In one of the first chapters in our book Hot Mics and TV Lights: The American Forces Vietnam Network, my co-author, Rick Fredericksen, a newscaster at AFVN-Saigon himself, wrote, “One of the worst miscalculations in movie history was averted by raw perseverance and auspicious luck. Studio bosses were afraid to commission a Vietnam War movie that would make audiences laugh. One ABC executive scolded producer Ben Moses when he pitched Good Morning, Vietnam as a TV movie of the week: “She basically threw a book at me, figuratively, and told me how dare I try to do something funny about Vietnam.”
Moses, and his Air Force buddy Adrian Cronauer, had been collaborating for years about their personal recollections from their time in Vietnam. Over three months, spanning 1965 and 1966, the two men worked together on Armed Forces Radio Saigon (AFRS).
“I pitched it for five years before I got anybody to sign on,” said Moses. “Jeffrey Katzenberg was running Disney at the time. He was the one who loved the concept.” The film finally debuted late in 1987, more than 20 years after the two broadcasters returned home from Saigon. The first comedy using the Vietnam War as a backdrop, Good Morning, Vietnam was a box office sensation. TV critics Siskel & Ebert gave it “two thumbs up.”
Hence, Rick’s chapter about Good Morning, Vietnam makes our book and the movie hugely inseparable. However, it must be said that, while paying homage to both, the film and its creator Adrian Cronauer, the book goes far beyond both. Take, for example, ABC-TV’s Wheel of Fortune game show host Pat Sajak, who confesses in the book to a huge broadcasting blunder>
“I was playing music as usual, but monitoring the CBS network in one ear. When I heard the president being introduced, I broke in to my music and said, ‘And now the President of the United States.’ I flipped a switch, and the speech could be heard throughout Vietnam.
“Nixon came to a moving conclusion, and there was silence as he began shuffling his papers. I flipped the switch again and resumed my show,” Sajak continued.
“A few seconds later, I was horrified to hear through that same ear that he had resumed speaking. Not only that, he was sending Christmas greetings directly to the troops in Vietnam, who were listening instead to the 1910 Fruitgum Company’s rendition of ‘1, 2, 3 Red Light.’”
“I could have admitted my mistake and gone back to the speech, but I figured there was no point in doing that because I was the only one in the world who knew that Richard Nixon was directing his comments to only one soldier: me! So, if you were in Vietnam at Christmastime in 1969, allow me to wish you a belated Merry Christmas from Richard M. Nixon!”
And then there’s the late Dick Ellis, a son of North Carolina. If a celebrity or politician came to Saigon, it was a very special matter, according to Ellis. And his memory of the stars and what they meant to him, to the rest of the AFVN staff and to the soldiers in the field is vast.
Among the music celebrities Ellis interviewed was soul singer James Brown, whom he’d known from Ellis’s days as a teenage radio deejay in North Carolina.
“Back then there were few African-American deejays with a radio show, but we had one. He and I swapped music such as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ricky Nelson I played for the James Brown, Hank Ballard and Solomon Burke he played. The black artists would stop by the radio stations driving up and down the east coast going to play dates and drop off a copy of their latest records. I met James at the station several times. When they informed us, he was coming to AFVN, we spent all day getting the studio ready and the cameras warmed up. When Brown came into the TV station there was a crowd of young GIs in the lobby wanting to see him. Everyone burst into applause when he walked in. The station manager, an old gray-haired Army colonel said, `Mr. Brown, this is Sergeant Ellis, who will interview you this afternoon.’ Brown said, `Hello, Dick.’ And I said, `Hello, James.’ And we hugged. The colonel asked, `Mr. Brown, do you know each other?’ and James informed him he had known me since I was 16 years old, and I was one of the few white deejays in the South who would play his records. It was like an old reunion,” Ellis remembered.
In Hot Mics, Laurie Clemons regales readers with her favorite memory working on the TV end of AFVN.
“My favorite memory of that time in the TV control room was when one of our announcers was getting ready to do the sports. I had taught him how to use foundation makeup to hide the circles under his eyes. The dear boy was becoming a bit full of himself, becoming what we not so affectionately called `a Saigon Star.’ It was an accident, I swear, but one night I was running the scroll that announced the nightly news, and I hit the button to bring up the camera on our sportscaster on the preview screen so I could check his position. Then someone yelled, `You put him on air!’ Sure enough, there was our macho sportscaster preening into my compact, checking his face from all possible angles. I knew I should immediately jump him from `on air’ to preview screen, but something made me hover my hand over the switch, waiting until he saw himself on the in-studio camera and realize the world was watching him preen with pursed lips, compact in hand. Just as he was distinctly mouthing `Oh FU—!’, I jumped him to preview. The good news was that he was a lot less full of himself for quite a while after that,” Clemons remembered.
So, yes, Good Morning, Vietnam, its star Robin Williams, and Adrian Cronauer, the man Mr. Williams portrayed, play an integral part in Rick’s and my book Hot Mics and TV Lights; The American Forces Vietnam Network, But the book is so much more! We really hope readers will enjoy it!
This article was contributed by Double Dagger author Marc Phillip Yablonka.