Turner Classic Movies will celebrate Veterans Day by inviting six military veterans to present a favorite movie during a marathon day of programming on November 11. Each will join TCM host Ben Mankiewicz to discuss their choice and talk about his or her own military service.
We spent the day of the taping at the TCM studios, located in the massive Turner complex just off the Downtown Connector in midtown Atlanta and just down the hall from the "Inside the NBA" studios where Shaq, Kenny, Charles and Ernie do their business.
Each veteran sat down and talked with us about the movies they chose, their military careers and what they're doing now.
TCM is a national treasure, a commercial-free network that shows classic movies all day every day, the kind of movies that were never easy to see back before Ted Turner launched the network back in 1994. Since then, it's become a haven for everyone who grew up with old Hollywood movies and introduced the classics to a younger generation.
TCM has always been the best place to see old World War II movies and their Memorial Day programming is always perfect. For this Veterans Day event, half of the guests chose military-themed films but the other half chose titles that may surprise viewers.
Set your DVR and settle in for the day. You've got veterans from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, all of whom have some very interesting stories to share.
Lynelle White - "A Raisin in the Sun"
Growing up on Long Island, Lynelle was obsessed with "Star Wars" and "Star Trek," interests that led her to the Air Force Academy. She piloted the KC-135 during Operation Iraqi Freedom and continues to serve in the reserves. After active duty, she's pursued a career as a TV writer and worked on the writing staff of the series "Army Wives."
Do you remember the first time you saw "A Raisin in the Sun"? What inspired you to choose it for this program?
Well, I've seen the film in a few different iterations. The play itself was either a junior high or high school reading assignment, I can't remember. English wasn’t my best subject. I remember seeing a TV version done for PBS with Danny Glover. That was good and then I saw the 1961 Sidney Poitier film version after that.
It’s a couple of things. For me as an indie filmmaker, I look at a film like that and I see how it’s predominantly one location. For those of us out there who have just a script and money for one location, it gives so many ideas on how you can use that one location to the max benefit, to make it seem like more than it is.
The camera is positioned low, high, in different parts of the space, the blocking. You'll see Sidney Poitier, sometimes he's in the foreground – in the same shot, foregrounds, backgrounds, back of the foreground because there's a scene where he's got a spear and he's sort of chucking it. That’s how you block actors to make the space look like more than what it is. For all these indie filmmakers with just a script and a dream, this is good content to watch.
There aren't many classic films that show the nuanced life of being an African American in this particular time period. In a lot of the older films, if you have one person of color, they might be the maid, the butler, or they're brought on for some comic relief. This is a film where you get to see an entire family and their day-to-day life.
You know, they gotta race to use the one bathroom. That struck me as weird because I'm a kid who grew up on Long Island in a split-level house. I wondered, "Why don’t they have a bathroom in their space? Why are they competing with other people for the bathroom? I don’t understand this." It was important for me to see a film like that so I can understand that not everyone has my same level of privilege even in my own African-American community.
The family just wants a house. It’s a simple thing, but the film touches on segregation, it touches on abortion, it touches on the character of Benny, the sister, who has two suitors, if you will. And one is from Africa and one is from the new world and you can see the conflict in her in terms of, which do I want? Do I move forward with being this modern American woman or do I choose the guy that’s traditional from Nigeria and embrace my roots sort of things? That’s a sort of thing African Americans to this day are still wrestling with. Where do I want to be? You know so that’s why I picked it.
I picked it because it was one of the first films done with an all African-American cast. Back then in 1960 when they shot it, there was a lot of discussion of whether people were going to come see it. "Is this going to interest people outside of the African American community?"
And then you see those same sort of concerns echoed this year when a film like "Black Panther" comes out and everyone has got their finger on the panic button. "Well, I don’t know if this is going to do okay." They grossly underestimated the appeal.
The same thing happened later in the summer with "Crazy, Rich Asians." Not to be cliché and quote other movies, but "If you build it, they will come." Well, if you build a good story, they will come, right? So that’s another reason why I picked it. We’re still talking about this. Why?
You've pursued a career in film since you left the Air Force. Is there anything from your military career that’s informed how you approach your job now? How did you get from the Air Force to where you are today?
