. “I was glad that never happened. In another version, I married a Vietnamese girl. My wife says she’s glad that never happened.”

But Williams’ madcap banter also was an exaggeration of the real Cronauer. In a 2014 interview with me after William’s death, Cronauer shared one of his favorite observations about the star’s portrayal of him: “If I did even half the things that Robin did in the movie, I’d still be in Leavenworth [federal penitentiary].” The film was never intended to be a biography. “Williams was trying to make it as entertaining as possible,” Cronauer told me and, echoing movie critic Siskel’s observation, added, “He was a comic genius.”

Williams’ mastery of his craft was on display when he joined producer Johnson and cast members at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, an organization of journalists, expatriates and Thais. The panel discussion, followed by questions from a standing-room-only audience, might as well have been headlined “Robin Williams, Live in Bangkok!” For more than an hour Williams dominated the program with his off-the-wall, spontaneous antics and impressionist ad-libs, impersonating President Richard Nixon and other public figures.

No one was safe from the comedian’s playful taunts. When someone walked in late, Williams became a style-show announcer: “Wearing a lovely suit from the Sears men’s collection, it’s almost springtime here in Bangkok. Let’s show some of the other fashions for foreign correspondents.”

Another guest asked if the moviemakers were bothered by the notorious mosquitoes in Thailand. Williams instantly swerved into a Southern drawl: “I’ve been to Texas. We have bugs out there that pick up the dog. You know, the ones that fly into the screen and go, ‘Open the door!’”

When an Asian woman questioned him about a scene in Good Morning, Vietnam where he tutors a “cursing class” for Vietnamese, Williams confessed in the best way he could, with humor. “There is one scene where I teach some American colloquialisms, some basic street language that will help you get a cab in New York.” The audience roared with laughter.

Film history is rich with stories connected to the Vietnam War. Wikipedia has assembled an inventory that includes, even if incomplete, nearly 100 titles, starting with the 1964 American film A Yank in Viet-Nam. Directors from a dozen countries have contributed to the genre, which includes two movies that were South Vietnamese productions made during the war. Bravery, prisoners of war and disturbed veterans are common themes. The most recent picture is a monster movie, Kong: Skull Island, released this year and partially filmed in Vietnam.

Good Morning, Vietnam remains the standout comedy and is still available through online streaming services and channels that show classic movies. Although Williams was never in the military, let alone on armed forces radio, he became the most famous of the DJs associated with the “Dawnbuster” show. His agonizing death in 2014, related to Lewy body dementia, was detailed in a haunting account by his wife, Susan Schneider Williams, in Neurology (September 2016): “Robin was losing his mind and he was aware of it . . . from where I stood, I saw the bravest man in the world playing the hardest role of his life.”

When Cronauer welcomed his “Dawnbuster” morning radio audience, he initially stretched out the word “good”— “Goooooood Morning, Vietnam”— to give himself a few extra seconds to cue up his first song on the turntable. The cadence of that wake-up salutation became a time-honored tradition and was copied by Cronauer’s successors, including Pat Sajak, who became the host of TV game show Wheel of Fortune.

In the studio scenes where Williams utters that phrase, he seems to hurry his delivery. “The one thing that rankles me to this day is that Robin’s personal ‘Goooooood Morning Vietnam’ is nothing at all like the actual, real ones,” complained movie adviser Dawson, who listened to the program on American Forces Vietnam Network (formerly Armed Forces Radio Service) while working as a war correspondent and still lives in Bangkok.

It’s true that Williams rushed through the word “good” in about three seconds, whereas Cronauer took at least twice as long. A later “Dawnbuster” host could barely do it in one breath, taking nearly 20 seconds. Few Vietnam veterans would ever notice the discrepancy—in fact, by the end of the war, the expression had faded. Army Spec. 4 Joe Huser was the final “Dawnbuster” host in 1973 and said, “I don’t ever remember saying ‘Goooooood Morning, Vietnam.’”

But those three words have had a lasting impression in reunified Vietnam. Some years after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, one of the first Western-style bars to open in Ho Chi Minh City was named Good Morning Vietnam. The phrase is now part of Vietnam folklore. On the streets of the bustling metropolis in 2017 you can buy a designer T-shirt with a distinctive twist: the words “Good Morning Vietnam” are centered around a war-torn Communist Vietnam flag.

