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Success comes hard for Oliver Stone

by Marylynn Uricchio
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
January 30, 1987

NEW YORK—With his rumpled tweed sports coat and impish grin, Oliver Stone could pass for a hip Ivy League college professor. Slightly distinguished, extremely affable and often intense, he is at the moment basking in glory and the well-earned right to gloat “I told you so.”

It took Stone 10 years to bring Platoon to the screen, mostly because studio after studio turned the project down. It’s the same old story. They loved the script but thought it was too controversial; not commercial; too depressing; not for them.

Then Stone met with executives from Hemdale, a small British company that had produced his last film, Salvador, as well as The Falcon and the Snowman, At Close Range and The Terminator. They agreed that the screenplay Stone wrote seven years after his discharge from the Army deserved to be made. Yet no one could be more surprised than Stone at the raves, and the business, Platoon has generated in limited release.

“I was expecting a Salvador reaction. I thought, hopefully, it will open. Everybody read the script at some point, and it became a kind of joke. Then films like Uncommon Valor and Missing in Action proved you could make money in a jungle,” Stone says.

At 19, Stone dropped out of Yale and headed for Vietnam to teach English in Saigon. The war was in its infancy, and he stayed two years before taking a job on an American merchant ship that traveled through Southeast Asia. At 21, Stone returned to Vietnam, this time as an enlisted man with the 25th Infantry near the Cambodian border.

He was wounded in the first few days during an ambush, which he recreated in the film. He was wounded a second time just before the Tet offensive and left Vietnam after 15 months with a Bronze Star for combat gallantry and a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster.

“I wanted to see life at its worst, the worst-case scenario. I couldn’t think of anything worse than combat. I think I had a very heavy death wish at the time. The first day I was there I realized this was very serious. This was not fooling around. It was grim. It was hard. It was apparent the first day that nobody was interested in fighting this war.”

Stone felt it was crucial that the actors know the dog-tired rigors of an infantryman’s life, and so he asked them to undergo two weeks of full-time field training in the Philippines before the filming began.

Under the supervision of Dale Dye, a retired Marine captain, the actors embarked on a grueling, intentionally difficult schedule. Deprived of sleep and burdened by the heavy equipment they were forced to carry, they lived on Army rations, hiked miles uphill through the jungle, dug trenches and fox holes until their hands bled and they had reached a plateau of exhaustion.

Only then was Stone ready to shoot his searing indictment of the war and to exorcise the demons that had haunted him.

“You miss the peace of growing up. Everybody who went to Vietnam got warped and soiled. I think Vietnam prodded me to a more radical view of life. Vietnam radicalized me. It made me deal with my innermost desires.”

It also made Stone, now 41, a vocal critic of the Army and its operations during the war, a viewpoint that promises to make the $6 million Platoon a most controversial film.

“They’re so bloated and inefficient and wasteful. I think the army is a fraud. The way that war was fought was a mistake. A lot of lifers were making money. They were eating steaks. There were seven NCOs [non-commissioned officers] for every combatant. The whole purpose from the beginning was skewered.”

Tom Berenger

His looks are nowhere in evidence on screen, but in person Tom Berenger is one hot item. Blessed with a matinee profile, dark hair and bright blue eyes, he won’t have to worry about being dismissed as just another hunk after his role as Sgt. Barnes in Platoon. In fact, Berenger won’t even have to worry about being recognized.

A long gruesome scar slashes the full length of his face in the film, distorting his mouth and lending a sinister air to his equally sinister performance. It’s a far cry from Berenger’s role as a TV private eye in The Big Chill or a singing cowboy in Rustler’s Rhapsody. It is closer to the mercenary he portrayed in Dogs of War or the psychotic killer in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, just part of an impressive list of credits that finds Berenger still relatively unknown.

Platoon should change all that. Berenger says it already has. He was cast as the lead in Ridley Scott’s new film, Someone to Watch Over Me, now filming in Manhattan, on the strength of his performance in Platoon. But most gratifying to Berenger was the sheer pleasure of working with Stone on a movie of such substance.

