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Is Hollywood On Our Side?

December 1, 2011

One of the characters in The Last Jump, Major Frank West, is having lunch with J.P. Kilroy in Washington, D.C. in 1997.  Frank was a World War II paratrooper veteran who had just visited the Wall and was complaining about the lack of patriotism in the country while explaining why America was more united during World War II.  He ended his rant on page 229 by saying, “It wasn’t always all perfect but we didn’t have any ‘Hanoi Jane’. Hell, even Hollywood was on our side back then.”

The sentiment was clear and many contemporary Americans share it.  Scores of actors enlisted and dozens saw combat while many actresses entertained troops and boosted morale.  Why are today’s Hollywood stars not as patriotic as they were during World War II? 

Fast forward to The Union League in Philadelphia on November 29, 2011.  The World War II Foundation sponsored a reception and panel discussion to honor two legendary World War II airborne veterans; Bill Guarnere and Babe Heffron.  They were made famous by the television series Band of Brothers and have become admired folk heroes in their own right.  The purpose of the event was to raise money for the Richard D. Winters Leadership Project with the intent of erecting a statue in Ste. Marie du Mont on June 6, 2012.  The statue will be in the likeness of Major Winters and has the approval of his family.  Before Winters passed away this past January, he approved the project with the stipulation that the statue be dedicated to all the combat leaders who served in Normandy.  Such is the trait of selflessness shared by most, if not all, of the Band of Brothers and many other veterans.

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To round out the Evening With Bill and Babe, former Governor of Pennsylvania and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge served as co-host.  The other co-host was Curt Schilling, all-star pitcher and 3-time World Series winner.

The chairman of The World War II Foundation, Tim Gray, served as organizer and moderator for the panel discussion.

The room was comfortably large and there was ample room for the hundreds who showed up.  Some were lined up at the bar while others were filling small plates with hors d’oeuvres but most were gathered in small clusters around the room.  Each group engaged in conversation with the “celebrity” they surrounded.  The affection in the room and the fondness showered over Bill and Babe were palpable.  For their part they patiently signed every object thrust before them with a nod and a smile.

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Bill Guarnere is a sweet and gentle man.  One can only wonder how he got the nickname “Wild Bill” after meeting him and exchanging a few words.  We have a common friend, “Red” Falvey of the 506th PIR and I passed along Red’s greetings and well wishes.    Bill patiently  sat in his wheelchair,  posed for endless pictures and engaged in chitchat until it was time for him to sit on the panel.  He is a true hero although he never would admit to that.

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Babe Heffron is a gregarious and wisecracking machine.  He would have a joke for almost anything anyone said as he posed and signed the night away.  Babe would crack the room up when he spoke on the panel.  He told a story of being flown into a combat zone on a tour in Iraq when they were told to put on flak jackets.  “Why?” asked Bill.  “Because we’re going into a combat zone,” answered Babe.  Bill answered, “The hell with the jacket, give me a  g__ d___  gun!”   Babe also brought the audience to near tears as he described how he “spoke” to fallen brothers-in-arms  in Mass every Sunday.

Curt Schilling and Governor Tom Ridge attracted a fair share of attendees after people finished with Bill and Babe.  Both were extremely affable, approachable and warmly engaged their fans and admirers.  Schilling weathered the Yankee comments in good humor and Ridge entertained the groups with accounts of his two very meaningful public service jobs.

And then there were the three actors.  They were absolutely fantastic.  They took photos, signed autographs, and engaged in conversations with enthusiasm and obvious delight.  On any other evening, that would have been sufficient but these three surprised me with what would come later.

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Ross McCall played Private Joe Liebgott in the series.  Born in Scotland, with a touch of an accent, he played a Jewish soldier who also spoke German.  His scenes involving the liberation of the concentration camp were among the most compelling in the series.  His “veteran” (the actors would refer to the person whose life they played as “their veteran”) had passed away so he had to resort to interviewing other veterans to construct a framework for his role.  He worked very hard at it because he felt an “obligation” to get the role perfectly right.  It was obvious that every one of the actors in the series took the honor and responsibility seriously, so much so that they only called or referred to each other by their “role” names for months!  And Ross was obviously very proud of his work in the series.  In addition, Ross serves on the Board of The World War II Foundation.

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James Madio played the role of Frank Perconte.  Jim was all over the reception area tending to the needs of the veterans as well as engaging with the people in the room.  He is a native of the Bronx, a regular guy who smiles easily and obviously enjoys the company of others. His veteran is still alive.  Frank Perconte lives in Chicago where the three actors had a layover on their trip east.   Jim arranged to get Frank to the airport so they could spend the two-hour layover having lunch.  Those actors who were fortunate enough to play veterans who were still alive (and Jim attests to the great advantage they had) obviously met or spoke with those veterans frequently in preparation for the filming.  But that was over 10 years ago.  And Jim confided that he had not seen Frank in 2 years and missed him.  Obviously Madio has kept in touch with his veteran over the years and has developed a great affection for him.  And was happy to report Frank was still spry and chipper at 94.  James also serves on the Board of The World War II Foundation.

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Sitting next to Bill Guarnere was a young man whom I initially thought was a member  of the family.  He would take and hold the small gifts some people had given Bill, fetched him a glass of water and would occasionally lean over to whisper or listen to something private just between them.  He doted over the old soldier to the point where I was sure he was a grandson.  It turned out he was Frank John Hughes who played Guarnere in the series.  His hair was longer and he sported some scruffy facial hair so he was not easily recognizable as the rugged GI he portrayed.

Frank and I developed a bit of a bond in the short time we spoke.  He is also a Bronx native and it turns out his father went to the same high school as I did.  Frank confessed that he loves and admires Bill Guarnere and Frank’s son knows Bill very well.  The Hughes family has obviously spent a lot of time with Bill.  All of Bill’s relatives at the reception knew Frank well and treated him as another familiar family member.  The affection between the older and younger “Guarnere” was evident.  I’m told that those kinds of secondary relationships are not that uncommon among the cast of Bands of Brothers but it was special between Frank and Bill.

Once on the panel all of the actors reinforced my observations.  They expressed deep love for all the men who served but especially those they met.  They traveled the world with many of the veterans on premiers and anniversary celebrations and have seen many of them pass on.  I asked them all if the role in Band of Brothers had changed their lives and they agreed to a man that it did.  But not so much in a career way as much as they became more appreciative of their country and the men who made the sacrifices that allow us to remain free and enjoy or way of life.  Because of that they stay in constant touch with the veterans as well as with the other cast members and have formed a unique bond among themselves.  These very special relationships are testimony to the impact the older paratrooper veterans have had on each of their lives.

At the end of the night I had to conclude that each of these guys “get it”.  No matter how good these actors are, they could never have faked the great respect and reverence they showed to Bill and Babe and their brothers, living and fallen.   I knew I would be in awe of the veterans before I arrived but as the night ended I found myself very approving and thoroughly impressed by these three remarkable young men.  It was a pleasant surprise.

So yes, Hollywood, at least the small slice I saw that night, is very much on our side!

http://www.thelastjump.com

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5 Comments
  1. Maryse permalink

    Great book…Thanks John!!!!!

  2. Excellent, informative story. Think about running it in Dispatches or USO On Patrol. Might take some of things BoB said, put in loose quotes. BZ

  3. Another venues — Military Times, Stars and Stripes

  4. I wish I could have been there. Great blog.

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