Well, it’s tricky. Some of it is who you know and a little bit of luck, right? So I had gotten off active duty, became a reservist and was working civil service. I was living in St. Louis, minding my own business. I knew that I wanted to pursue writing and/or directing in some capacity.
My original plan was to be a director, so I can be in charge. That caters to like my military background of telling people who needs to go where and having the vision and getting everyone behind it because I can. I just need to learn technical stuff about cameras and talking to actors, but I knew I could learn that.
So my first inclination was to be a director. I still want to direct, but I've realized that writing is the foundation on which you build your house. What I found when I was going to local film festivals in St. Louis was people knew how to turn the camera on and shoot something, but their stories were not really complete. It was more of a sketch. It wasn’t really a thought out beginning, middle, and end.
So I said, Okay, I've got to get this writing thing down." So I took a screen writing class at a local community college. I'm talking Bellevue Community College in southern Illinois. It’s a small school, but film education is spreading in the country. There are more film programs in places you wouldn’t expect. It isn't just L.A. and New York anymore.
I took that class and then there was a film making workshop for two weeks just for women. Ken LaZebnik, a TV writer who was from Missouri, came back for the summer and he decided to do a workshop that focused on women, which is great. A lot of times when we have women and men in the film learning environment, the women get elbowed out of the way because the men are more aggressive and they're comfortable with technology. This was just a more comfortable setting where for women just to feel like they could ask questions. What does a gaffer do? What does a boom do? Like what are all these jobs?
Ken LaZebnik is a friend to veterans. His son went to West Point and became an Army Ranger, so he's very Army-friendly.
Ken had worked on "Army Wives" season six and he knew that the writers’ room was losing a writer and the showrunner was looking for someone new. The showrunner is like the executive producer. He just called me and asked, "Did you go to film school? What are you doing? What's your plan?" I said, "I don’t know." He said, "Send me some of your writing samples, I'll forward them to the executive producer of 'Army Wives.'"
It sounds ridiculous. "I'm going to forward them to the executive producer of Army Wives and see if he would be interested in having you on the staff." I thought that’s going to go in the Hollywood trashcan or the Hollywood electronic trashcan. They're gonna hit delete. I was like, "Okay, fine, here are my samples. "
But I put it out of my brain, I just went on with my business. Then a few days later I got a call from the executive producer, Jeff Melvoin, one of the best bosses I’ll ever have in my life. He said, "Come out here and meet. Let’s talk about you, your writing, your experience, because he did want to add another female military character to the show." It ended up being an Air Force character played by Brooke Shields. He said, 'I want to dig into your background here. You could help us in the room in terms of story." So there was a Cinderella story, really. I kind of came out of nowhere and ended up in Hollywood.
The caution I tell people is that you have to be prepared. There are a couple links in with this chain where things could have gone wrong. I could have made a bad impression with Ken during that two-week workshop and he would have never thought to call me about anything in the world again. If he had called and I didn’t have writing samples ready, that’s another area where you could have been eliminated from the rat race. And then I was willing to fly out to L.A. and meet with the showrunner. I had some frequent flyer miles. I’ll cash them in, I’ll go out there. At a certain point, you have to take the leap.
But that’s it. That’s how I ended up on that show, which was great. I wish it was still on the air. I wish we had something like it on the air. I don’t make these decisions.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I'm just working on new content. I'm really trying to develop shows that focus on women in the military. I've written one script that’s about women, pilots, and World War II, the WASPs. Everyone forgets about the WASPs. How we have not had even a limited miniseries or even just a series about the WASPs? It literally keeps me up at night sometimes rolling around in my bed, because I can see it. It’s "Band of Brothers," but with women who are brash and ballsy in airplanes. Forget about it.
The other thing I have is more current. It’s about two millennial women who come back from Afghanistan. They're both army soldiers, their unit gets ambushed, and they each come back with different injuries, both mentally and physically. They're figuring out how to rebuild their lives in a society that when a woman comes back with, say, a leg missing, they get a different response than when a man does, because so much of being a woman is your appearance. I'm trying to get that developed somewhere.
I have a period piece I'm working on too. So you always have a bunch of different projects going. It’s just exciting.
