The Marine Corps has a unique way of incorporating its history into every bit of training you undergo. Marines are not only expected to leave recruit training in peak physical condition, they’re expected to be able to recite to you, verbatim, important elements of the ever-growing story of the Corps — something that sticks with many of us even after we shed the uniform for the last time.
Despite the years between my days at Parris Island and now, I can still shout all about the birth of the Marine Corps (Tun Tavern, 1775), the first woman to enlist in the Corps (Opha May Johnson, 1918), and the most decorated Marine in history, Lewis “Chesty” Puller – which is why it came as such a surprise to me to learn that Gene Hackman served for five years in the Marine Corps as a radio operator. I just, somehow, never knew.
Just in case you aren’t familiar with his work, Gene Hackman falls into that category of incredible actors you may not realize you love. While some movie buffs a few years my senior may recall Hackman’s performance in movies like, “The French Connection,” as his crowing achievement, it was his appearances in movies like “Unforgiven,” “Uncommon Valor,” and “The Quick and the Dead” that resonated deeply with me as a child. Although I recognized him as “that actor Gene Hackman” at the time, it never occurred to me that his incredible performances helped to carry those films, and countless others, out of the “good movie” range and into the hallowed halls of the films we somewhat collectively consider to be classics.
I watched “Crimson Tide” for the first time since the mid-90’s the other night, and while Denzel Washington is worthy of every bit of praise he receives, I can’t help but feel like Gene Hackman isn’t given his due because of how good he is at playing a believable bad guy. Like his role in “Unforgiven,” Hackman’s Ramsey in Crimson Tide is a human villain – one you might even catch yourself agreeing with from time to time, and I think that may leave some people a bit unsettled.
Later in his career, Hackman would bring credibility to Will Smith’s movie about a lawyer running from a dangerously powerful surveillance state that bears a striking resemblance to the modern NYPD, “Enemy of the State.” He’d then go on to make me care about a forgettable football movie called, “The Replacements,” which despite never really caring about at the time, I can now rewatch fondly. This is far from an exhaustive list of Gene Hackman’s accomplishments as an actor (or my good fortune to get to grow up while he was working), but if you’re still not sure who Gene Hackman is, I really have only one suggestion:
Go watch “Unforgiven,” then come back and finish this article.
So how is it that despite being completely certain that Ruth Wood was the first female warrant officer in the Marine Corps, I somehow never knew that one of the best actors of my formative years spent five years wearing the same uniform I did?
Well, it’s probably because of the interview below. In 1988, Gene Hackman appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, presumably to plug one of the five movies he starred in that debuted that year. Over the course of the interview, Letterman asks Hackman if he’d been in the service.
Hackman responds, “Yeah, I was in the Marines,” before explaining why he joined the ranks of America’s few and proud at the young age of sixteen years old… “I couldn’t get laid, ya know…”
I guess I can imagine why the Marine Corps wasn’t in a rush to add a section to our boot camp test about Gene Hackman’s service.
I’ll let Mr. Hackman explain the rest.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons