The baby boomer generation lost one of its heroes last week: Rick Jason is gone. Better known as Lt. Hanley on the long-running 1960s World War II series, "Combat!," he died of a self-inflicted gunshot at the age of 74.
As they often say in Hollywood war films, "we lost us a good man." Jason was not only a wonderful human being, a devoted husband and a fine actor, he was one of our best storytellers, with links to the golden age of Hollywood. Fortunately for us and for history's sake, most of his memories are documented in a recent autobiography, "Scrapbooks of My Mind."
There is an old cliche--"If you remember the '60s, then you weren't there." Well, Jason helped me remember. In fact, I can tell you exactly where I was on every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m., from the fall of 1962 to the summer of 1967. I was glued to the television set, watching "Combat!" with my dad.
Jason starred as Lt. Gil Hanley opposite Vic Morrow's Sgt. Chip Saunders. Jason was the carbine-carrying, world-weary infantry line officer who battled his way across France and destroyed the MGM back lot in 152 episodes.
I first met him in 1996, shortly after I purchased remake rights to the original series, with the intention of turning "Combat!" into a movie. Paramount had bought the project, and Bruce Willis was hovering around it because Willis had been one of those 7:30 guys in the '60s too.
Everyone was excited about the possibility of a big Hollywood movie, and the fans organized a cruise through the Caribbean with the original cast, minus Morrow, who had died in a helicopter crash during the filming "Twilight Zone--The Movie" in 1982. Jason was there with Dick Peabody (Littlejohn), who died last December; Jack Hogan (Kirby), Pierre Jalbert (Caje), Conlan Carter (Doc) and Tom Lowell (Billy).
One of the amazing things about Hollywood is that, given the opportunity, you can actually spend personal time with one of your heroes. And on a cruise ship, you had the ultimate opportunity--a captive audience. Jason was the kind of actor you dreamed of listening to--the actor with the endless stories, who remembered the smallest details. You didn't need a time machine to go back to MGM in '53; you had Jason as your very capable tour guide. He had made his first film there, a musical called "Sombrero."
But more importantly for me, he encouraged my efforts to get the movie made, to fight the fight and get people to pay attention. I even joked with him about getting him a little French beret and having him play a character sipping Calvados while the movie's Hanley entered the town with the new "Combat!" squad. He winked at me.
He loved his fans, even as he was surprised at how much they loved him. He reveled in the attention, the adulation, the memories, and it was fun to see him interacting with the "squad." One of my favorite images of Rick is seeing him walk from table to table on the cruise ship, making sure everyone was having a good time, and then pouring a glass of his favorite wine for me to sample.
He did the same thing in 1998 when he invited 50 fans over to his and his wife Cindy's home in Moorpark for a buffet lunch. That never happens. It happened with Jason. He was the ultimate host.
And just a few weeks ago, he attended another "Combat!" conclave in Las Vegas. He was there for his fans, staying after hours to sign autographs on everything they presented.
For us boomers, Jason helped illuminate the legacy of World War II to those of us too young to experience or remember it. He brought dignity to the image of the fighting man at a time when Vietnam was moving us in the other direction. Over those five years of episodes, he brought home every week the sense of fear, sacrifice and the great love soldiers have for each other.
Jason and the squad were our touchstones to the dynamic era of the 1940s when America won the war. Steven Spielberg, Tom Brokaw, Tom Hanks and Stephen Ambrose have brought World War II to life for a new generation. But we must remember that Rick and the "Combat!" squad were there first.
We really haven't lost him; we'll always have what he gave us. Whether on camera in your living room or in person telling his stories, he was truly an officer and a gentleman.