The Screenwriter of ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ Shares the Inside Story of Robin Williams’ First Dramatic Hit

On the film’s 35th anniversary, Mitch Markowitz tells us what it was like to work with the comic legend in a not-so-comic role, how none of it would have happened without Norman Lear and the lasting image from the experience that he’s never been able to shake
The Screenwriter of ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’ Shares the Inside Story of Robin Williams’ First Dramatic Hit

Although by December 1987 Robin Williams had already established himself on TV with Mork & Mindy and in movies like Robert Altman’s Popeye, Good Morning, Vietnam was his first successful dramatic role and demonstrated that he had something more to offer than his manic brand of comedy.

The film loosely told the story of real-life Armed Forces Radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, who rankled his superiors by playing rock music and having a risqué on-air sense of humor. The movie took place in 1965, as the U.S. Armed Forces were quietly escalating their invasion of Vietnam and as hostilities started to grow. It was one of the biggest movies of 1987, and it earned Williams his first Oscar nomination. It also elevated the profiles of Forest Whitaker, who played a supporting role, director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz. 

Markowitz began his career by writing for television shows like M*A*S*H and Van Dyke and Company. Good Morning, Vietnam was his first film, and he spent almost two years writing it. He even traveled to Bangkok — as Vietnam was still closed after the war — in an attempt to make the movie as authentic as possible. On Good Morning, Vietnam’s 35th anniversary, he reflects on that trip, the time he spent with the real-life Cronauer, witnessing Williams’ legendary ad-libbing on-set and the visit to Vietnam he was finally able to make after the film’s release — two weeks of his life that he’ll never be able to shake.

The Dawn of Good Morning, Vietnam 

My path to getting to write Good Morning, Vietnam began with Norman Lear. One summer, around 1984 or 1985, I was in Vermont, and I’d heard that Norman Lear was vacationing near a place that I was staying. I’d worked on a show he produced and had met him a couple of times, so I called him up and we got together. He asked what I’d been doing, and I told him I’d written a couple of spec scripts — one of them eventually became a movie called Crazy People. Norman liked the script and he said he had a deal with a producer who was Robin Williams’ manager, and he recommended I meet with him.

When I did, he pitched me an idea for a buddy comedy about Hollywood hair designers, which I spent a couple of weeks on. But when I came back to pitch it to him, he could tell I wasn’t enthusiastic about it. I admitted that I didn’t understand it, and it seemed for a second like I was giving up my first job writing a movie. But as I stood up to walk out of the office, he said, “Well, we’ve got something else.”

He told me about this movie about a guy named Adrian Cronauer who had a radio show in Vietnam in the 1960s, before things heated up with the Vietnam War. There wasn’t a treatment or anything, it was just a one-line description. I was interested, though, and I was hired to write it soon afterwards.

I met the real Adrian Cronauer once, maybe twice. Honestly, he wasn’t interesting to me. He was a nice man, but he was very square — a nerdy-type guy. I listened to some of the tapes of his show, too, but they weren’t very humorous or inspiring either. So I just went off and did this on my own.

Putting Pen to Paper

I had to do a lot of research because I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War. A while into writing the script, I wanted to go to Vietnam, but the studio wouldn’t pay for it. As it turned out, you couldn’t go to Vietnam until a few years later anyway. 

Instead, I went to Bangkok and paid for it myself. I figured if I couldn’t get to the place I was writing about, at least I could get close. I stayed there for a couple of weeks. I went to these clubs like they had in Saigon, and I met former service people over there. I also went to the bars and the strip clubs and drank the beer and put up with that hot, humid weather.

It took a long time to write Good Morning, Vietnam — somewhere between 18 months and two years. In the movie, I wanted to delve into how families and relationships were affected by the oncoming war. I wanted it to be funny, but sad as well. I felt that I had a responsibility to the people who died there. The result ended up being anti-American imperialism, but also anti-communism. 

I had several drafts I had to turn in, and there were notes and changes and things like that. The biggest issue we ended up having was that Paramount didn’t want to have the bombing in the movie, but I wouldn’t take it out. Fortunately, Robin’s manager backed me up. How can you have a movie about Vietnam in the 1960s and have no bombing? Vietnam in the 1960s was all about bombing! That’s the first thing that tells you that the war is coming. Paramount, though, refused to budge, and we ended up having to find a new studio, which was Disney.

Life After (Good Morning) Vietnam

I still love the movie. I love what happened with it, and I have great affection for the people who worked on it. I even went to Thailand a couple of years after the release and tried to look up everyone who worked on the movie. Robin, of course, was brilliant. He did a lot of ad-libbing, particularly when he was on the radio. I didn’t like some of it, but some of it I thought was inspired. 

The movie was a big hit when it came out, and my phone was suddenly ringing off the hook. It got so crazy I decided to fly to Thailand. I waited for five weeks to get a visa so I could finally visit Vietnam. 

When I wrote Good Morning, Vietnam, I fell in love with Vietnam and the characters I wrote. I created a world that I dwelled in for almost two years. But when I finally got there, it broke my heart. There were still rotted-out American tanks and armored vehicles and other remnants of the war. It looked like the war had just happened, even though it had already been over for 10 or 12 years. People were sleeping in the streets, and there were no cars. I was paired with a group of three other guys I didn’t know, and we were followed and surveilled — they checked our luggage every day.

The trip was supposed to last 10 days, but it ended up being 14 days because we were detained. It was awful. Unlike the movie, it wasn’t humorous in any way, and it made me realize the horrors of war in a way I had never understood before.

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