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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.
By Betsy Model | From Tom Berenger, July/Aug 2007
The Good Fight

There are history buffs and then there are military history buffs.

Actor Tom Berenger will casually mention that he's a bit of a history buff, but there's little about military history—ours or just about anyone else's—that he can't recite off the top of his head. His knowledge of military strategy, whether learned through books or through the movie roles that he's played over the last 30 years, is a bit overwhelming, as is his opinion on which battles were worth fighting, which were questionable and whether the final outcome was worth the engagement. This includes Hollywood.

In The Art of War, the classic treatise on military strategy by Sun Tzu, the Chinese general and warrior offers that "if you know your enemy and you know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles."

Tom Berenger has a pretty good handle on who he is and what he's made of, and after three decades of being on the stage, on the set and on the tube, he's got a pretty good feel for who and what Hollywood is. Berenger may never have served in an actual war between countries, and his résumé surely lists "actor" as his profession, but it might as well read "veteran"—maybe even "warrior."

The average reader won't see a whole lot in print on Tom Berenger outside of the traditional movie review, the announcement of a new DVD release or, as is currently the case, some general news about his ongoing role in the ABC television drama "October Road."

There are no screaming headlines about Tom Berenger leaving questionable telephone voice mails for any of his six children, no public divorce battles with ex-spouses (he's happily married, thanks, and is on pretty good terms with his two ex-wives) and nothing in the industry tabs about Berenger walking off sets, demanding bigger trailers or calling fellow actors racial or sexually charged slurs.

In a day and age when even C-list—especially C-list—performers hire the most expensive publicists their wallets can stand in the hope of generating mega print and television exposure, Berenger can't be bothered. He hasn't had a publicist in years, he admits, and, at 58, doesn't see the need for one now, in spite of having a television series and his having just finished wrapping three movies—the Christmas-themed Jonathan Toomey, the life-in-flashback drama Order of Redemption and the violent thriller Stiletto—scheduled for 2007 and 2008 releases.

Of the few articles on Berenger from the last decade or so, the only thing in common is references to his eyes. More often than not, they're referred to as "icy blue" or "light blue" and, frankly, they're not. Oh sure, there's no question that the guy can freeze you in your tracks with a simple narrowing of those eyes, but it's more about the laser intensity of the gaze rather than the color. There's nothing cool or light about Berenger's eyes; a vivid, intense blue-green indoors, a brighter, clearer blue outside, and reflect the kind of color a jeweler would call aquamarine and that companies like Sherwin-Williams and Crayola hire marketing specialists to package with names like "Cerulean" or "Caribbean."

Ask Berenger what color his eyes are and he mumbles something like, "Uh, blue-green," before getting uncomfortable. On a two-month hiatus from filming "October Road," he's spent the last 10 days filming the crime thriller Stiletto. For his role as a Greek thug, Berenger is sporting a ruddy tan that still doesn't hide the extra wash of color that comes when discussing his looks.

What becomes clear very quickly after meeting Berenger is that looks are just not all that important to the guy. On the first day of the interview he shows up in an old faded T-shirt, even older sweatpants and a pair of deck shoes. It's eleven o'clock in the morning when he arrives and, having come from a shoot that went until midnight, there are deep circles under those eyes. Although he's taken the time and care to shave, it's equally obvious that, given an option, he'd rather be lying prone with a pillow over his head than at the Beverly Hilton Hotel preparing for a photo shoot.

It is, Berenger explains, the old catch-22; when you don't have work, you want it desperately. When you've got lots of it at one particular time, as he does right at this moment, it's a little more complicated.

"You know, on shoots like this one [Stiletto] we're six days on, one day off, with no room for play," explains Berenger, "and we might be shooting 14-, 16-hour days. Sometimes they're day shoots, sometimes they're night shoots. It's just brutal. When you manage to get to the seventh day, that one day off, you want to sleep, but chances are you'll wake too early because you're trained for it, you'll wind up getting up and then there are chores. Chores, chores, chores," he says, wearily. "And with chores, man, you know you'll never get them all done in one day."

When quizzed on whether that list of chores might include checking things off like, say, getting his nails buffed or scheduling his personal trainer, Berenger just rolls his eyes before muttering, "Yeah, right." For the down-to-earth Berenger, the list is a tad more everyday, a tad more mundane.

"Chores. You know, chores! Doing your laundry, getting your groceries, picking up the dry cleaning. Cleaning the toilets, cleaning the sinks and changing the sheets. You know, the stuff you do when you look around you and go, "'Man, this place is beginning to look like a pit.'"

If this doesn't sound like the to-do list you'd expect from a movie and television star, much less one with Academy Award and Emmy nominations and Golden Globe wins to his name, think again. Berenger may have relocated to Los Angeles last fall for "October Road," but he's the anti-Angeleno and definitely different from the clichés that typically accompany a Hollywood actor. There's no bling on the guy short of a gold wedding ring, and he's not feeling any particular pressure to swing a Hummer, Escalade or Mercedes convertible into valet parking. He's quite content, thanks, with his Honda minivan.

"I'm pragmatic," he says, simply. "I'm not that big into cars, I guess. I like room and I use it to haul things around, people around. For me, a car is to get from point A to point B. What's the big deal about cars here?"

He and his wife, Patricia Alvaran, were equally pragmatic when they made the decision for Berenger to relocate from their home in Beaufort, South Carolina, to Los Angeles last fall for "October Road." Because the couple also owns a home in Vancouver, British Columbia, they decided that Alvaran and their 8-year-old daughter, Scout, would live in Vancouver. Berenger would relocate to Los Angeles, find a place to settle in, and the family would reconvene after the school year ended. They also decided, ambivalently, to put the South Carolina house that they loved up for sale, but which wasn't practical for an actor working steadily anywhere but near South Carolina.

As Berenger tells the story, there's a gradual buildup that takes place, not unlike someone building up to the punch line of a bar joke, and as his lip starts to curl, you realize that whatever the joke winds up being, it's apparently on him.

"So, we make all these decisions, tough decisions for a family, and I pack up my things. I box my things, I rent a moving truck, I load the truck and I drive across the country. Now, I drive across the country," Berenger continues, enunciating every word to set up the punch line, "to move to L.A. for a job that, after I've been in town all of about four or five days, they tell me that they want to film in Atlanta. Atlanta! Whoa. I've just moved from the East Coast to the West Coast in order to go live in a hotel and film on the East Coast. Hell, with the South Carolina house I could at least have driven home on the weekends from Atlanta, but nooo. My wife and daughter are living full-time in Vancouver, which is on the West Coast, albeit way up the coast; I'm now in an apartment in L.A. and I'm going to be back filming on the other coast again. Whoa."

If there's a happy ending to this story, it's that Berenger is given a heads-up during the interview that "October Road" has been picked up for the fall season and that the network decided to film the majority of the upcoming season in and around L.A., with flashes of other scenery to lend an air of the East Coast. The hour-long drama, set in the fictional town of Knights Ridge, Massachusetts, focuses on the twenty-something author of a best-selling novel who, when he hits a serious case of writer's block in the big city, returns home to his birthplace, moves back in with his widowed father (Berenger) and his slacker brother, and tries to reconnect with the friends and family he abandoned 10 years ago. What complicates matters is that he didn't just leave on a six-week trip to Europe and never return; he used those same friends and family—sometimes unflatteringly—as the characters in his best-seller.

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.

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.

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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