By Simon Brew
The 1987 comedy-drama Good Morning, Vietnam was an unconventional hit movie. A war film, and a hugely comedic one, it remains most remembered for being the breakout movie role for Robin Williams, seizing his moment and his day with incredible impact.
Williams, by this stage of his career, was already hugely popular on television, courtesy of Mork & Mindy. But the genesis of the movie that would ignite his film career actually lay back to even before then, in 1979. That’s when the real-life Adrian Cronauer, on whose story the film is based, pitched a sitcom based around his experiences as DJ in the Vietnam War. It got the interest of agent Larry Brezner, who bought an option on the story. But television networks – in spite of the huge success of M*A*S*H – turned it down.
They turned it down for understandable reasons. The Vietnam War was still fairly recent back in 1979, and telling a comedy story of a radio DJ in the midst of that conflict was making people nervous. Could you make light of it, when it was still relatively fresh in people’s minds? It wasn’t worth the risk.
Robin Williams, though, saw the potential. He came to the project after a version of the story that Cronauer had worked into a TV movie format landed on his desk. Still, there was a long way to go. Whilst the option on Cronauer’s story was continually renewed a year at a time, four years into development it was decided to go back to square one. Things were no further forward.
Yet this is where the film as it would become started to shift into place. Williams remained keen on the project, and saw the potential to showcase his comedy in the lead role. In turn, writer Mitch Markowitz came on board to fashion a screenplay. By the time he delivered the final script, there was little left of Cronauer’s original work. But there was a greenlit movie, with Disney stumping up the necessary $13 million to make it.
One aside, here: Jeff Kanew was one of the first directors offered the chance to take the movie on, having enjoyed success with 1984’s Revenge Of The Nerds. Kanew turned it down, but would instead be the director when Dead Poets Society, Williams’ second big hit movie, started filming. That said, he left that film after the sets were burned down following the first day of filming.
Barry Levinson (at the time coming off the back of films such as Diner and Young Sherlock Holmes, with Oscar-winner Rain Man to directly follow) signed up to direct, and production began. Williams, as is well known, went on to improvise the vast majority of the radio broadcasts in the movie, and his performance would lead to him earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Cronaeur would note, not begrudgingly either, that the finished film bore not too much relation to what actually happened.
Furthermore, the film would prove a major critical and commercial success. Off the back of that $13 million budget, the film grossed over $120 million in cinemas (that was a lot of money back then, too), and proved to be a massive hit on video, too. Williams’ movie career was launched.
What’s not so well known, though, is that plans were soon put in place for a sequel to the film.
The real-life Adrian Cronauer – who Levinson had kept Williams apart from until the film had been shot – still had much story to tell. As such the follow-up film would have followed him as a journalist, this time at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. It would have been set in 1968, and the proposed title was Good Morning, Chicago. The political setting was particularly interesting, given that Adrian Cronauer has described himself as “a lifelong card-carrying Republican” who campaigned for the likes of George W. Bush.
Furthermore, the 1968 convention saw a clash between 10,000 anti-war demonstrators and 23,000 police and national guardsman. Violent clashes ensued, including an infamous police assault in front of the Hilton hotel, on August 28th, 1968. At the convention itself, serving vice-President Hubert Humphrey was endorsed as the Democratic candidate for President, and he would lose the eventual election to Richard Nixon.
It was against the background of the event that Good Morning, Chicago was to be set.
Williams and Levinson were interested in the project, too, and Disney was keen to pursue the follow-up. As such, a screenwriter was hired to fashion a script. Mark Frost (co-creator of Twin Peaks, and who penned the pair of Fantastic Four movies in the 2000s, amongst many other credits) completed his draft too. It was polished off by the middle of 1992.
I checked all this with Mark Frost, too (and you can find his website here). He confirmed that he did indeed write the screenplay, that it turned out to be a good script, and that Disney wanted to make it. Noting that it was an era where sequels were still not quite as commonplace, there was still interest.
But the project didn’t get much further. Robin Williams got that aforementioned Oscar nomination, and was keen to make Dead Poets Society, and consequently moved on from the project. The story that was put out was a fairly standard line about Williams, Levinson and The Walt Disney Company not agreeing on a direction. But more likely, it was the transformation of Williams’ career that ultimately ended the project’s chances. The script remains owned by Disney, and has never been released.
There was one more flicker of interest, though, back in 2011. That’s when, in an interview with Moviehole, Williams confirmed many of the known details of the story. “They were trying to write it. It was based around the Democratic convention in Chicago. Part of it worked, Part of it didn’t work because it’d be him dealing with the politics of revolt in Chicago at the time,” he recalled. “But anyway, they did do [a screenplay] but it didn’t all work. It was also a matter of trying to find someone to back it. It was almost there. It was a great idea!”
His comment about “trying to find someone to back it” could imply that there was a studio problem. That Disney, by then deep into the Eisner-Katzenberg era at the studio, was less keen to pursue the project. That’d fit too, given that Disney would likely to have shied away from a project where national politics inevitably would have been a key ingredient. But still, that’s reading an awful lot into a single quote, and Disney had banked a near-nine figure profit from the original movie, by the time the video money came in. Plus, given the position he was in at the time, it’s hard to think that if Williams wanted it to happen, it wouldn’t have happened.
There is, of course, the argument that Good Morning, Vietnam hardly demanded a sequel, that it’s story was left pretty much complete. But somewhere, locked in a Disney vault, is a completed screenplay for a sequel to the film that did spark genuine interest. As intrigued as I am about it, I suspect few would quibble though with Williams’ ultimate pursuit of Dead Poets Society instead…