TOUR OF DUTY – 10 Facts About the 1980s Vietnam War Drama
By the mid-1980s, there had been TV shows set during the Civil War, World War II, and the Korean Conflict, but never the Vietnam War. That all changed with Tour Of Duty.
Set in 1967–1968, this groundbreaking drama series follows an infantry platoon as they fight the enemy — and each other — in Southeast Asia. Members of the platoon in season one include Capt. Rusty Wallace (Kevin Conroy), Sgt. Zeke Anderson (Terence Knox), Lt. Myron Goldman (Stephen Caffrey), Pvt. Roger Horn (Joshua Maurer), Pvt. Doc Matsuda (Steve Akahoshi), Cpl. Danny Percell (Tony Becker), Pvt. Scott Baker (Eric Bruskotter), Sgt. Marvin Johnson (Stan Foster), Pvt. Alberto Ruiz (Ramon Franco), and Pvt. Marcus Taylor (Miguel A. Nunez Jr.). Subsequent seasons attracted marquee stars in limited roles.
With its continuing narrative, big name stars, and historically high production values, Tour of Duty has many of the qualities of today’s premium dramas. But it struggled to find an audience in a primetime landscape littered with light comedies. Thirty years later, the critically acclaimed series feels more groundbreaking than ever. And you can see for yourself what makes Tour Of Duty a unique TV classic every Monday–Thursday late night on getTV! Here are some fascinating facts about this groundbreaking series.
1. It was inspired by Platoon.
In December of 1986, Oliver Stone’s Platoon drew raves from critics and moviegoers with its unflinching depiction of the Vietnam War. More than a decade after the conflict ended, American audiences finally seemed to ready to examine a highly divisive chapter in our history. And when the film won four Oscars — including Best Picture — a TV show dealing with the same period was inevitable. Tour Of Duty is not based on Platoon, but its depiction of an infantry platoon in the same period (1967–68) is clearly inspired by it.
2. The series was produced with military cooperation.
While Platoon was made without any official involvement by the Army, Tour Of Duty producers New World Television sought the blessing of the Department of Defense. With it came advice, equipment, and the use of the Army’s Schofield Barracks in Hawaii as the production’s home base. But government cooperation came with a catch: veto power. The Army insisted on changes during season one and, though executive producer Zev Braun agreed, he made it clear who was running the show. “It is our avowed purpose to show the reality of war,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. “We will not accede (to a change) if it is a major part of the story."
3. Changes were made for season two.
After surviving a low-rated but critically acclaimed first season, Tour Of Duty was retooled for its second season. The setting was changed to the Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base near Saigon and new cast members were added, including Kim Delaney (a future Emmy winner for NYPD Blue) as a young reporter on the base. Women were added to the cast, in part, to better compete with China Beach, a soapy, Vietnam War drama series that debuted on ABC in 1988.
4. It had tough competition.
When Tour of Duty premiered in September of 1987, CBS scheduled it on Thursdays at 8pm. Its competition was The Cosby Show and Family Ties, then the two top rated primetime shows on network TV. Fans breathed a sigh of relief when CBS moved the timeslot to Saturday for season three — until they found out it was up against The Golden Girls and Empty Nest.
5. It was filmed on the set of another famous military-themed series.
Along with a change in setting in season two came a change in location. Production moved from Hawaii to Hollywood, specifically to the back lot where the long-running M*A*S*H had wrapped production just a few years earlier. That Korean War-set series shared 22 cast and crew members with Tour of Duty, including Rosalind Chao, Mako, and Robert Ito.
6. Season two was cut short.
While seasons one and three had standard, full-season episode orders from CBS, season two was cut to just 16 shows. It wasn’t necessarily the fault of low ratings or budget cuts, but rather a strike by the Writer’s Guild of America that endured for 5 months and hobbled primetime television. Thirty years later, it remains the longest strike in WGA history.
7. Big names were added for season three.
For the third season, action moved away from the base and back out to the field, as the platoon was transferred to a Studies and Observation Group unit. Big names were added to the cast to boost the ratings, including Carl Weathers (Rocky) as Colonel Brewster and Lee Majors (The Six Million Dollar Man) as Pop Scarlett. Future star Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) also had a recurring role in season three as Pvt. William Griner. Notable guest stars included Angela Bassett, Ving Rhames, and David Allan Grier.
8. It was an expensive show to produce.
“We've got a series that we think is like none other,” executive producer Zev Braun told UPI when the series debuted in 1987. Production costs were unusually expensive for a primetime series of the era: $1.25 million per show. The pilot itself had a budget of more than $3 million, with season one costing more than $30 million. While that may not have paid off in the ratings, it did in critical acclaim and awards consideration. Tour of Duty was nominated for three Emmys, winning once for the show’s complex and highly realistic sound design.
9. It depicted real events.
Tour Of Duty frequently depicted actual events that happened during the Vietnam War, including the raid of Son Tay Prison. And the first story arc of season three dealt with the highly emotional topic of missing in action soldiers. “Over 2,300 soldiers Americans classified 'Missing' in the Vietnam War are still unaccounted for,” a title read on the first episode of season three. “Reported live sightings could indicate some are still held prisoner in Southeast Asia.” On the show, the two M.I.A soldiers — Terence Knox as Anderson and Stephen Caffrey as Goldman — were recovered after being held captive in a Viet Cong prison camp.
10. There were five soundtrack albums.
Because of the huge popularity of the 1960s pop songs of the era, Tour of Duty inspired not one but four soundtrack releases between 1988 and 1989. There was also a fifth compilation release in 1992 after the series had concluded its three-season run.
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