Rick Fredericksen was a Marine newsman at American Forces Vietnam Network in 1969-70. His new e-book is Broadcasters: Untold Chaos. He reported from the Thailand set of Good Morning, Vietnam for CBS News, Asia Magazine and American Public Radio.

Robin posed with me for a photo during a pause in filming. (Bangkok, 1987) rf
Sidebar #1  Thailand's Star Attraction
In Good Morning, Vietnam, soon after the Air Force DJ played by Robin Williams arrives in Saigon in 1965, he is swept away by a virtuous young lady who would make him cry. Thai actress Chintara Sukapatana, ironically, was born in 1965 and had turned 22 when she landed the lead female role as Trinh.

Twenty-six minutes into the film the DJ is captivated by her modest beauty the instant she walks by wearing a traditional Vietnamese ao dai dress, with its snug high-collar top, silk trousers and flowing fabric panels in front and back. According to the film’s official production notes, hundreds of women were interviewed for the part. The first choice was Sukapatana, whose career was peaking after she won Thailand’s best actress award.

“She’s done 15 films in two years, which is more than I hope to do in my lifetime,” Williams said at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand during an evening off while filming in Bangkok. “She’s teaching me some Thai. I’ve taught her some Californian.”

Alan Dawson, a Bangkok adviser for the production, said, “We came very close to losing the Thai star. She really didn’t give two hoots about Hollywood or the money, and she tried to break her contract to do another soap opera filming at the same time.” It took negotiations and threats to get her back on board, he said.

The behind-the-scenes drama, complicated by Sukapatana’s lack of English, was not apparent on camera, especially during the co-stars’ tender good-bye when their doomed relationship ends with a tearful handshake. “She cranked it out in the farewell scene,” Williams said. “All of a sudden she was full out and very good. She’s very innocent.”

Soon after Williams died in 2014, Sukapatana recalled that moment in the online media publication “He said I did well and warned me that he was sensitive. When I cried on camera, he cried too.”

For her international admirers, Sukapatana will always be remembered as Trinh, the shy Vietnamese girl in Good Morning, Vietnam. But for her fans at home in Thailand, the 52-year-old actress is an established versatile performer in popular soap operas on Thai television.

Sidebar #2  View From the Back Row
During much of 1967, Army Spec. 5 Don Fox greeted radio listeners with “Goooooood Morning, Vietnam” as one of about 30 announcers who took turns hosting the “Dawnbuster” show throughout the war.

When the movie premiered outside Rochester, New York, the theater held a special preview for Vietnam veterans, and Fox was there, sitting quietly in the back row. He describes what happened.

“Every time Robin would shout out those infamous words the audience would shout back obscenities, hoot and holler, cheer, throw popcorn at the screen, and then laugh uproariously, often slapping each other on the back. They had no idea who was slumping deeper and deeper in my seat each time. As the movie ended, I slunk out of the theater, crawled into my car and sat quietly watching the crowd of once-hardened men, now gregarious and effusive, spill into the parking lot, gathering in groups large and small, as if to hold on to something precious, a camaraderie that had slipped from their lives so many years ago in that foreign land. And for the first time I realized that my time on-the-air at AFVN [American Forces Vietnam Network] had made a difference. It had given them—and me—a common bond, regardless of when, where, and how they served in country. It was a humbling experience.”

Robin and some of the extras practice drilling with M16s near Bangkok. rf

Monday, August 28, 2017

Darkness During Peak Solar Eclipse

The time is 1:08 p.m. in Lathrop,Missouri (8-21-2017)
At a frontage road hundreds of cars pulled off I-35 to watch.

The heavy traffic, many cars from Minnesota, reminded me of a college football game.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Tiger Den Bar Poured Last Beer 30 Years Ago

This is the CBS Radio story I filed. I bought one of the bar stools and set it next to the telephone in my Bangkok home until I returned to the States. 
The late Tiger, with wife Lucy and daughter Patty, outside the bar in 1982. (From: "The Tiger of Bangkok" by Tiger Rydberg with Alan Dawson)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review in The Vietnam Veterans of America (online)

