December 2001/January 2002
ARTS OF WAR
BY MARC LEEPSON
Comic Actor Tom La
Grua's Journey of Discovery in Vietnam
It's January of 1968. You're an
18-year-old high-school dropout who's lived his entire life in an
ethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn near Coney Island. There's a war
on. What do you do?
"I enlisted in the Army," said Tom La Grua,
the veteran Hollywood comic actor who is best known for his role
as Remo in the hit TV series Caroline in the City.
"I knew there was a war on," La Grua told us in a recent telephone
interview, "but I was a very young 18, especially compared to
teenagers today. I was naive. I was patriotic, but I didn't expect
to go into the infantry."
So much for expectations. La Grua
underwent basic training at Ft. Gordon, infantry AIT at Ft.
Jackson, and NCO school at Ft. Benning. He found himself in
Vietnam on January 3, 1969. La Grua served in III Corps with B
Company, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, of the First Infantry
Division. He was initially sent to the Big Red One's headquarters
at Di An just north of Saigon, then shipped out to the infamous
base camp at Lai Khe, known as "Rocket City," because it was a
favorite NVA rocket target.
"I knew I was in trouble when I got to Di
An and I saw the First Division's motto: 'Duty First. No mission
too difficult. No sacrifice too great,' " La Grua said. "I had no
problem with 'duty first' or with 'no mission too difficult,' but
I was in trouble when I got to the third part.''
The trouble started his first night. "I
was in the field for two and a half hours when my first mortar
attack came," he said. "From there, it was a real learning
experience." The Brooklyn teenager soon had his horizons greatly
expanded in the war he had no intention of taking part in. The
entire experience, he said, "was eye opening."
Until he joined the Army, La Grua said,
"my world was a very narrow one back home in Brooklyn. When I was
in the Army I found myself with people from all around the
country." He likens his journey of discovery in Vietnam to that of
Lance the Surfer in the movie, Apocalypse Now. "I identify
with that character--the naive young boy who learns a lot going
down the river."
La Grua came home from Vietnam in January
1970 and did not have an easy readjustment. He found that he had
repressed many strong feelings in Vietnam, cloaking them under the
GI phrase, "It don't mean nothing," which he used, La Grua said,
"to help survive emotionally, to have a value system." La Grua was
assigned to the motor pool at Ft. Hood, Texas, which didn't help
his readjustment blues. "It was very difficult," he said. "I was
just marking time. It wasn't a lot of fun." One fun thing did
happen at Hood, though: La Grua joined an on-base theater company
and got the comedic lead in The Pajama Game.
He had done some acting in high school and
auditioned for the part as a lark. "I was always a funny guy, a
cutup," he said. "I think I survived Vietnam through humor--the
ability to make people laugh, to get people's minds off the war,
if only for a little while."
La Grua got out of the Army on February
12, 1971. He'd picked up his high school GED in the Army, went
home to Brooklyn, and enrolled in a local community college. He
joined a local theater group, the Everyman Company. The company's
director, Jonathan Ringkamp, wrote a teleplay based on La Grua's
war experiences, which he sold to KCET, the Los Angeles PBS
station. La Grua played the lead in the show, You Can Run But
You Can't Hide.
A couple of years later La Grua moved to
L.A. to try to make it as an actor. He studied with several
teachers, including the well-known Peggy Feury. He joined an
improv group, the Groundlings, whose alumni include a raft of
Saturday Night Live cast members. Before long, La Grua
discovered his niche: comic acting.
During his 25-year career, La Grua's
appeared in more than a hundred TV shows as a guest star and in
many series as a recurring character. That includes shows such as
Baretta, The Practice, The Golden Girls, Sabrina the Teenaged
Witch, ER, Home Improvement, NYPD Blue, and Married With
"Situation comedy," he said, "seemed to
open up a door for me. When a door opens, you have to walk in. I
spent my first years home from the war not doing that. When a door
opened then, I wouldn't walk in. But I did that in L.A., and it
worked for me."
La Grua's latest role has been crucial in
Hollywood. Recently elected the third vice president of the Screen
Actor's Guild, he chaired SAG's National TV/Theatrical Negotiating
Committee and was the pointman in the successful effort to avert
an industry-crippling actors strike last spring.
His service in the Vietnam War, La Grua
said, was "the defining moment" in his life. "I've had others--my
marriage, my three children. But everything I do and everything I
am is a direct result of that experience in the Vietnam War. It
shaped me and allowed me to become what I am. I'm talking about
the experience of combat, of leadership, of having my views and
His Vietnam War experiences, La Grua said,
even helped during the tense labor negotiations with the film
industry. "You've heard the phrase 'When everyone around you has
lost their heads, try to keep yours,' " he said. "I learned that
in Vietnam. When everything's exploding around you, you need to
find a way to hold on. I did that during contract negotiations
with the big Hollywood studios."
