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'Band of Brothers' actors are a successful, tight unit

Ten years ago, 'Band of Brothers' aired starring largely unknown performers. Since then, their careers have blossomed and they gather annually for a reunion.

September 08, 2011|By Liesl Bradner, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • HBO's "Band of Brothers" was a 10-part miniseries based on Stephen E. Ambroses nonfiction bestseller.
HBO's "Band of Brothers" was a 10-part miniseries based… (David James / HBO )

Currahee, a Cherokee word meaning "we stand alone together," is the name of a rugged, small mountain in Georgia where soldiers during World War II trudged their way uphill as they trained to become paratroopers. The word also fittingly served as the title for the opening episode of "Band of Brothers," the groundbreaking HBO miniseries that aired a decade ago Friday.

The Emmy-winning, 10-part series, which was produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, continues to resonate with audiences who view the work as a much-needed historical tribute to the soldiers who helped defeat Nazism in Europe. The series was based on Stephen Ambrose's 1992 book that followed the real-life exploits of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from training through D-Day to the end of the war.

The reach of the series today extends to the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., where many scenes featuring Richard Winters, the young American officer portrayed by British actor Damian Lewis, are used to teach future battlefield commanders about tactics (assaulting a fixed position at Brecourt Manor in Episode 2) and leadership (how to treat combat fatigue in Episode 3).

But even at the time it aired — in the days and weeks after the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11 — the series, while thanking the generation before, helped settle and inspire the one ahead.

"The men of Easy Company were resilient and stuck together. It was a powerful message to a nation trying to overcome something like 9/11," said Col. Eric Kail, who oversees military leadership curriculum at West Point. "Great strength is not from ourselves but from each other. That's a message soldiers have been trying to get out for a long time."

The $120-million production was shot entirely on location in England over eight months in 2000. The program was a powerful launching pad for a cadre of young and then unknown actors from the United Kingdom. In addition to Lewis who landed TV series work in NBC's "Life" and Showtime's upcoming "Homeland," "Band of Brothers" also boosted the careers of Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, who starred together in this summer's "X-Men: First Class."

Other Brits included a baby-faced Tom Hardy, Batman's Herculean nemesis in next summer's "The Dark Knight Rises," who is nearly unrecognizable as Pfc. John Janovec and Simon Pegg as 1st Sgt. William Evans, Capt. Sobel's (David Schwimmer) assistant.

"It was truly an ensemble piece," said casting director Meg Liberman of their deliberate decision not to bring big names on board.

She acknowledged having mixed feelings originally about casting Lewis as Winters, whose character anchors the entire series. "I really wanted an American actor to play the part, but Damian came in and blew us away."

The American actors from the series didn't fare so badly either. Neal McDonough (who played Lynn "Buck" Compton) later starred in several Spielberg productions including "Minority Report" and "Flags of Our Fathers." The actor, who could be seen in this summer's "Captain America: The First Avenger," also met his wife the day he arrived in England for boot camp.

"The notoriety took me to another level," said Frank John Hughes, who played the wisecracking Bill Guarnere. "Before it was bad guys, criminals and mobsters. After playing Wild Bill, I switched to the other side of the law."

Added Matthew Settle, who played Capt. Ronald Speirs, who arguably has one of the most remarkable scenes in the series as he runs through the German occupied Belgian town of Foy: "I still get a lot of guys coming up to me saying, 'What's Speirs doing on "Gossip Girl?'"

Michael Cudlitz, who played Denver "Bull" Randleman and can be seen starring in TNT's cop drama "Southland," hosts an annual cast reunion at his home, which has been attended by Hanks and Spielberg.

"People fly in from all over," he said. "Even now, I don't think there's anyone that wouldn't drop anything to help each other out, and that's a rare thing in Hollywood."

"It was like joining a frat," said Ron Livingston, who played Lewis Nixon, the captain with a fondness for Vat 69 whiskey.

Like their characters who jelled as a unit thanks to a mutual loathing for Capt. Sobel, the actors bonded over their disdain for the production's military advisor, Dale Dye, who played the company commander Col. Sink but also ran the boot camp.

"He allowed himself to be the common enemy, but that's the way he works," said McDonough.

"They were creating bonds early on in boot camp," said Dye. "I was waiting to see if all that had faded as the production went on, but in fact it increased. "

Many of the actors struck up friendships with the men they portrayed during production and some have lasted to this day. "To call it a friendship would be to slight it," said Hughes of his relationship with Guarnere, 88. "He's like a father to me."

"He played me like the devil I was," said Guarnere from his home in Philadelphia. (He lost a leg in Bastogne saving his friend Joe Toye.)

"When it came to anything heroic, he wouldn't talk about it," said Hughes. "They'll only talk about someone else's bravery."

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