Broadcasters: Untold Chaos by Rick Fredericksen

Rick Fredericksen, the author of Broadcasters: Untold Chaos (Amazon Digital, 207 pp., $4.99, Kindle), is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War. Fredericksen, a veteran journalist and author, has written an interesting and readable book about the many years he spent in Southeast as a foreign correspondent, including a stint as CBS News’ Bangkok bureau chief. Broadcasters is sort of all over the place, which is fine with me as it is written in easy-to-read sections and deals with subjects I enjoyed reading about.
The one I found the most interesting was the fairly long section on Agent Orange. Because I have Multiple Myeloma, which is associated with exposure to dioxin among Vietnam War veterans, I was eager to read what he had to say.
In contrast to nearly everything else I’ve read about dioxin, Fredericksen focuses on what Agent Orange and the other dioxins the U.S. military sprayed in Southeast Asia have done to the people who live there. Most books and articles about AO published in this country tend to start with the havoc that the spraying and exposure has wrought on veterans and all but ignore the citizens of Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Fredericksen includes photos of the displays in Vietnam that are available for tourists to view that show how dioxin affects the fetus. Horrible, scary stuff. I actually felt lucky that AO has done so little to me by comparison. And to my offspring.
Rick Fredericksen during the Vietnam War
I recommend this book to those who want to dip into some readable and interesting essays by a man who has spent much of his life in Southeast Asia writing and thinking about what the American presence there has meant. Not all of it is good and not all of it is popular among the folks who live there.
Even Filipinos have some bad things to say about Americans in this book. I enjoyed reading about Imelda Marcos and her 3,000 pairs of shoes.
So there is some fun in this book. Quite a bit, actually. Buy it and read it.
—David Willson

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Thanks, Army War College

This nice mention is in the Army War College Foundation and Alumni News (Spring 2017). I participated in the National Security Seminar with the Class of 2015.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Five Stars for "Broadcasters: Untold Chaos"

on May 6, 2017
Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
When I met Corporal Rick Fredericksen at the American Forces Vietnam Network Saigon station in 1969, he was possibly the youngest, least experienced reporter in the pack. But we were all being asked not to report the news so much as to present it. Rick had recently completed military journalism school, aka DINFOS at 18 while his colleagues came to their jobs from a variety of civilian broadcast and educational experiences. But it was Fredericksen who stayed in Southeast Asia and grew wise. He accumulated contacts, information, and skills that focused his reporting on the events in and around the area for 25 years, leaving as the CBS News bureau chief in Bangkok in 1995.

In the news room in Saigon, Vietnam in 1969, the biggest local story was progress of the American war effort and about the coming redeployment of many of the one half million troops stationed in Southeast Asia while the rest of the world watched America land a man on the moon. Rick Fredericksen was there to see the censorship story develop, the making of the movie "Good Morning, Vietnam", the secret war in Cambodia, POW negotiations, effects of the defoliant Agent Orange, and the fall of music icon Michael Jackson on tour in Thailand.
This is the consummate “story behind the news”, Rick telling his own story and that of others in Southeast Asia. His pack rat collection of notes, clips, and memories provide the authoritative documentation for the events he describes.

It is a story that begins and ends with his own Iowa values and roots. He recently concluded a career capper back home at Iowa Public Radio but continues to write for electronic media and Vietnam Magazine.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Book Reviews Earn Five Stars

Smashwords Review by: Jim Allingham on April 28, 2017 
"As one of the former GI newscasters caught in the middle of the 1969-1970 AFVN Censorship controversy, I found Rick Fredericksen's book to be an enlightening, if not cathartic experience for me. For the last 47 years, I've often wondered if there was more to the story. Rick's brilliant research, combined with his personal recollections of that era, have given me the most complete account to date. Rick was already a "veteran" AFVN newscaster when I arrived in July, 1969 and he was the first to greet me and "show me the ropes" of the AFVN News operation. He was a dedicated, hard-working, talented military journalist who won my personal respect and admiration from our first handshake. Rick's book should be a "must-read" for all aspiring military journalists and broadcasters. The myriad detail that Rick provides does not clutter his incredibly smooth writing style. In fact, it documents the history of AFVN and that era with a fresh, but compelling read. Thanks, Rick. Welcome home!"
SP5 Jim Allingham
Saigon & Hon Tre Island

Kindle Review: on April 24, 2017
Format: Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Fascinating! I could not put this down and finished in 1 day! It brings back memories of and era forgotten but should not be. The writing style keeps you attention and is more story telling than a mere list of historical facts. Job well done from a fellow Marine! Joe F.