This week marked the birthday of the Hollywood Sign, which is 90 years old.
It's probably one of only a few signs with an uppercased "Sign" in its name. It's an iconic landmark, an indispensable, historic, necessary piece of the Hollywood landscape. If you're an Angeleño, especially a Hollywood resident, you gotta love it.
I used the hillside sign as a backdrop in one of my self-portraits – above is a photo of the photo – for a Cal State photography-class assignment. I shot a series of five self-portraits showing only my hands and arms to tell the story of my Marine Corps career, which included three years as a liaison to the motion picture and television industry in Los Angeles. Heck, yeah, I had to have the Hollywood Sign in that photo!
When I received my orders to the Marine Corps Public Affairs Office, Los Angeles, way back in 1982, my fellow Marines harassed me about becoming a Hollywood Marine. That wasn't to be confused with a Marine who had completed boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. You see, if you graduated from boot camp on the West Coast, instead of the more famous Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., you were called a Hollywood Marine, which really didn't make sense because recruit training was in San Diego, not Los Angeles or Hollywood. Anyway, I was told by my fellow gyrenes that I was going to be a true Hollywood Marine in Hollyweird, Calif.
Our office in Los Angeles operated as a West Coast adjunct office of the Division of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. Our staff consisted of me, an administrative sergeant and two officers. Our job was to help screenwriters, producers, directors and actors get it right when portraying Marines and the Corps. It benefited them and the Marine Corps to produce stories and scenes that were accurate and authentic, with attention to detail in regard to procedures, tactics, language, uniforms, haircuts, weapons and equipment.
I landed on a Hollywood set my very first week in L.A. – as a technical advisor on the production of a Kodak commercial. The set design depicted the interior of a barracks, which we could assume was at boot camp, because one of the actors was portraying a Marine drill instructor, or DI. The other main character was a Marine recruit, who had just received a Kodak camera in the mail. Now, any jarhead knows that recruits are allowed to receive only letters in the mail, so I grabbed the director and the advertising company rep and offered that if we're going to stretch the truth a little, let's add some humor. I suggested that the DI be in the recruit's face, yelling at him, and the recruit points the camera in the DI's face, at which point the DI grins big for the camera. Once the recruit snaps the photo, the DI goes back to yelling at him.
I thought it was brilliant. The director smugly cast off my suggestion and stuck to the script. The ad man, too, blew off my bright idea. I still think it was brilliant – well, rather funny anyway.
I soon started learning that the more famous a Hollywood type was, the nicer he or she probably was, in most cases. Phone calls from the famous, for example, usually were nicer than calls from the wanna-be famous.
Steven J. Cannell called one day. He wanted about four Marine Corps UH-1E Huey helicopters to be in one of his television shows, "Riptide." The story in that episode had nothing to do with the Marine Corps, so I politely explained that we could not use the taxpayers' helicopters and the taxpayers' fuel and the taxpayers' Marine Corps chopper crews – and, thus, the taxpayers' money – to make his cool show even cooler. Cannell said he understood and that he had assumed that would be my answer, but he still wanted to ask. We then partook in a friendly conversation. Nice guy.
Stanley Kubrick called one day. I answered the phone, and he identified himself, and I went into Bill Cosby's old, old routine about Noah talking to God. I said to Kubrick, "Riiiiiiiiiiiiiight! Who is this, really?" He soon convinced me it really was Stanley Kubrick, and he wanted a technical advisor for an upcoming feature film called "Full Metal Jacket." Long story short: Lt. Col. Fred Peck, my boss, had worked on a film with R. Lee Ermy and recommended Ermy, who not only got the job as technical advisor but also got the part of the senior drill instructor, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman.
One day I got a call from a woman with "The Karate Kid," the 1984 film starring Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio, which was in preproduction at the time. She said one of the characters, a karate instructor, is a former Marine Corps DI, so they wanted the actor to get dressed as a DI, then photographed, and then the photo hung in a frame on a wall in the character's karate studio. As with any project, we had to see the script first, so she sent over a script for me to read.
If you've seen "The Karate Kid," you know that the karate instructor – the teacher, the sensei, played by actor Martin Kove – is an evil jerk and rotten to the core. So, I called my nice "Karate Kid" contact and told her nicely that a Marine DI, or any nice Marine, exhibits honor, integrity and respect. "Why don't you make him a former Green Beret?" I suggested. "They're a little more wild and crazy." (Forgive me, my Special Forces friends.) And that's why – when you first see the jerk's karate studio – the framed photo on the wall shows Kove's character dressed as a Green Beret. Another brilliant idea, if I
must say so myself.
Yes, I enjoyed an interesting tour of duty in Los Angeles, interfacing with the Hollywood entertainment industry. And whenever my family and I hosted visitors, I always included the Hollywood Sign in the obligatory tour of Tinseltown and the surrounding L.A. environs. That tradition continued when I retired from the Corps and settled in Southern California. Love that Sign, the Hollywood Sign, a sign of the times since 1923.