Adrian Cronauer, left, shown in a 1987 photo, talks with Army Times about actor and comedian Robin Williams, right, who portrayed Cronauer in the movie 'Good Morning Vietnam.' Williams died on Monday. (The Associated Press)
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Actor Robin Williams, who died on Monday, got his breakout movie role in “Good Morning Vietnam,” a fictionalized account of Adrian Cronauer’s stint in Vietnam as an Air Force disc jockey.
The movie took many historical liberties. In the movie, Williams’ character becomes friends with a Vietnamese boy who turns out to be a Viet Cong terrorist. Eventually, the fictional Adrian Cronauer is forced to leave Vietnam before the end of his tour. None of which happened in real life.
“Those of you who have been in the military know that if I had done stuff that Robin Williams did in that movie, I’d still be in Leavenworth,” Cronauer told the American Veterans Center during its 2008 conference.
But Cronauer, who left the Air Force as a sergeant in 1966, said he has no issues with Williams’ performance in the movie.
“It was never intended to be a point-by point accurate biography,” he told Military Times on Tuesday. “It was intended to be a piece of entertainment, and it certainly was that. It was nominated for an Academy Award and you don’t get much better than that.”
In an interview on Tuesday, Cronauer reflected on his memories of the late actor and the movie that made Williams a bona fide movie star.
Q: What was your reaction to news of Robin Williams’ death?
There’s a British phrase that I’ve heard that describes it: “Gobsmacked.”
It just hit me. The guy was only 63 years old. I suppose for someone who’s 20, that seems like he’s older than Methuselah, but for me in my 70s, I think that’s still a young age and he should have had a lot more to do.
Q: What do you think the movie did for the portrayal of service members in the Vietnam War?
First of all, as far as I know, it’s the first film that began to show Americans in Vietnam as they really were instead of a bunch of murderers and rapists and baby-killers and dope addicts and psychotics. That was sorely needed at the time.
Q: Did you interact with Williams?
No, the director Barry Levinson deliberately kept us apart. He was afraid that if Robin and I met, that Robin would somehow start to do an unconscious imitation of me, which would change his characterization. So we were kept deliberately apart all through the filming until the film was supposed to premiere in New York.
Robin and I were introduced before the film was shown. We shook hands and he said, “Well, I’m glad to finally meet you.” And I said, “Well, I’m glad to finally meet me too.” We got along fine after that.
We exchanged Christmas cards and in 1991 his wife at the time, Marsha, invited 200 or 300 of his very closest friends to California to celebrate his 40th birthday. His mother was the star of the show because she was already in her 80s. She had to leave early because she had a hot date that night. So the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.
Q: Do you have a memory of Williams that stands out, that shows what kind of a person he was?
I have a memory of Robin, but it doesn’t show what he was because he was always on. When you walked up to him and said, “Hello,” he started doing a routine for you. The only time my wife and I ever saw him let that down was one time when he was playing with his little kids.
They are, you see, no threat to him. It’s unconditional love. That allowed him to let down the facade a little bit.
He obviously loved [his daughter] Zelda. She wrapped him around her little finger — only 5 years old, but she did it.
Q: What do you feel should be included in this story given your unique relationship with Williams?
He and I are politically way far from each other but I enjoyed very much knowing that he was going over to Afghanistan, to Iraq to various places in the Middle East — that he was going over there to entertain the troops.
Regardless of what he felt like politically, he recognized the fact nobody seemed to recognize during Vietnam, which was that there’s a difference between the people who are making the policy and the people who are carrying out that policy, the military.