“When I got the script, I called my agent and asked, ‘We’re talking Sgt. Barnes, I hope.’ He was the character I wanted to play. It’s nice to flip-flop around and do something different,” says Berenger, who is not a veteran.

His enthusiasm remained even during the training session in the Philippines—and even during the coup that forced Ferdinand Marcos out of power. Five actors, whom no one will name, withdrew from the film when the violence began, but Berenger says he never gave it much thought.

“My wife said, ‘I don’t know about this situation.’ But it’s a fairly good-sized country, and I thought maybe we could avoid the whole thing. Television makes some things looks a little bigger than they are. I thought, ‘This is going to be an adventure.’ Things can go bad, but what was I going to do? Stay home and sit around?

“When we were shooting we ate in restaurants. But when we were in training, everything was dehydrated. I could only eat one meal a day. It was all I cared for. I was beginning to get a little constipated, which never happens. Then I ran out of water, and I had to fill my canteen up in the river. It was either that or suffer heat exhaustion. Funny, after I drank that I was running out into the woods and I felt great.

“I liked it too much. I really got into it. I got a call from my wife. She said, ‘What are you doing there, how’s it going?’ And I said ‘I’m having a field day.’”

Berenger lives in Beaufort, South Carolina, a place he fell in love with while shooting The Big Chill. He also fell in love with JoBeth Williams’ stand-in, a Beaufort real estate woman who free-lanced on the film.

“Everybody thinks I live in the house we shot The Big Chill in. Come on, it costs $500,000. But we did get married there. I tried to get married before Platoon, but I had to go to war. So we got married this summer.

Charlie Sheen

His red eyes from the Red Eye are hidden behind dark glasses when Charlie Sheen skulks into the room two hours late for the interview. He sits down, drinks some coffee and visibly pulls himself together. After a sleepless night spent en route from Los Angeles to New York, the last thing he probably wants to do is answer questions.

What was the hardest part of making the film?

“Well, just dealing with the fatigue factor. We averaged two or three hours’ sleep a night. Capt. Dye took us to the edge but didn’t push us over.”

And has he been surprised at the success of Platoon?

“Yes, I am surprised. When you’re making it you don’t know what it’s going to look like all together.”

Were there any advantages to playing a role director Oliver Stone modeled after himself?

“It was a definite asset because if I had any questions about something I went to him. We clicked from day one.”

At 21, Sheen is a junior member of Hollywood’s Brat Pack. He barely made it through high school and had no desire to attend college. He drives a new Porsche and lives with his girlfriend, Dolly, in Malibu. Like his older brother, Emilio Estevez, he wants to direct his own movies and has just finished writing his first screenplay. In preparation for the big time, he has made more than 200 8mm films starring the likes of Rob Lowe and Sean Penn.

Sheen’s real name is Carlos Irwin Estevez, but he chose to borrow the stage name of his father, actor Martin Sheen, for acting purposes.

“I figured I’d get the [Editor’s note: part of the copy was unreadable] way Dad has started [unreadable] carry it on. Emilio is the actor the [unreadable] and there are very few Charlies that are successful—Charlie Chaplin, maybe.”

He defends his lack of interest in formal dramatic training on two counts: Sheen began acting when he was 9 with a role in The Execution of Private Slovak, and then of course, there is Dad.

“I felt I had the [unreadable] teacher living in my home. It was basically some sessions in the Jacuzzi. Dad told me to keep my head clean—every [unreadable] about the drugs and alcohol—and don’t bump into any furniture and to remember my lines. Someone can open a door for you, but they can’t hold your hand on film.”

With Platoon, Sheen hopes to enter a new phase of his career. He’s made five movies in four years, including Red Dawn, which he says is a “comic book,” The Wraith and Grizzly II. Currently he’s filming No Man’s Land, in which he plays a Porsche thief.

“Personally, I hope Platoon will generate respect for me as an actor, and for the public I hope it will open their eyes to the whole Contra situation. My respect [for the veterans] has escalated about 800 percent, I honestly don’t know how a lot of those men came back alive.”

-- donated by Theresa

-- photos added by Zone editors