This story was originally published in the Philadelphia Daily News on Jan. 14, 1988.
It is 6 a.m. in Saigon early in 1965. The city is still the Paris of the Orient and the war is still somewhere off in the hills. There are only 50,000 American troops in Vietnam when our story begins.
"Like Tweet," by Joe Puma and the Audiobon All-Stars is on the turntable.
"Gooooooooooood morning, Vietnam! " Adrian Cronauer is on the air.
Twenty-two years after he opened the Armed Forces Radio show "Dawn Buster" from a cramped broadcast booth in Vietnam, Cronauer has no trouble remembering those Saigon mornings. Now, with the help of "Good Morning, Vietnam," the critically acclaimed film starring Robin Williams that opens tomorrow in Philadelphia, we can all relive Cronauer's Saigon days.
Forty-nine years old and bearded now, Cronauer lives at 47th Street and Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. He is studying communications law as a second-year student at the University of Pennsylvania. ("You already look like Judge Bork," Williams said when they first met). He spends his time poring over textbooks, preparing for exams and writing papers as an associate editor of the Penn Law Review.
During finals last month, Cronauer found that "Good Morning, Vietnam," the first film to find any humor in the undeclared war that dominated American headlines and cut up the American psyche between 1963 and 1975, was his only release.
He is charmed by Williams' portrayal and the liberties the film takes with his experiences.
"The movie is much more interesting than the experiences I had," he said. "The characters are composites, including me, of many real people, composite enough to capture your interest and really hold it. Robin Williams is very funny. I'm not.
"Williams is the disc jockey I would have liked to be," Cronauer said. "I didn't really get kicked out of Vietnam. I left when my tour of duty was over. "
"It took me a little while to get used to seeing someone named Adrian Cronauer up there on the screen. But I saw it and I liked it," he said.
The film uses Cronauer's iconoclasm as the jumping-off point for a series of broadcasts that precipitate a conflict with Army brass. And it takes advantage of his presence in Saigon in 1965, when the U.S. force was still comparatively small, to propel him into relationships with a variety of
Vietnam War characters.
Probably the wildest, most irreverent moments in the film occur during the broadcasts. Cronauer gave voice (as does Williams) to the average unsophisticated GI's response to an alien culture while spoofing official double-speak.
"There were lots of ridiculous announcements. Like send your gifts by August to arrive in time for Christmas. Or we did this spoof on James Bond and called him James Cargo," Cronauer recalled.
"The crowning achievement for me was when I heard from some guys that when they tuned into 'Dawn Buster' for the first time, they assumed they had picked up some radio station from the States," Cronauer said.
Although Cronauer never alienated Army brass quite like Williams does in "Good Morning, Vietnam," Cronauer did clash with Army censors once as depicted in the movie. He witnessed the bombing of a restaurant in Saigon, but was not allowed to report the devastation in his radio news broadcast.
"That was based on what happened to the Mekong Floating Restaurant, a boat anchored in the Saigon River near the radio station," Cronauer said. "I had had dinner with friends from the station there the night it was bombed. We might have left, I'd say, 20 minutes before the Viet Cong sprayed the side of the boat with claymore mines. I went back and saw the dead and wounded.
"I couldn't get any of it on the air. I had personally seen heads severed
from torsos. Barring the Second Coming, they were not going to get up and walk away. The duty officer would not give me permission to report it. I asked him why and the duty officer says he doesn't have official confirmation of this bombing. But I saw it. I was there, I tell him. We don't have confirmation of it, he repeats. "
The making of "Good Morning, Vietnam" was almost as difficult as getting by the military censors.
Ben Moses, a TV producer and director, met Cronauer at Armed Forces Radio in Vietnam in 1965 when Cronauer hired Moses for an on-air position. Years later, when Cronauer sublet Moses' New York apartment, they began working together on an outline for a television series based on Cronauer's experiences.
"At the time, 'M*A*S*H' and 'WKRP in Cincinnati' were two of the most popular television shows on the air. We thought we had a good idea to combine the two for a sitcom," Cronauer said.
ABC rejected the idea in 1978. Vietnam just wasn't funny, the network said.
Three years later, Cronauer and Moses turned the outline into a treatment for a movie, which eventually landed on the desk of Larry Brezner, the film's co-producer and Robin Williams' agent.
Brezner optioned the film and worked with writer Mitch Markowitz to make it funnier. One day, Williams was in Brezner's office, saw the script and decided it was for him.
Although Williams did not meet with Cronauer before playing him, the comedian holds great affection for him. "In exchange for being the seed for 'Good Morning, Vietnam,' I've offered to help get him his own series on ABC called 'Bork and Mindy,' " Williams said of Cronauer.
What's next for the man who brought Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs to Southeast Asia? It's hard to guess. Philadelphia is just a place to go to school before he begins life again as an attorney. Prior to law school, Cronauer worked in television, radio and advertising.
But now that Hollywood has discovered him, Cronauer may be looking west for another gig. He performed a week ago at the Comedy Factory Outlet and Rollins, Morra and Brezner has his resume on file. There is no doubt something more is in store for the Pittsburgh native. Indeed, he promised his wife of eight years that life would never be boring.
As for his experiences in the Air Force and his one-year stint in Vietnam, it is clear that Cronauer has not walked away unscarred. He speaks of friends who did not adjust well upon their return to the States.