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The script for what would become one of the most successful films of 1988 and provide Robin Williams with one of his most memorable roles had originally started out as a pitch for a television show. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) was offered to ABC in 1978 as a M*A*S*H inspired show about Vietnam. At the time, the network passed on the idea - the time was not yet right for a comedic take on the war, which had only ended a few years earlier. Adrian J. Cronauer, whose experiences as a DJ in Saigon in 1964-65 were the basis for the eventual film, had joined with producer Ben Moses, who had known Cronauer in Vietnam, to develop the idea into a feature-length script.
Good Morning, Vietnam, named after the trademark greeting Cronauer used on his radio show, was immediately picked up by Robin Williams's agent, Larry Brezner. However, the project wasn't green lighted so quickly. "Robin Williams had been attached to the film at Paramount, but they put it in turnaround because they were a little nervous about it," director Barry Levinson revealed in Levinson on Levinson (edited by David Thompson). "It's funny in retrospect, because now it seems such a commercial project. Before we made it, I talked to some people who went, 'My God, making a film about Vietnam, that's like a death wish.' Of course, this was before Platoon and Full Metal Jacket had come out. Vietnam was still considered box-office poison, and not only that - I'm doing a comedy! Nobody could envision how you could do anything that's going to be humorous about Vietnam. I think they saw it as some kind of goody comedy, like Abbott and Costello in Vietnam - a service comedy." Regardless, scenarist Mitch Markowitz (who had written for the M*A*S*H television series) worked on the story and when Williams read the script he decided that the role of the rebellious DJ was just what he needed to showcase the talents he had honed in stand-up comedy.
Robin Williams had made seven films prior to Good Morning, Vietnam including The World According To Garp (1982) and Moscow on the Hudson (1984), both of which earned him excellent critical notices. But Good Morning, Vietnam provided the actor with his best screen role to date. In the biography Robin Williams by Andy Dougan, the actor stated that the film "combined two worlds that I'd kept separate. One was stand-up comedy, the other was acting....In this one I thought I would try to put them together. The character is basically 98 per cent me."
Barry Levinson, fresh from his critical success with Tin Men(1987), was intrigued at the idea of creating a film about Vietnam that did not emphasize combat, but instead examined daily life in Saigon for both American soldiers and the native inhabitants of the city. Levinson also liked the idea of the DJ as the ever-present observer and commentator but admitted that "the real man [Adrian J. Cronauer] was not as funny as Robin. Not too funny at all. Very serious, in fact. He wasn't funny in person or on the tapes we listened to. So we ended up changing about 40 per cent of the script." Wisely, Levinson let the camera roll on William's monologues as he improvised far beyond the confines of the script (all of the DJ sequences were shot in a mere seven days.) "The movie was consciously shot in a pseudo-documentary style," the director also added, "We were just looking for a way to do it, to make the film very loose and free-form."
Like many Hollywood adaptations, the actual story of Adrian J. Cronauer differs from the fictional character that wound up onscreen. In real life Cronauer was inspired by another disc jockey. "I grew up in Pittsburgh," Cronauer recalled in the aforementioned Robin Williams biography, "and there was a morning man there by the name of Reeves Cordick and he sort of owned morning drive-time radio. My conception of what a good morning show should sound like was pretty much what Cordick did, so I deliberately fashioned and modeled my show on that." Once he was stationed in Vietnam, Cronauer tried to duplicate the sound of stateside radio by including top 40 hits with his comic monologues which were usually pre-recorded. However, unlike the character in the film who gets shipped Stateside early, Cronauer served his full 12-month tour in Vietnam.
During the filming of Good Morning, Vietnam, Cronauer found himself sidelined; he had a deal to appear in the film in a cameo, but Levinson decided not to use him. Cronauer recalled some of his frustrations with the production process: "Barry Levinson was a strange person to deal with. I don't know what his problem was, but he became very much afraid of me...The script went through about five different versions - in one version they had me captured by the Viet Cong and put in a bamboo cage, in another I got married to the Vietnamese girl - and I was able to get hold of a copy of each version. Each time I got one I would sit down and write page after page of suggestions for additions and deletions. Some of them they accepted and some of them they ignored."
Although the real-life DJ became somewhat disillusioned with the film's direction, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. When the film was released, Cronauer subsequently discovered that he had become some kind of icon in veterans' circles. As he later recalled, he was "told by many veterans that they think it's the first film that has shown Vietnam veterans as they really are, rather than as murderers and rapists and baby-killers, or dope addicts and psychotics. It has happened maybe a couple of dozen times or more that a man will come up to me and shake my hand and say quietly, 'Thank you for helping me get through that.' I never realized at the time how great an impact Armed Forces Radio had."
Good Morning, Vietnam was one of the most successful releases of 1987, bringing in over $200 million in business and providing the director and his star with newfound box-office credibility. Robin Williams garnered his first Academy Award nomination for the film and found his career finally taking off while Barry Levinson moved from the periphery of Hollywood to an A-list director. In terms of critical acclaim, perhaps Richard Schickel of Time magazine said it best, calling Good Morning, Vietnam "the best military comedy since M*A*S*H disbanded. The reason is that it is not afraid to work the extremes. Sometimes it is on the edge of hysteria. At others it can approach the fringe of sentiment. But wherever it stands, it is surefooted and strong-minded - no easy laughs, no easy tears."
An interesting footnote to the Good Morning, Vietnam phenomenon was its soundtrack, a combination of '60's hits and Williams' monologues from the film. The popular soundtrack launched an unlikely revival of Louis Armstrong's 1963 hit "What A Wonderful World." As for the original Adrian J. Cronauer? The film's success not only provided him with a newfound fame, but also paid for his way through law school - to practice media law.
Producer: Larry Brezner
Director: Barry Levinson
Screenplay: Mitch Markowitz
Production Design: Roy Walker
Cinematography: Peter Sova
Costume Design: Keith Denny
Film Editing: Raja Gosnell, Stu Linder
Original Music: Alex North
Principal Cast: Robin Williams (Adrian Cronauer), Forest Whitaker (Private Edward Garlick), Tung Thanh Tran (Tuan), Chintara Sukapatana (Trinh), Bruno Kirby (2nd Lt. Steven Hauk), Robert Wuhl (Staff Sgt. Marty Lee Dreiwitz), J. T. Walsh (Sergeant Major Phillip 'Dick' Dickerson), Noble Willingham (Brigadier General Tayler).
C-121m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Genevieve McGillicuddy