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'Apocalypse,' Now and Then

Sam Bottoms finds additions to the celebrated film help clarify the plot and his character, surfer Lance Johnson.

July 31, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a very long way back from the Apocalypse, and in many ways actor Sam Bottoms is still finding his way home.

In 1976, at age 20, he was chosen to play the key role of California surfer dude Lance Johnson in Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War epic "Apocalypse Now." The shoot in the Philippines jungle consumed a year and a half of his life and proved mentally and physically grueling-this in a filmmaking era before the ease of computer-generated effects.

"It was all on camera-flares, explosions, concussions to the ear," Bottoms recalls. "There was no shrapnel, but there was a lot of debris. I was picking stuff out of my skin for months and months afterwards, even though I was wearing flak jackets. It was pretty intense."

So intense that even after the cameras stopped rolling, Bottoms says he could not let go.

Today, 25 years later, Bottoms, 45, is sitting in the overgrown yard of a rented Hollywood Hills house, the oval swimming pool dry and littered with eucalyptus leaves. He has let his hair grow long, sports a modified goatee from his latest role as a mercenary in a Japanese action film and is walking around barefoot. He talks slowly and steadily, in a measured California drawl, and says how much he likes the newer, longer version of the film, "Apocalypse Now Redux." The added scenes, he believes, help the plot and Lance's behavior make more sense.

In the film Lance is a gunner assigned to accompany Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) upriver in a gunboat to his fated meeting with the renegade Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Lance is a young draftee, a golden surfer boy plucked from the beaches of Southern California to do his duty in an increasingly pointless war, and who, at a pivotal juncture of the story, drops acid to cope with the pointlessness.

There were obvious parallels between Bottoms and Lance. "In 1976 I had been surfing a lot, I sort of was that character," the actor remembers. "I was living that Southern California beach lifestyle."

Born in Santa Barbara, Sam Bottoms and his three brothers--Timothy, Joseph, and Benjamin--have all been actors. "We started acting in amateur theater in Santa Barbara," Bottoms says.

Then came his first film role, as Billy the mute boy ever sweeping the dusty streets of Archer City, Texas, in Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 classic "The Last Picture Show." That came about serendipitously, when his oldest brother, Tim, already cast as a lead, invited him for a set visit. One day Bogdanovich and his then-wife, Polly Platt, the film's production designer, spotted Sam on the street and asked him about being in the movie, not knowing that he was Tim's brother.

Afterward, he had a number of roles in television and film and then he read for the part for Lance in Coppola's film. He felt in his gut that the film would be an important one. The delineation of the character was to undergo some changes between the first script Bottoms read and the finished film. In the original John Milius script, Lance dies at Kurtz's compound during a furious battle. During a break back in the U.S., the actor recalls, "Francis said, 'I've got some changes--you're going to take acid at Do Lung Bridge and you're not going to die.' I took that to mean that Lance becomes a living tragedy, the survivor that has to return."

Breaking 'Actors' Code' in Earlier Interview

On this balmy afternoon, within eyeshot of the Hollywood sign, Bottoms seems the epitome of California mellow. Then his tanned face darkens when asked about actual drug-taking on the set. He had revealed to the makers of "Hearts of Darkness," the 1991 documentary about the making of the movie, that he had in fact taken not acid, but uppers, for the role.

"I realized after that interview I had sort of broken an actors' code" he says now. "I regret that very much. I believe that whatever it takes for an actor to get to a scene, that's his business. And I don't think that's something to be shared with the public."

"Apocalypse Now Redux" explains some things about Lance left murky in the 1979 version. "It includes those bridges to the development of the character that didn't exist in the shorter version," Bottom says. "Like where did they get the surfboard from? Where did Lance get the makeup from?"

The scenes with Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) have been lengthened, so that the sequence of events that follows Lance's being recognized as a famous surfer makes more sense. In order to clear a beach area for an impromptu surfing demo, Kilgore strafes and napalms a coastal village.

"What moved me this time is that I became more aware of the real victims of the war--the children, the families, the women," Bottoms says. "When I see the movie now, there's this tranquillity that's completely destroyed, obliterated by the bombing. The schoolyard with all those children--I just openly break out in tears."

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