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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 3)

In a foreward that he wrote for the book edition of the screenplay, Stone refers to the real-life Barnes, whom he knew and served with in Vietnam, as "Achilles, a warrior king in his own time," and Berenger as "a quiet actor with the moral stamina and possible longevity of a Frederic March or Spencer Tracy, another Irishman. He buries his natural personality so well in his parts that even in films like The Big Chill, people don't see the original stamp and overlook him."

As the Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and his Golden Globe win for the same category can attest to, nobody who's ever seen Platoon could have overlooked Berenger's portrayal of the wounded warrior. Aside from the horrific scar that starts at the man's scalp and curls all the way down one side of his face—a physical attribute that required Berenger to spend three hours in makeup every day—Berenger managed on screen to define the notion of walking wounded, the kind of dull and incessant emotional pain that renders a man inhuman, to an extraordinary and chilling degree.

"I remember reading the script and thinking 'whoa,'" says Berenger, "and I never doubted I could do it. I had a handle on it. I knew that Oliver had doubts and I knew that Dale [Dye] had doubts, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do with [the role]. I could see them being worried, but I wasn't."

Stone had, like the rest of the world, seen Berenger take on a dark, sinister role, earlier in his career in Looking For Mr. Goodbar (1977), but Dale Dye, the technical adviser on Platoon, let Berenger know up front that he had some concerns about the casting.

Asked about those concerns today, decades after working with both Stone and Berenger on a number of films in the interim, Dye admits that part of the doubt he expressed to the actor at the time was a touch of reverse psychology. Dye, a former Marine who earned three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star in Vietnam for valor before retiring as a captain, has spent the last 20 years working as a military consultant and part-time actor in the movie industry. He says he has nothing but immense respect for Berenger as an actor and now, years later, as a friend.

"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.

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