In the original script for "Sitting Ducks," an upcoming episode in CBS' new Vietnam series "Tour of Duty," an Army officer snapped under pressure and committed suicide in the opening "teaser" sequence of the program. It happened off camera--but it was clear that, in the words of executive producer Zev Braun, that the officer "blew his brains out."
Now in the episode, scheduled to air Oct. 22, the officer does not blow his brains out. Instead, he is killed while on patrol. This change was not the result of objections from the network--the usual source of significant alterations--but from the U.S. Army.
"I thought it was offensive, inappropriate and sensational," said Lt. Col. Robert Thompson, chief of the Los Angeles office of the Army's public affairs department, which is based in Washington.
"I guess what offended me was that I didn't feel--through my experience, which included two tours in Vietnam--that our trained officers, when we put them in leadership positions and gave them responsibility for platoons of 30 men, would cop out under stress and put a gun to their heads," Thompson continued. "The suicide was, quite frankly, not plausible to me."
And when the Army talks, New World Television, producer of "Tour of Duty," has an obligation--of sorts--to listen.
As is the common practice among some television and feature film producers dealing with military themes, New World sought the advice and cooperation of the Department of Defense in producing the series, a tough, grunt's-eye view of the Vietnam War that CBS has slotted to compete against NBC's top-rated "The Cosby Show," beginning tonight.
Thompson said, for example, that his department most recently had been involved in the film "Hamburger Hill" and the TV movies "A Time to Triumph" and "Angel in Green." The recent Vietnam films "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" were done without Army input.
The department's cooperation comes with strings attached, Thompson noted. In trade for advice, equipment and other resources (the production company reimburses the government for any costs incurred), the Department of Defense asks for final script approval.
"The agreement is that we will either reach a compromise or break off our relationship," Thompson said.
Despite this agreement and a so-far amicable relationship, however, New World, CBS and the show's producer and writers say "Tour of Duty" will never sacrifice its integrity to please the Department of Defense--even if it means breaking off with the Department of Defense.
"We do not take dictation from them," insisted Steve Bello, "Tour" co-producer and writer of the episode in which the suicide was planned. "We're shooting on a military base (in Hawaii), and that gives them, fairly, a right to look at the scripts. But we're not going to let them put a gun to our heads."
Said "Tour" executive producer Zev Braun: "It is our avowed purpose to show the reality of war. And in the reality of war, not only do people get killed, they commit suicide. That's not a reflection on the Army, but that happens."
Then why was the scene altered? According to Braun, New World acquiesced to Thompson's request only because the scene was "not integral to the story. We will not accede (to a change) if it is a major part of the story."
The episode involves the platoon members being assigned to what they think is an easy assignment: protecting a new irrigation installation in a rural village. The opening sequence, in which the officer formerly in charge of that project kills himself, was intended to hit home to both platoon leader Lt. Myron Goldman and the audience that this was to be no easy job.
Bello said that the decision to illustrate this by having the officer mortally wounded rather than commit suicide was as much a creative decision as an attempt to appease the Army (another option he considered was having the officer die in sniper fire). "Dramatically, if it had been a suicide, we would have had to spend two pages of dialogue after the commercial trying to explain what happened. It would just be talking heads," Bello said.
"Besides," Bello added, "we might want to do a whole episode about suicide, and we'd have thrown the whole thing away on the teaser."
Braun said that New World can produce the shows without the cooperation of the Department of Defense and would do so if necessary. The suicide of an officer under pressure is a likely topic for a future episode, he said.
Kim LeMasters, vice president of programs at CBS, concurred with Braun. Although the agreement with the Department of Defense is with the production company, not the network, LeMasters said through a spokesman that if there were a disagreement with the Army, he believed Braun would "go ahead and produce it anyway."