Provided by Lee Russell, a military researcher/advisor for Tour of Duty from 1987-1989
The following is some information graciously supplied to us by Mr. Lee Russell who worked as a military researcher on Tour of Duty from 1987 to 1989. He served in a US Army Combat Engineer Battalion in II Corps and I Corps during 1967-68In what capacity were you involved with the making of Tour of Duty?
Did you ever meet Stephen Caffrey or any of the cast of Tour of Duty?
No, I never met Stephen Caffrey or any of the other actors. (Except Ramon Franco, who had a role in the off-Broadway play "Wasted", to which I had been military advisor.) At the time I was living in New York City, the show was being produced in Hollywood and shot on location in Hawaii and (second season) California. I did all my work over the phone & by Fed Ex. My chief function was to assist the writers with military details for the show, suggest themes and provide documentation, where necessary, to answer issues brought up in the media, or by viewers. As part of this, I had the privledge of reading some of the viewer mail to the show, those letters which commented on military aspects of the production.
What kind of mail did they get?
I didn't see all the mail, just letters concerning military issues or things the staff thought I might find interesting. A lot of veterans wrote in with technical comments which I responded to. Many people wrote in with how powerfully they were moved by some episodes. Some of these were actually negative criticisms of the show, such as: "How DARE you make me cry! I just wanted entertainment! I'll NEVER watch your show again!
What kind of questions can you help us with?
I can answer questions about the writing of the first two season's scripts, abandoned projects etc. For example, did you know that the second season opener, the two-part Tet Offensive episode, was originally written as a pilot for a non-Vietnam project of New World Productions?
I can't beleive they took Tour of Duty off the air when they did but I did
hear that they had financial problems because of the huge cost involved in
making it. Is that true?
Yes. Most TV shows are shot on sound stages but TOD was always shot on location which costs way much more money. New World had taken a SERIOUS financial setback in the stock market crash of 1987, just as the show was going into production. New World was always trying to cut costs, but they stuck by the concept nevertheless.
Most people like the first season the best however my favorite was the
second, probably because it had more of soap opera type theme to it sort
of, with LT & Alex etc.and being a Caffrey fan I really enjoyed it.
One of the original proposals I made, and some others did too, was to do the show in a sort of soap opera format, like "Hill Street Blues" or a lot of other cop shows are done now. This was much more like how the soldiers lived it, day by day, and would have allowed more character development and interaction. But it had priviously been decided to do it the usual way, episode by episode.
I recently purchased a few of the original scripts from a site on the
internet and found them very interesting in the fact that they deviated
from the actual shows so much.... Who actually makes the changes and
why do they deviate so much?
I have a complete set of "final" scripts from the first two seasons, but I never tried to save the changes. Basically what happens is that a concept is assigned to a writer, and basic issues settled. Then a preliminary script is written and sent out for review, both for dramatic quality and technical detail. As far as military matters went, I was one reviewer, the Army Public Affairs Office was the other. Problem areas were identified and suggestions made. Meanwhile, the dramatic issues were being settled between the writer and the producer.(Sometimes a second writer would be called in to assist.) The original writer then produces a working script, which then needs final approval by the producer. Once this happens, the script is sent to the actors, prop and costume people to start work on. Another company (I forget it's name) also reviews the script from a legal point of view, making sure, for example, that character names don't inadventently match names of real people. Smaller issues come up and are resolved. This is done by issuing "changes" on different color paper. For example, the "working script" would be done in white, and the next series of changes would be on green paper. You would be instucted to throw away White Pages 22-30, for example, and substitute Green Pages 22-30. Further issues would be resolved and Green Pages 28-29 would be replaced with Pink Pages 28-29. Finally Pink Page 28 would be replaced with Blue Page 28. The "shooting script" often looked like a rainbow. If the script was extensively rewritten, a "new" white script would be sent out. Changes could occur up to the day of shooting.
Do they actually shoot the scenes many different ways and then decide
which one to use?
One script in particular "Angel of Mercy" was almost entirely different from the actual show.
You must have bought an earlier version.
What was the secret of the show to make it so realistic?
I would like to think it was me, since I helped write every script for the first two years! I also suggested some of the themes for episodes too (this was part of my job.) Seriously, only one of the TOD writers had even served in the military. That was Steven Smith, helicopter door gunner in the elite 1/9th Air Cavalry in Vietnam, and author of the novel "American Boys". The other writers were all just ordinary Hollywood television writers, who had written for shows like "Charlie's Angels" and "The A Team". However they were very receptive to my input After I left the show, the then-current set advisor, MAJ Mike Christie, a retired Army officer and Vietnam veteran, also took over advising the writers. I think he did a really good job with the third season.This was a cost-cutting decision by New World and coincided with my own desire to leave the show for personal reasons (I was getting married and relocating to another city.)
But the real credit goes to New World Productions that insisted on a high standard for the show and was willing to pay for it. Tour of Duty was a very expensive show to produce, because everything was shot on location and not on sound stages like most TV productions.
I became very interested in the Vietnam War and its history through this
show. Do you think that is typical of most viewers?
The war really tore the United States apart in the 1960's. When the war ended in defeat for South Vietnam in 1975, the country wanted to forget all about it. If you told anyone that you had been in Vietnam, most people thought you were either stupid to have gone, or that you had been on drugs and killed babies. Or both. The building of the Vietnam Monument ("The Wall") in Washington, some movies like "Platoon" (on which I also worked) and some television programs like "Tour of Duty" helped create respect for the soldiers who had served in the war. I am proud of the small part I had in this.
I know that the U.S. army supported the first season of Tour of Duty and
that the set was in Hawaii. Is this true?
The second and third season were filmed in California on two outdoor locations. (Hawaii was just too expensive.) One represented Firebase Ladybird (and later the SOG base) and another downtown Saigon. Some locations were rented. For example, the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles was rented to serve as the US Embassy in Saigon for one episode. The Army objected to some of the themes of the second season, which the actors called the "Psycho of the Week" season, and, as the show was moving to California anyway, TOD decided not to press for official assistance. However the Army Public Affairs Office in Los Angeles continued to review the scripts as a courtesy, and I spoke with them almost every day. One of the problems the show had was that Bravo Company was an INFANTRY unit, whose job it was to go out and kill people. In 1989, the series "China Beach" came out on another network. It was also about Vietnam, but it was about a medical unit. It also had female characters. American television is commercial, which means that everything is paid for by advertising. This, in turn, means that, not only do a LOT of people have to watch the show, but they have to be THE people that advertisers want to sell stuff to. TOD had a mostly male audience. "China Beach" also attracted women viewers, which made it a better seller to advertisers.
I think you had a very interesting job and you everyone involved with the
show should be very proud of your work.
I think we all did a really good job with the show, given the limitations of the television medium.
Lee Russell's Website