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The Good Fight

For 30 years, Tom Berenger has navigated Hollywood with a keen eye for history and a solid sense of what's important.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Tom Berenger, July/Aug 2007

(continued from page 2)

When it's pointed out to Berenger that Atlanta really doesn't qualify as the East Coast—the Southeast maybe—and that it's an odd choice for filming a show that's supposed to be taking place in Massachusetts, he just rolls his eyes again.

"It's cheaper there," he explains, "and the leaves were turning while we were there, which was beautiful, and had a New England feel to it. It's cheaper...the crews are cheaper, and we didn't use a studio or soundstage, we used a warehouse. Then again, they only wanted five episodes, not an entire season. Only five episodes because [Berenger lapses into a falsetto voice] 'we're not sure. We're just not sure. We don't know. Only five episodes because we're not sure what we want.'"

"I'm telling you," Berenger shakes his head in disgust and goes back to speaking in his own deep voice, "studio heads? Network heads? You do not want these people leading your armies. No. No Hollywood executive should ever, ever be in the military. They would be shot for cowardice. Or treason. Whatever. Shoot 'em for cowardice."

As Berenger growls out the last few words, it's impossible to miss the similarities that exist between his words, tone and delivery and some of the roles the Chicago-born actor's taken on in the last three decades. Maybe there's a little Lt. Gen. James Longstreet in there, the real-life military leader Berenger played in Gettysburg, or a bit of another real-life American icon, Theodore Roosevelt whom he played in the TV movie Rough Riders.

Maybe there's a little Thomas Beckett, the soldier he played in the trilogy of Sniper films, a flavoring of Sergeant Hayes, the Marine recruiter he played in Born on the Fourth of July and a pinch of Capt. John Riley, the Mexican War officer he played in One Man's Hero.

There may be all of those characters in the impatience Berenger can exhibit when discussing Hollywood, but the one you listen for—the one you half fear and half desire—is Sergeant Barnes from Platoon.

There are only a few movie roles that you simply can't imagine another actor playing, but Berenger's indelible portrayal of the damaged sergeant in Oliver Stone's epic war drama, Platoon, is certainly one of them.

Based on his own experiences as a grunt soldier in Vietnam, Stone's screenplay, written in the mid-1970s, was bounced around for more than 10 years before it finally found a studio willing to take a risk on a story that, like the war itself, had no happy ending.

With a budget of only $6 million—a lot of money in 1986 for a simple film being shot on a studio lot, but a pittance for a war movie filmed overseas featuring all the real-life accoutrements of battle—the film only boasted two fairly well-known names at the box office: Berenger and Willem Dafoe. With an incredible eye for up-and-coming (or underutilized) talent, Stone also cast Charlie Sheen (who played the character based on Stone himself), Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker and John C. McGinley.

Berenger's portayal of Sgt. Bob Barnes, a battle-scarred—literally and figuratively—and somewhat brutal soldier who's seen too many tours of duty but can't bring himself to go home even after being horribly injured, was a pivotal role in the film. Berenger himself was certain he could bring Barnes to life on the screen, but there were some initial doubts by others.

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