TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM")
ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Adrian Cronauer) Good morning, Vietnam. Hey, this is not a test. This is rock 'n' roll. Time to rock it from the delta to the DMZ. Is that me, or does that sound like an Elvis Presley movie? Viva Da Nang. (Singing) Oh, Viva Da Nang.
GROSS: That's Robin Williams in the 1987 film "Good Morning, Vietnam" playing a fictionalized version of Adrian Cronauer. Cronauer died last Wednesday at the age of 79. In 1965, during the war in Vietnam, he was a DJ in Saigon on Armed Forces Radio hosting a Top 40 radio show called Dawn Buster in which he signed on each morning with the now-famous words, good morning, Vietnam. After returning to the States, he continued working in broadcasting. But with the money he earned from the movie, he went to law school.
I spoke with him in early 1988 when he was a second-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to become active in veterans' causes and served as an adviser to the State Department's Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office. I asked him what the Armed Forces Radio station in Saigon sounded like when he got there.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
ADRIAN CRONAUER: If you've seen the film, you'll notice at the very beginning there was a very dull, dry, boring, soporific announcement about how to get your hold baggage if you'd lost your duffel bag or your trunk out of Tan Son Nhut Air Base. That is as accurate depiction as is humanly possible of what the station sounded like when I got there. And one of my aims was just to make it sound more like a stateside station.
GROSS: How did you sign on the first morning that you did your show?
CRONAUER: The same as I did every other one. We would have a little bit of music from an album called "Like Tweet" by Joe Puma and the Audiobon All-Stars.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CRONAUER: And then I would say, good morning, Vietnam, and then start into the program that way.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Did you get an immediate reaction from the soldiers who were listening to your show?
CRONAUER: No. The reaction that's shown in the film is way overblown. We did not get mailbags full of letters and cards, and we did not have a bank of phones taking requests. First of all, there was nobody - no place where anybody could phone in from anyway. But secondly, there was a reaction that I would get mostly when I went out into the field. We would get an occasional card and letter. But if I'd go out doing interviews, people would say, you're who? And I'd say Cronauer. And they'd say, oh, yeah, I think I - and I'd say, good morning - oh, yes, of course. And I found out later on that many times the GIs, although the program was popular and they enjoyed it, if I'd do the good morning, Vietnam, on a particularly bad day, they'd boo and hissed, and occasionally some would yell at their radio the GI equivalent of get stuffed, Cronauer.
GROSS: (Laughter) What did you play the most when you were on the air?
CRONAUER: Whatever happened to be currently popular, again, looking at what were the popular songs in the States and assuming that the GIs who came over from the States would want to hear what's popular back at home. Our whole idea was whether it was in the music policy or the production that we did on the air, it was to make it sound as much as possible like a stateside radio station to give them a little link with home as a morale factor.
GROSS: In the movie, the Robin Williams version of Adrian Cronauer is censored when he wants to read the real news that comes across the wire. All the news that comes over the wire is first presented to censors. And in the movie, the character witnesses a bombing at a restaurant that a lot of the Army men hang out in, and he's not allowed to mention that on the air. Similar things happened to you?
CRONAUER: On the subject of censorship, the movie is very accurate, except in one small detail. We did not have censors on premises at the stations. It was done by phone. But there was indeed a restaurant called the My Canh floating restaurant. It was built on a boat that was moored in the Saigon River.
And one evening, I had dinner there with some friends from the station. And after dinner, we were still hanging out in the area when the Viet Cong sprayed the boat with shrapnel from a Claymore mine. And then, about three or four minutes later, when everyone was panicking and trying to get off the boat, they aimed another Claymore mine directly at the gangplank and did a lot of carnage. And I heard the report of the explosion and the commotion and went back to see what was going on, tried to help out a bit and then went back to the station to see if I could put the item on the air.
And I called the duty officer for permission to put the story on the air and was denied permission. And I asked for a reason. And he said, we have no official confirmation of this happening yet. And I explained that I had been there in person, had seen it with my own eyes. And the answer was still, no, we have no real confirmation of any casualties. And I said, sir, with my own eyes, I've seen heads severed from torsos. Barring the second coming, they will not get up and walk away. And the final answer was no. And the final reason was, well, suppose we're wrong.
GROSS: So you didn't defy the order and then go on the air, right (laughter)?
CRONAUER: No, I did not go and lock myself in the studio and put it on anyway. No. In fact, there are a lot of things in that movie that Robin does - if I had actually done them, I would have been court martialed, and I'd still be in Leavenworth.
GROSS: When you were on the air, were there any signs in the control room that there was actually a war going on?
CRONAUER: It was basically a traditional, ordinary, run-of-the-mill radio station control room. The only real reminder of the war was the fact that on the console beside the turntables was a loaded .45. Over in the newsroom, there was another one beside the teletype machines. And we were instructed that if it was necessary, we were expected to use it.
GROSS: You were in Vietnam in 1965. And that was a year that the war really escalated. What were some of the things that you saw that made you realize that the war was really changing?
CRONAUER: When I got to Saigon in May of '65, it was a sleepy, little French colonial town. And in one year's time, I saw it turn into a nightmare. The massive influx of American personnel, equipment, armament, money turned the city upside down. There were the - when I left, the black market was flourishing. The economy was in disarray. The traffic was unmanageable. The entire city was ridiculous. And although I found it a very enjoyable place to be when I first got there, in the context of a - that it was a war going on, it was - I was very glad to get out.
GROSS: What was your reaction the first time you saw the completed movie?
CRONAUER: For about five minutes or so, it was difficult to get used to the idea that, well, that's Adrian Cronauer up there, but I'm Adrian Cronauer. But he's me, but I'm here. And then finally, I just settled down and said, all right, relax. Enjoy the movie.
GROSS: Well, Adrian Cronauer, I want to thank you very much for talking with me.
CRONAUER: My pleasure.
GROSS: Adrian Cronauer, recorded in 1988 after the release of the film "Good Morning, Vietnam," in which Robin Williams played a fictionalized version of Cronauer. Cronauer died Wednesday. He was 79.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, can we eat meat ethically? We'll get a resounding yes from my guest, Camas Davis. After working for years as a restaurant reviewer and an editor, she apprenticed as a butcher on a family-run small farm and slaughterhouse in France. Then she founded a program to teach people about conscientious slaughtering and to inspire responsible meat production and consumption. She has a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE DJANGO FESTIVAL ALLSTARS' "TSIGANE FANTASY")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE DJANGO FESTIVAL ALLSTARS' "TSIGANE FANTASY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.