The first episode of the excellent new
PBS-TV series Life 360, which aired October 5, was called
"Six Degrees of Separation." It dealt with different aspects of
the connectedness of people. The show's longest and most riveting
segment told the story of the human legacy of Airman William
Pitsenbarger, A USAF pararescue jumper who saved upwards of
fifty men of the First Infantry Division's C Company 2nd of the
16th on April 11, 1966.
In the segment, four men whose lives
Pitsenbarger saved tell their war and postwar stories. Each makes
the point that Pitsenbarger's extraordinary act of courage
continues to have an impact today. That impact consists of more
than three decades in the cumulative lives of the dozens of men he
saved, along with the lives of their significant others, children,
and grandchildren. Life 360 ends with the December 2000
ceremonies in which Pitsenbarger posthumously received the Medal
When Vietnam veteran Ray Nebeker was on
his deathbed in 1985 suffering from Agent-Orange-related cancer,
he asked his daughter Shareen Torres to write a song about his
postwar health battles. Shareen, an accomplished country-folk
singer-songwriter, took those words to heart. Three years later,
after moving from California to Taos, New Mexico, and visiting the
Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Angel Fire, Shareen wrote "Daddy
Always Loved to See A Hero." She performed that moving ballad for
the first time at a special concert she organized that Memorial
Day at Angel Fire.
Shareen recorded the song in 1990, but it
wasn't until 2001 that she put it on a CD with a group of other
Vietnam-veteran-related tunes. This stirring compilation, called
To Angel Fire and Back, is dedicated to "victims and
survivors" of the Vietnam War.
"Fifty percent of the all the profits from
this album will be set aside in a trust account to be used to help
veterans and their families who are still suffering the physical
and emotional effects of the war," Shareen said. For more
information, go to
ARTS IN BRIEF
VVA has enthusiastically thrown its
support behind the Veterans History Project, the recently
launched oral history program by the Library of Congress. The goal
is to collect the memories, accounts, and documents of veterans
from World War I, World War II, the Korean, Vietnam, and the
Persian Gulf Wars, and to preserve these stories for future
All war veterans, all those who served in
the armed forces, all those who served as civilians in wartime,
relatives of veterans, teachers, students, librarians, archivists,
historians, and just-plain-interested citizens are encouraged to
help compile the oral histories. For information go to
www.loc.gov/folklife/vets or call 888-371-5848.
The Brad Pitt-Robert Redford CIA
thriller Spy Game is set in 1991 when contract agent Pitt
gets into deep trouble in China and his boss, veteran agent
Redford, comes to his rescue. A good bit of the Tony
Scott-directed film is told in flashback as we learn how the spy
boys bonded during their adventures in the Cold War hot spots.
Pitt plays a very young--and not very
convincing--Marine sniper in the Vietnam War in the brief segment
set in country in 1971, in which he and his partner come under
attack from what appears to be the only helicopter used by the
North Vietnamese Army during the war. Not to worry, though. His
protector, Robert Redford, swoops in on his own chopper at the
last second and saves the day.
Nelson DeMille, the big-selling
novelist who did a tour as a 1st Cav LT in Vietnam (see the
accompanying review of his latest, Up Country), has been
chosen to sit on a new panel of Book-of-the-Month Club judges.
DeMille joins travel writer Bill Bryson, Pulitzer-Prize-winning
novelist Annie Proulx, and columnist-author Anna Quindlen on the
new BOMC panel.
Robert Olen Butler made cyberspace
history in October by going on line live and creating a short
story from scratch in real time with the entire world wide web
watching. He did his creative writing webcast over several nights
beginning October 30 for two-hour stretches. "Every comma stroke
of the process [was] visible, from beginning to end," Butler said
electronically. Butler, a Vietnam veteran who is a creative
writing professor at Florida State University, is the author of 11
books of fiction, many with Vietnam War themes. That includes A
Good Scent From a Strange Mountain (1993), which won the
Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His latest novel, Fair Warning,
will be published in February.
Author query: For an anthology of
"Dear John" letters, Anna Holmes is looking for letters written to
American servicemen while they were stationed overseas from
girlfriends and wives back home--letters in which the women in
question are breaking off a romantic relationship. E-mail:
or write 5-19 50th Ave., No. 4, Long Island City, NY 11101.n
Contributing Writer Notes
Jim Belshaw, whose incisive
personality profiles often appear in these pages, was presented
with the First Amendment Award in October by the American Civil
Liberties Union of New Mexico and the New Mexico Civil Liberties
Foundation. Belshaw, an Albuquerque Journal columnist, was
honored for his insightful commentary.
Marc Leepson, The VVA Veteran's
longtime arts editor and columnist, is the author of a new book:
Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the
House that Jefferson Built (Free Press). "The book has nothing
whatsoever to do with the Vietnam War or Vietnam veterans,"
Leepson said. You can find out more by visiting