John Pruitt - "Breaking Away"
Originally from Atlanta, John graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and was stationed around the world during his 23-year career. He served as Director of the U.S. Coast Guard's Motion Picture and Television Office, helping Hollywood get the details right. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches ship handling for the U.S. Navy and works as a military advisor for film and TV productions.
You made a very interesting choice for this TCM Program. Tell us how you first encountered "Breaking Away" and why it stuck with you.
I believe I first saw "Breaking Away" on TBS when I was a kid, probably around maybe 7 or 8 years old. I was a big cyclist. I still am, but I used to race. The movie just stuck in my mind always.
Then I realized it was the story of Americana. This is like the dream that these four classmates, these teammates have always wanted to achieve. They could see the future that other people who were going to the school in their town, Indiana University, were achieving. They were just not getting there, but they were striving for it.
One of the most poignant scenes is that the main character, his father says, "Well, you know what do you guys call your team?" He's like, "Oh, well, we call ourselves Cutters." And he's like, "No. I'm a Cutter and your friend’s dad is a Cutter, but you guys didn’t do that. That’s our name. What are you guys?"
He had to reexamine himself. "Wait, I've been misappropriating this term, this name that’s not me. I'm not of that generation. I'm actually the next generation, so I've got to find my own place in the world."
It’s a movie about four individuals learning how to become a unit.
Absolutely, yes. They literally had to become a team because they were a team. They operated individually and they worked collectively in the movie to be the team. They were the team that was the most unexpected, the most hated, the most taunted, and, surprisingly, they lost their strength, which was their strongest team member, but the others picked up the slack and they won.
Tell us about your career since you've completed your Coast Guard service.
My last posting in the Coast guard was as the director of the Coast Guard’s Motion Picture and Television Office, MOPIC. We were the liaisons who worked to tell the Coast Guard’s story. We like to say that we worked from pitching through like post-production and, if need be, the red carpet. We did it all and we could be working in the writer’s room, on set, whatever we were needed. And there were only three of us.
Fast forward a few years to retirement. I was looking the next step, what am I going to do? I'm not really sure. I think I'm just going to take some time off and enjoy. I have a friend who is a writer and he's also a Navy reservist and he wasn’t able to work on a movie. He called me and asked if I was available to help out on this movie, because they were looking for some maritime assistance.
The movie was "Greyhound," a World War II epic. It stars Tom Hanks and it’s about the convoys that were going from the east coast over to Europe. I worked on the movie and had a good time and then people just kept calling.
In Hollywood, that’s how you get the work. The crew must have liked you if they're telling other people to call you.
I guess that’s really what it is. People say, "Well, this knows what he's doing." And then someone else says, "Oh, you need this? OK, call this guy." Then the next person says, "Oh, well, call that person." If you can get the job done in a reasonable amount of time, people remember.
I'm pretty honest. Maybe it’s the military side that says keep people informed, let them know like it’s not working out like I thought it was going to work, it’s going to take me longer.
I've had people say, "Well, thanks for telling us, but we didn’t ask." I'd rather me tell them like the good military guy. I'd rather me tell you that it’s going take longer rather than you go, "Is he doing anything?" or "What are we waiting on?"
One project I worked on, I actually told them, "I don’t think you really need me. I think you're good. I think you don’t need me to help you and I think it would be cheaper if you don’t hire me." And they're like, "Oh, okay."
There aren't enough Coast Guard movies. I think everyone who served in the guard would agree with that.
What's your best coast guard movie?
My favorite coast guard movie is "The Finest Hours." And I actually happened to work on that one, so that was great.
Dan Deitz - "The Guns of Navarone"
After growing up in Oregon, Dan was drafted and fought in Vietnam with the Army. He later served in the reserves and joined Special Forces. He recently retired after a civilian career with the Salem Police Department.
When did you first see "The Guns of Navarone" and what inspired you to pick it for this program?
Well, it came out in 1961. I was 11 and that’s probably when I first saw it. We’d go out to movies, because that’s what we did. It was cheap entertainment, not like the $15 popcorn now. We’d go to the matinees and some of the good war movies, you know "The Longest Day," "A Bridge Too Far", all that stuff was coming out and you get to watch all that. And "Guns of Navarone" was one of those.
