In Step With Tom Berenger

By James Brady
Copyright Parade Magazine July 20, 1997

Parade MagazineIf ever a single, rather small battle helped create forever one man’s dashing, heroic, reputation, it was Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. That was almost a century ago, and TV is now catching up with Teddy and the “Rough Riders”-his hard-riding collection of cowboys, Indians, professional hunters, and Eastern dudes like New Yorker Roosevelt himself.

Rough Riders, a four-hour miniseries, air tonight and tomorrow night on Turner Network Television. A couple of weeks ago, I talked with Tom Berenger, who was back home in South Carolina, about his dual role as the executive producer and the star, playing Teddy. Whose idea was it?

“I pitched it about two years ago,” said Berenger. “I went to John Milius (the director), and he went for it. He’s a Roosevelt freak. Teddy was his hero as a kid.”

They shot in a dozen locations, mostly in and around San Antonio but also in Tampa and the high country near Flagstaff, Ariz. Many of the settings are historically accurate, since Teddy and his men “trained for six weeks, in San Antonio in a place that’s now a public golf course,” noted Berenger, “and then took trains to Tampa, where they were held up for weeks waiting for transports (to Cuba).”

San Juan Hill itself was recreated near San Antonio. “The hills there are within 50 feet of their actual height (in San Juan),” said Berenger, “and the barbed wire and trenches look like the real thing.”

Some recreations of the battle have ignored the presence of African-Americans. What about the TNT film? “We have black troops, what they then called ‘Buffalo Soldiers’,” said Berenger. And what about William Randolph Hearst, the press lord who played a major role in whipping up public opinion for a war with Spain in 1898? “He’s in there too. Did you know he sailed to Cuba on his yacht and set up headquarters just offshore?”

Berenger first drew critical notice as the cross-dressing psychopath in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, a role he laughingly described to me as “my auspicious debut,” before moving on to major recognition in The Big Chill and Platoon. How did he get on with Oliver Stone, the director of Platoon, for which he was Oscar-nominated?

“He wanted us to look like they really did in Vietnam,” said Berenger. “He was out there twice to training camp to look us over. He told them: ‘Don’t kill ‘em, but make it tough.’ Stone’s great. He shoots fast, which is great for actors but very hard on the crew, especially in 110-degree heat.

Rough Riders took 13 weeks to shoot, plus a week of training. The same guy trained us (Gary Busey, Sam Elliott and Chris Noth are also in the big cast) that trained the cast in Platoon. Except, instead of radios, we used bugles to signal.”

Brady’s Bits: Rough Riders isn’t the first film with Berenger as a famous soldier. In Gettysburg, he portrayed the Confederate Gen. James Longstreet, who tried to dissuade Lee from a disastrous frontal attack on the Union’s high ground. There couldn’t be two more different men than Roosevelt and Longstreet, said Berenger. “Teddy was out there, while Longstreet was very taciturn.” Berenger titled his production company First Corps Endeavors--a tribute to Longstreet’s First Corps in the Civil War. “Longstreet has the First,” said Berenger, “Stonewall Jackson has the Second Corps, and later on Lee formed a Third Corps with Ewell and A.P. Hill.” That’s how Tom Berenger is. He gets not only into the character but also into the time, place and spirit of the role. A Chicago native, Berenger studied journalism at the University of Missouri. Any regrets that he didn’t stay in the media? “I dunno. Around mid-life everyone goes maniac a little bit. But I guess not.” His next project? “A comedy I think. I’ve done about six comedies. Oddly enough, the script came to me from one of the guys in Platoon."

photo: copyright Gwendolen Carter/Parade Magazine

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