Robin Williams 1951–2014
The news of Robin Williams’ death on August 11, at age 63, hit those of us who had been with the American Forces Vietnam Network almost as hard as the news of a mine explosion near Da Nang in 1969 that killed three of our photojournalists—it rocked us like the combat loss of one of our own.
Williams’ spirited portrayal of a zany disc jockey in Good Morning, Vietnam led to a Golden Globe Award for best actor, an Oscar nomination for best actor and box office success for Hollywood’s first Vietnam War comedy. It also forged a special bond between Williams and the people who had worked at AFVN, a military-run radio and TV operation that broadcast news and entertainment to the troops.
I interviewed Williams on the movie set, outside Bangkok, in 1987 for Asia Magazine and “Business Update,” a radio program produced by American Public Radio (now Public Radio International). It was clear that Williams had done his homework. He read the war diaries Dispatches and Nam and listened to old armed forces radio recordings to prepare for his role as a fictionalized version of AFVN’s Adrian Cronauer, who greeted his radio audience with “Goooooood morning, Vietnam!” Cronauer originally hoped to create a M.A.S.H.–type of TV comedy about a military radio station, but Williams heard about the concept and initiated the movie project. “This human comedy is another way of dealing with a memory,” Williams told me.
“Cronauer did some funny things and played rock and roll, and censorship was real,” Williams said. “If a restaurant blew up and he made an announcement on the radio, they pulled him off the air.” I asked if enough time had passed for a Vietnam comedy. “I hope so,” he replied. “How long was it before they made Hogan’s Heroes?”
The real Cronauer, a retired Air Force staff sergeant, whose husky voice remains strong at age 75, confesses, “I was not anywhere near as funny as Robin Williams. He was a comic genius.” The two men exchanged Christmas cards every year. Cronauer’s favorite Williams’ role is not the one you might suspect. It’s the sailor in Popeye.
Williams, whose father served as a radar control officer on an aircraft carrier in World War II and was nearly killed in a kamikaze attack, had a kinship with Americans in uniform that was obvious during USO tours and visits with the wounded. For more than a decade, Williams brought laughter and comfort to tens of thousands of service personnel in a dozen countries.
Lucky veterans retain special memories of the gracious celebrity: an autograph, a snapshot, a handshake. But a former gunboat crewman selling sweet corn from a pickup in Norwalk, Iowa, where I live now, recalled a sadder connection with Williams: a shared battle against depression. “I know what that’s like,” he said.
Williams’ death from suicide is an unhappy ending to his life, but AFVN members will always remember him as a brother who brought more fame to the broadcast operation than any of the thousand or so men and women who actually ran it. Two days after Williams died, the official roster of AFVN personnel on the organization’s website was updated to add Robin Williams as an honorary broadcaster.
Rick Fredericksen was a Marine newsman for the American Forces Vietnam Network in 1969-70.
Robin Williams made American Forces Vietnam Network famous with Good Morning, Vietnam, filmed in Thailand, where these scenes were shot. Williams poses with the article’s author, Rick Fredericksen, who worked at AFVN. Click to enlarge.