I didn’t realize until looking back on the movie and researching this that it was actually a fictional portrayal of something that was actually a little bit bigger. What a great storyline. And entertaining. The special effects were really good for the time and so it draws you in. Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, David Niven, you know what can you ask for?
You grew up watching these great World War II movies and you got drafted and sent to Vietnam. How did those war movies prepare you or not prepare you for what you actually had to go through?
Nothing prepares you for combat. You might know that it can be very horrific. When that booby trap goes off or first round goes off or you walk into an ambush, nothing prepares you for it. You can train, train, train, but nothing really prepares you for it.
How did you make the transition to civilian life after the war? How did you military service help in your career?
The big part of it was the discipline. I was a young 18-year-old kid out of high school, single parent family. Mom raised us, pretty much, and my dad left. Even though I knew my father was in the military, I didn’t have the father figure around all the time.
What you pick up in the movies is a lot of what you get as far as what the military is all about. But once you get in, you develop that discipline. You hate it, but you realize that after it’s over with and after you get back, that it was your foundation. That discipline prepares you for the rest of your life.
What ways does your military training prepare you to be an officer and what ways does it not?
Police work is kind of a paramilitary force. Structurally, it’s a lot like the military. Your supervisors are corporals and sergeants and lieutenants and commanders and captains and chiefs, so you're already used to that mentality. So it’s a lot easier to blend in, whereas some people coming into police work with no military background, they have to go through that processing to understand that leadership concept in the organization and how it works and why they do things the way they do. We’ve already got that, so it makes that part of it easy. The other part of it is you already have the discipline.
Both in special forces and both in the police work, not everybody's going to be successful at doing the job. You have to have a lot of discipline, you must have the mentality for it. Psychologically, if your mind is not in the game, you're not going to be successful. It’s part of what serving the military does help you to do. And then probably, most importantly, you just don’t quit.
If a young person is coming out of the military and thinking about a career in law enforcement, are there thing they've learned during their service that might not translate to their new career. Is there anything to unlearn?
You have to learn more discretion. There's a lot more discretion in police work than in the military. In a combat zone, you're in a combat zone, and if you're taking fire, you return fire. In police work, it’s not a combat zone. You're in a community and so you don’t have the opportunity all the time to return fire. You've got to work the problem to figure out what the issue is and work through it.
Sean Adams - "The Longest Day"
Sean grew up in Gainesville, GA, just up the road from the TCM studios in Atlanta. While serving with the Marine Corps in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2012, he was severely injured by an IED and returned to the States to begin his recovery at Walter Reed. He was introduced to TCM by the Gary Sinise Foundation.
You seem pretty young to have picked "The Longest Day."
I always say I was brought up the old school way. My grandmother was very influential with a lot of my raising. She taught us a lot of things. She grew up in the 30’s and 40’s, so knowing what a hard day’s work is, is something she definitely implemented.
Unlike my brothers, I was very smart and I learned it the first time not to do something. Being the youngest, you know I got to get away with some stuff, but I never did anything that drastic. So being in her house up in Hall County, I got to sit back and see a western on or anything on TV Land, whatever. You know war movies, anything John Wayne, stuff like that.
My neighbor became like a grandmother in a sense as well. She was the same way. Westerns, wrestling, you name it, she watched it. A lot of that was around me in my younger years, so to speak. I say younger years. I'm not that old, but I feel it.
When I got called about doing this, I was like, "Well, this is pretty cool. I get to go down, come into the studio and actually bring in the Duke." That’s awesome.
If you look at John Wayne and his love for his country, it was tremendous. The man was best friends with Chesty Puller. He was the Patton of the Marines. If you heard 1st Marine Division in World War II, you knew Chesty Puller. Same with John Basilone. You have so many heavy hitters of the war with just those guys.
John Wayne was friends with those guys. Man, that’s just amazing. I don’t see how anyone could say the man was a draft dodger or anything crazy Plus that’s just media politics. I couldn’t imagine being in his position because I got to serve, I got to fulfill somewhat of my vision for a career. John Wayne was too young for the first World War and he was too old for the second World War. I feel he had, in his mind, that he had to do everything he could to project patriotism because he didn’t get to go fight.
