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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.

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"Early on, when I first started in the movie business," says Dye. "I barely knew one actor from another and certainly had no clue about things like heart, emotion, insight and talent that an actor needs to bring a role to life. So in my infinite wisdom at the time, I took a look at Tom's head shot—a handsome, soulful, sensitive photo—and said, 'There's no damn way this weenie can play Sgt. Barnes.'
"What I decided to do," Dye continues, "was challenge him a bit, work some reverse psychology and tell him I didn't think he had the right stuff. My hope was that he'd step up and try to prove me wrong and he damn sure did that. What I found was a guy who was not only a spectacularly talented actor but a tough guy for real, and someone who would have made an outstanding combat soldier."
Dye would know about that, having seen Berenger, as well as all the other actors, work their way through a grueling, two-week boot camp before even a scrap of film was shot. The actors arrived in the Philippines, oddly enough, as there were tanks rolling in the streets of Manila during the overthrow of the Marcos regime, and immediately commenced full-on infantry training. Stone, it seems, wanted reality, and so, he says, "they suffered the pain, agony, angst of being a grunt in Vietnam."
"We were doing basic infantry, advanced infantry training and things in a two-week period that's ordinarily done in nine, ten, thirteen weeks," recalls Berenger. "It was weapons, booby traps, small infantry tactics—defensive and offensive tactics—ambushes, first aid, medevac, radio communications."
For those two weeks before filming, there were no soft hotel beds, no room service meals, no showers and no toilet facilities, and if the movie's tagline is "The first casualty of war is innocence," for Berenger and the rest of the actors struggling to get through the accelerated training in the Philippine jungle, things like sleep, adequate food and bathing all became casualties of war. Berenger claims to have lost 28 pounds in those first two weeks alone; the men ate only military rations, used foul-tasting purification tablets to treat their drinking water, and suffered cuts, scratches and insect bites so bad that not one actor escaped fever or illness. They were responsible for digging the foxholes they'd sleep in each night (when they weren't pulling watch duty) and each actor was responsible for adopting his scripted military rank and holding to it during the training, using only scripted names when addressing one another.
The result, Berenger reflects, was that they became their roles. "We [finally] took two hours out and we did a mass reading of [the script] and it was fascinating hearing all the characters because it was all jelling in my mind. It was like, indeed, all these guys were becoming their characters."
Apparently, Stone's strategy worked. The little $6 million film went on to gross nearly $153 million worldwide, win four Oscars and another 18 awards (including Berenger's Golden Globe) and receive nine more award nominations.
Other successes were on the horizon for Berenger, including hit movies such as Major League and Major League II—lines from which are still quoted by sportscasters and sports writers—At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Last of the Dogmen and Born on the Fourth of July, another Oliver Stone war-themed drama that brought Stone, Berenger and Dye together again, with Berenger once more playing a square-shouldered Marine.
"There's a simple reason why Tom gets offered these roles, I think," says Dye. "He's really that kind of guy at heart. He's tough as nails when he wants to be and that's coupled with a really big, kind Irish heart so the directors see the contrast. You just drive in on his face, look into those eyes and there's always something happening in there that's more than the action you see him perform."
A movie that's a favorite of both Berenger and Dye is Rough Riders, the slightly fictionalized story of how Teddy Roosevelt gathered a volunteer cavalry to fight on the side of Cuban rebels struggling to overthrow Spanish rule.
It was a movie, Berenger says, that appealed to his intense, personal love of American history and one of the movies he's most proud of. It was also, he adds, the movie during which he first realized he was falling in love with his wife.
Alvaran, a makeup artist, had worked with Berenger before and the two had slowly become casual friends. But something, Berenger says, changed on the film set of Rough Riders.
"We were on the set, getting ready to shoot, and Trish was off to the side, all the way across the set, wearing this babushka, a head scarf kind of thing. She had a smudge of dirt on her cheek and I just remember looking at her and thinking, 'My God. It's Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago.' She looked up, we locked eyes and...whoa. It was like something just changed, right then and there. Whoa.'"
