A Bombardier's Reflection - Dr. Strangelove

topic posted Wed, November 17, 2004 - 1:59 PM by  AArtVark
A Bombardier's Reflection
The 40th anniversary of "Dr. Strangelove" prompts some Cold War reminiscences.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004 12:01 a.m.

Jean Jacques Rousseau said that God is a comedian playing to an audience that is afraid to laugh. In his film "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," Stanley Kubrick, to some a "god" in the pantheon of cinema, made us laugh out loud at thermonuclear war. I am a surviving member of the cast, and in this 40th anniversary year of the film, I am pleased to share some of my experiences in making "Strangelove."

Kubrick based his initial script on "Red Alert," a tense thriller about the possibility of an accidental nuclear war written by the British author Peter George. When Stanley came to New York to scout George C. Scott for the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, George happened to be playing in "The Merchant of Venice" at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. So was I. Stanley recruited George, and given that Kubrick wanted to make the film's B-52 crew multiethnic, he took me too. It was my first movie role.

As the script evolved, Kubrick decided to bring in the renowned "bad boy" Terry Southern to rework the film as a satire. Among many other changes, an entirely new character was added to the story--the eponymous Dr. Strangelove (initially called Von Klutz). Southern and Kubrick gave all the characters comic-book names. Sterling Hayden's Gen. Quintin became Gen. Jack D. Ripper. Slim Pickens now played Maj. T.J. "King" Kong. Keenan Wynn was Col. "Bat" Guano, and George was Gen. "Buck" Turgidson. Of course, Peter Sellers took on three roles: Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, a British Exchange Officer; Dr. Strangelove himself; and U.S. President Merkin Muffley.

My character, the B-52's bombardier Lt. Lothar Zogg, took his name from Mandrake the Magician's sidekick, a black and bald-headed man who provided Mandrake with muscle power when prestidigitation failed. In the original script, the bombardier's role included pointed questioning of the authenticity of Gen. Ripper's command-orders to nuke Russia. But as "Dr. Strangelove" evolved into a satire, Zogg's voice of reason shrank to essentially a single question: "Sir, do you think this might be some kind of loyalty test or security check?"

In spite of having been stripped of the lines that made the role attractive to me in the first place, I felt very fortunate to be working with Kubrick, one of the most brilliant and innovative directors of our time. He was unique--the only man I have ever known who spoke in the manner, if not the accent, of an English lord and chewed gum at the same time. Stanley was unfailingly polite and even-tempered on the set. After every take that didn't work, even the 100th, he would say nothing more than "Let's try that again."

Of course, it was also true that Stanley was a control freak of the highest order and ran his set more like a dictator than a director. He treated actors as if they were technical elements in his design, not as creative professionals like himself.
I had decidedly uncomfortable moments as an actor under Stanley's direction. One day, hours before I was scheduled to be on the set, I was hustled into costume to shoot a scene full of Air Force techno-jargon. I had learned the lines. But in the weeks of waiting around to shoot the scene I had forgotten them, and Kubrick said, "You mean you don't know your words?" He momentarily stopped chewing his gum and then said very coldly, "Let's move to the next set." I felt uncomfortable with him afterward.

George C. Scott had some really difficult experiences with the director. George was headstrong by nature. It is what fueled his particular talent. Stanley was very much the same kind of man. The irresistible force met the immovable object when Stanley asked George to do over-the-top performances of his lines. He said it would help George to warm up for his satiric takes. George hated this idea. He said it was unprofessional and made him feel silly. George eventually agreed to do his scenes over-the-top when Stanley promised that his performance would never be seen by anyone but himself and the cast and crew. But Kubrick ultimately used many of these "warm-ups" in the final cut. George felt used and manipulated by Stanley and swore he would never work with him again.

George and I had some dinner conversations, usually quite heated, about the growing American presence in Vietnam. George, who later starred in "Patton," said he had become a hawk the minute bomb shelters started being built. By the time I met him, he had a very broad wingspan. I was not a dove, as I believed some wars, like World War II, are justified and necessary. But I was not in favor of fighting in Vietnam.

"You're an American, aren't you?" George would goad me. "Doesn't that obligate you to support the war?"
"Yes, I am a black American," was how I felt at the time. But as long as black Americans were being treated like second-class citizens, that left me free to question the war's morality.

The issue was complicated for me. I had served during the Korean conflict as a member of the first fully integrated officer corps in U.S. military history. There were fellow officers I encountered, from the unreconstructed South, who couldn't quite bring themselves to shake my hand.

My father, a protégé of Paul Robeson, had asked me not to fight in Korea. For Paul it was wrong for black people to kill yellow people for the benefit of white people. I told my father that I was no patriot but that I was a citizen, and that I planned to wear my uniform (even in Paul Robeson's presence) and do my duty as a soldier.

Amazingly, the Cold War ended without a nuclear war. Even more amazingly, the former antagonists who once amassed enough nuclear weapons to kill every man, woman and child on earth seven times over have become "good friends," even to the extent of signing the nonproliferation treaty. The 9/11 attacks have given a greater sense of urgency to the goals that the treaty set about to accomplish. Although the Cold War has ended, it is the pilfering of nuclear materials from former Soviet stockpiles, and their potential sale to terrorists, that has become one of our greatest threats. Today, more than ever, we are still not safe from the dangers lampooned in "Dr. Strangelove."

Human history offers little evidence that we can learn to stop fighting wars. But we cannot stop trying. As Stanley would say after every take that didn't work, even the 100th, "Let's try that again."

Mr. Jones, a winner of the Tony Award and the Golden Globe, will be returning this spring to Broadway in "On Golden Pond." He wrote this article with the assistance of Lewis Eisenberg.
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