Airman who inspired ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ film dies at 79

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Actor Robin Williams is shown in a scene from the 1987 movie, “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
Actor Robin Williams is shown in a scene from the 1987 movie, “Good Morning, Vietnam.”

Norfolk, Va. (AP) — Adrian Cronauer, the man whose military radio antics inspired a character played by Robin Williams in the film “Good Morning, Vietnam,” passed away last month. He was 79.

Mary Muse, the wife of his stepson Michael Muse, said Cronauer died July 18 from an age-related illness. He had lived in Troutville, Virginia, and died at a local nursing home, she said.

During his service as a U.S. Air Force sergeant in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966, Cronauer opened his Armed Forces Radio show with the phrase, “Goooooood morning, Vietnam!”

Williams made the refrain famous in the 1987 film, loosely based on Cronauer’s time in Saigon.

The film was a departure from other Vietnam war movies that focused on bloody realism, such as the Academy Award-winning “Platoon.” Instead, it was about irreverent youth in the 1960s fighting the military establishment.

“We were the only game in town, and you had to play by our rules,” Cronauer told The Associated Press in 1987. “But I wanted to serve the listeners.”

The military wanted conservative programming. American youths, however, were “not into drab, sterile announcements” with middle-of-the-road music, Cronauer said, and the battle over the airwaves was joined.

In the film, Williams quickly drops Perry Como and Lawrence Welk from his 6 a.m. playlist in favor of the Dave Clark Five.

Cronauer said he loved the movie but much of it was Hollywood make-believe. Robin Williams’ portrayal as a fast-talking, nonconformist, yuk-it-up disc jockey sometimes gave people the wrong impression of the man who inspired the film.

“Yes, I did try to make it sound more like a stateside station,” he told The AP in 1989. “Yes, I did have problems with news censorship. Yes, I was in a restaurant shortly before the Viet Cong hit it. And yes, I did start each program by yelling, ‘Good Morning, Vietnam!’”

The rest is what he delicately called “good script crafting.”

Cronauer was from Pittsburgh, the son of a steelworker and a schoolteacher. After the military, he worked in radio, television and advertising.

Adrian Cronauer is shown in this October 1987 file photo. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Adrian Cronauer is shown in this October 1987 file photo. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

In 1979, Cronauer saw the film “Apocalypse Now” with his friend Ben Moses, who also served in Vietnam and worked at the Saigon radio station.

“We said that’s not our story of Vietnam,” Moses recalled. “And we made a deal over a beer that we were going to have a movie called ‘Good Morning, Vietnam.’”

It wasn’t easy. Hollywood producers were incensed at the idea of a comedy about Vietnam, said Moses, who co-produced the film.

“I said ‘It’s not a comedy — it’s the sugar on top of the medicine,” Moses said.

Writer Mitch Markowitz made the film funny, and director Barry Levinson added the tragic-comedy aspect, Moses said. Williams’ performance was nominated for an Oscar.

Moses said the film was a pivotal moment in changing the way Americans thought about the Vietnamese and the war.