Tom Berenger says "whoa" a lot. Not the exaggerated, drawn out "whoa" that Henry Winkler made famous (along with "aaay") in his role as "Happy Days" resident rebel, Fonzie. It's not the same kind of flat, Valley boy inflection that a joint-high surfer or skateboard dude would offer up, or the kind of "whoa" you'd use to calm a horse into stopping. It's more of an exclamation point to Berenger; his eyes widen and he stares straight at you to make sure you understand the "whoa factor"—part surprise, part "can you believe this?" and part "are you following me here?"
Berenger says there are some serious "whoa" moments in Stiletto, the indie film he just finished wrapping, and there's a "whoa" moment in an opening scene, shot from the air, in Order of Redemption, which was filmed in New York late last year.
Of course, Berenger will happily tell you, there's a lot to go "whoa" about when simply talking about New York. In spite of splitting his time between homes in L.A., Vancouver and South Carolina, it seems New York is his kind of town.
After graduating from the University of Missouri with a double major in communications and film editing, Berenger was lucky enough to immediately land a job working at a film production and editing studio in Kansas City. Specializing in training films, film footage of professional sporting events and documentaries, the little production company (which, interestingly enough, had also been the starting point for director and producer Robert Altman, years earlier) provided experience for Berenger in every facet of film production, except acting.
Berenger moved to New York to take acting lessons and within six months, he says, he was landing work. "I got a couple of commercials, a voice-over for Coppertone and then a year's contract on 'One Life to Live' and three plays concurrent to the filming of the soap. There were a couple of really small movie parts and then," Berenger pauses, "I got Looking for Mr. Goodbar."
The grim drama about a New York schoolteacher's search for love and sex in the New York singles bar scene of the 1970s was released in 1977 and featured Berenger, Diane Keaton and Richard Gere. The book on which the film was based told the real-life story of a New York schoolteacher who frequented singles bars and was murdered in 1973, and, even now, looking back 30 years, Berenger gets a bit grim himself when talking about the role.
"Over the years I've met a cop who worked on that case, I've met a woman who had known the perp, and I know a lawyer down on Wall Street who'd known the victim. I had nightmares after the film [and] it made me want to take a lot of showers."
Just as with military history, Berenger can talk at length about the case, and you realize that crime and the details behind the crime hold a certain fascination for him. When, during the photo shoot, Berenger has trouble lighting his cigar, a hotel guest already smoking one offers to loan Berenger his lighter. The following morning, Berenger discovers that the guest happens to be a retired New York detective who's in L.A. to consult on a high-profile murder trial. Berenger's eyes gleam as he tells the story, and he and the gentleman make plans to meet in New York a week later at the fellow's cigar club.
Berenger doesn't smoke a lot anymore, but when he does ("I kind of prefer a Cohiba") it's typically when he's with friends, drink in hand, swapping stories. And, given a choice, in New York.
Berenger lived in New York for 10 years before beginning a cycle of moving from locale to locale as he followed his film roles.
"You know, people say to me, 'Where do you live?' and I say, 'I don't know. I. Don't. Know.' Now, where would I want to live? New York. Again. It's where my buddies are, my son's kind of close in New Haven, I've got friends in the Village and in Tribeca, and I miss it. When I went back recently I got a phone call from a producer friend who said, 'How's it going?' and I said, 'I'm walking down Broadway and I'm alive. I'm ALIVE!'"
Berenger spends a few minutes talking about what it is that he loves so much about New York—taking his kids to the theater, giving them a historical tour of Harlem or of nearby Fort Lee, New Jersey—before zeroing in on what sets this place apart from his current locale in L.A.
"It's the humor. It's the energy. And that's not to mention that you can find anything you want in New've got subways and taxis and you can get somewhere like [snaps his fingers]. All the drivers in L.A. are angry. They're just so damn angry. Whoa."
Can he see him and Trish and Scout settling in L.A. for a while, while he continues on "October Road" and other projects?
"Yeah," he says, pausing, "but eventually I'd really like to see us in New York. I'd like to be back in New York eventually and maybe retire there. Just don't ever let me," he adds under his breath, "become just another old actor living in Los Angeles."
Betsy Model is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.
Photo by Jack Guy
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