I've watched different things where he was down in Mexico in his boat with his family. He's all about being a gentleman, but he was stern. He had a mouth on him, obviously, but I feel that for a western country like America, we need some more John Waynes around to indoctrinate. Not brainwash, but really just to say that you don’t know where you're going until you know where you came from. If you don’t know your roots, you don’t know what you're going to grow. If we continue to project no discipline in our country, we’re gonna end up in a bad position in the next couple of decades.
You say we need a modern John Wayne. You came to Turner Classic Movies through the Gary Sinise Foundation. He's a guy that some of us think is carrying on that torch for John Wayne.
Definitely. When I first met Gary Sinise, he sat down, he wanted to know everything he could about me. That means a lot because a lot of times guys in my position, we get looked over because I'm not standing up towering over you, I'm sitting in a chair now. Sometimes it seems people seem to try to undermine me, my being, you know?
To me, he's one of the lead people that are pushing for veterans in the country. Gary played a role as person who lost their legs in Vietnam. I asked him what made him do what he's doing now with helping veterans get homes.
He said that when he played Lieutenant Dan, he got to see some of the hardship you go through. That meant a lot to me. When he played that role, he wasn’t doing it for money. He played that role because he had passion. He does what he does today because he has passion. He is definitely an icon who is going to be remembered for decades.
Your bio says that you're into muscle cars.
In the initial conversation that I had about the movie in with Ben, I talked about finding Sean again.
A big thing in my childhood was cars. Like any young teenager, you want to go fast. Well, I wanted to go more than fast. I wanted to go so fast when I was young that it was dangerous. Just that living on the edge, you know?
When you get around those dragsters at Southern Nationals and it’s got g-forces, that you go zero to 320 in less than 4 seconds, that is an experience like nothing in the world. That’s like being beside a tank and it firing, you know? It’s just freedom.
I can't fix myself more than I am now, but I can take a classic car that is 45+ years old, that is American heritage, the pride of America at that point and I can form it, bring it back to life, and put it back together and make it a running/driving machine.
It’s like shooting guns or even racing. That was my therapy, for the most part. It's one of the key components that got me out of thoughts of suicide, becoming an alcoholic, abusing medications. I never abused medications, but there were many guys that have and still do.
I feel that when we come home, we don’t have a sense of being. Thank you for your service, shake your hand. Well, why am I gonna wake up tomorrow? Tell me why. I don’t have a staff sergeant saying, all right, 06, be out here. The he shows up at 08.
The biggest thing is it gave me a being, it gave me a purpose. You wake up in the morning for a purpose. You've got to go to work, you got to take care of kids, something.
Without purpose, what's the point of life? Without love, what's the point of fighting? So those are two headstones that you must have in life in your heart and in your mind to me to be successful. Without them, I don’t think Ted Turner would have formed what he has now and have the legacy he has. You need to have love and passion and purpose.
James Taku Leung - "The D.I."
Born in Hong Kong, James immigrated to New York City with his parents and learned about American culture from watching movies on TV. His family has a history of military service that stretches back more than 1,000 years and he joined the Marine Corps at age 18 and served on Okinawa. He now works as a sumo wrestling referee while pursuing a career in acting. He was introduced to TCM by Veterans in Media and Entertainment.
Tell us how you got involved with Veterans in Media and Entertainment.
It was maybe two years back.I was doing some voiceover work for some films. A gentleman by the name of Frank Sharp, who is a member of VME himself and a friend of his by the name of Joe Cappelletti, who is a voice casting director suggested that I should look into VME, which was called VFT back then, Veterans in Film and Television.
They said, It’s a great platform for you to enhance your career and meet other veterans who are in the industry. At the same time, you're going to be part of a brotherhood, once again, where you're going to be able to help other veterans in the industry.
The beauty of it all is that it helps us really get a bit of an understanding of where to start. As veterans we’re already disadvantaged. We served our country instead of going into film school or acting school straight out of high school and then getting our feet wet right away. We’re anywhere from four to like twenty, thirty years behind because we spent our lives doing something else.
By the time we get out, other than knowing the distinction that we have because we served, we don’t know where to go, how to go, or who to go to, to get started in this industry. Entertainment is such a closed-door industry that the average person is basically discouraged from doing it.
So you mentor each other?
Yes, we do. There's a gentleman by the name of Alan Pietruszewski who is in charge of what's called the actors and casting portion of VME. And almost on a daily basis, he would send us out messages in terms of things that he learned himself, his trial and error, like what not to do in front of the camera, what to do/what not to do when you're talking to someone, how to submit yourself, how to tape yourself, all that good stuff.
Jennifer Marshall, another mentor in the group, is out there almost every day as well, telling us similar things. Very often we’re bringing guests, casting directors, and other industry people to give us a real-life face-to-face conversation about how to do certain things.
Where can we see your work on screen?
I've done a lot of smaller roles that are maybe difficult to find because it’s like an episode out of a series that's been going on for many years. But most recently I've been on an episode of "Westworld." The episode with the samurai, you get to see me in there as a Chinese diplomat who speaks Japanese. I'm also in the second episode of "Fresh Off the Boat" in season five, I'm the thug.
Somewhere that would be possibly easier to find me is the Second City Theater in Hollywood. I'm doing a sketch comedy there, an hour-long show, in the beginning of 2019.
Of all the movies that veterans chose for this series on Veterans Day weekend, you chose the most obscure and surprising movie. When and how did you first see "The D.I."?
You know, it shouldn’t be obscure. One of the reasons why I'm presenting it here is because this is the quintessential bootcamp movie and I want the whole world to know about it.
I first came across this movie when I was about 19 years old, I think. I was still a fresh Marine back then at my first duty station. One of my friends brought a VHS of "The D.I." into my room. He goes, "I'm going to show you a really cool movie." And sure, of course, you're going to see whatever your friends tell you is a cool movie. The titles come on, it says, "The D.I.". And I'm like, "Wait a minute. Don’t tell me it stands for drill instructor because we just all been through that."
Then the Marine Corps hymn starts blaring at you. And I'm like, "Oh, my God, what is this, a training video?" As soon as the movie starts, though, I just got sucked in. So my hesitation turned into this sudden love for this movie, as if I'm watching "Star Wars" or something. Not only did it bring back a warm and fuzzy feeling of what I went through in bootcamp, it also reminded me why I joined and who I am and what I'm supposed to do as a Marine.
Speaking of "Star Wars," I think George Lucas might have taken a line from this movie. There's a scene where the misfit recruit, just like Luke Skywalker is a misfit Jedi, the misfit recruit questions his drill instructor. He goes, "Sir, I'm gonna try." And then Jack Webb goes, "No, there's no try. You either do or you do not." That’s Yoda!
Brenda Garcia - "Man of La Mancha"
Brenda served in the Navy and worked as a videographer, eventually landing a coveted post on the White House Television Crew, which chronicles the day-to-day activities of the president for the National Archives. She lives in Los Angeles and works as a actor, a career that includes a six-year stint on "The Young and the Restless."
Do you remember the first time you saw "Man of La Mancha"?
It was the live play, actually, and then I saw the movie. I love musicals. It takes me to a different place and I feel happy, I feel sad. You know that song, "My Favorite Things"? Even now, when I get scared, I think of Julie Andrews and I sing that song in my mind to just alleviate any anxiety. Musicals make my heart sing.
In "Man of La Mancha," theres the whole question with Don Quixote. Was he a dreamer or was he crazy? We put people on the moon. We did it. Were those people crazy? Look at all of the advances in medical technology and the computer. Are the creators crazy people or are they dreamers?
People thought Don Quixote was a mad man.He was like, "No, being mad is someone who sees the world as it is, not as it should be." He talks about the quest and just keeps going. When he talks about it in "The Impossible Dream," he says to keep living that life. Even if you fall and fail, at least you have the courage to keep going, to keep moving forward, to fight the immutable foe.
I just love the story. I can go on and on about it. I love the story.
Tell us about your job as a medical actor.
Yes, that’s my support job. A lot of the medical schools have what they call standardized patients.
You need a referral from someone. A lot of my friends do it. Find the point of contact, someone who is a standardized patient for the medical schools in your area. I work for USC. I don’t work for UCLA, but other people I know work for UCLA. If a university has a medical school, they have usually standardized patients. If they don't, many are looking to implement the program because people are finding the value of using actors to help train their students.