Politics & Policy

Like Ike

Selleck plays Gen. Eisenhower.

You have every reason to be suspicious of what National Review says about Tom Selleck. After all, the guy has been a subscriber since the age of 17. He’s even appeared in television commercials for us. We don’t just like the guy; we feel indebted to him. (Be like Tom Selleck! Subscribe here!)

So let’s start by setting aside our own opinions–something we don’t do very often around here–and review what a few non-NR sources are saying about Selleck’s new A&E film, Ike: Countdown to D-Day. “It’s hard to imagine Tom Selleck as General Eisenhower,” says the Christian Science Monitor, “but he turns out to be terrific in the role.” The critics don’t merely like Ike–they love Selleck. He “makes a fine Ike,” says Entertainment Weekly. The New York Post hails “a heroic, understated performance” and People celebrates “a surprisingly effective performance.”

See it for yourself on Memorial Day, when Ike premieres on A&E at 8:00 P.M.

In the meantime, eavesdrop on my conversation with Selleck as he discusses the challenge of playing Eisenhower, whether he’d ever take on the role of Reagan, and the French.

NRO: You had to shave your head and mustache for this role, didn’t you?

Selleck: Yeah, I shaved my head, bleached it gray in the right places, bleached it blonde in the right places. I didn’t want to wear appliances, such as Ike ears, an Ike nose, and so forth because then everybody’s looking for the latex when they should be watching the movie.

NRO: What’s it like to play an actual person from history?

Selleck: I’d never been asked to play a historical character who is fairly contemporary, where there’s actual film footage of him available. I think the big trap for an actor is to do an impersonation. You need to blend who you are with who the other person is and capture the spirit of that character. I’m not equating my own performance with his, but George C. Scott didn’t look like Patton or sound like him. Patton had a high, squeaky voice. But when Americans think of Patton they think of George C. Scott because he did such a good job of capturing the spirit of Patton.

NRO: How did you prepare for the role?

Selleck: Stephen Ambrose’s biography of Eisenhower was one of the sources for the screenwriter, Lionel Chetwynd, so I read that. I also read At Ease, by Eisenhower himself–it’s a collection of stories he told his friends. They’re Mark Twainesque essays. He was a really good writer. And I read General Ike, a recent book by his son, John Eisenhower. I had a nice long talk with John over the phone. He said at one point–and he meant this as high praise–”it must be difficult for an actor to play someone so ordinary.” It’s an amazing statement but it’s true. Eisenhower certainly had an ego, but his ego was wrapped up in winning the war. He was the perfect choice for supreme commander of the Allies. He had people skills and he had charm.

NRO: There seem to be a lot of parallels between what goes on in the movie and what’s going on in our world today.

Selleck: There are, but we had no political agenda in making it. We wanted the movie to pay homage to a generation and we wanted it to air in time for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. It’s important to make a movie right for the time and not worry about political correctness. That’s why there’s so much smoking in the film. Eisenhower was smoking four packs a day during this period. It’s one of the reasons he had health problems later on as president. But if you make a movie right for the time, you’re bound to inform people about the present.

NRO: Yeah, like about how the French were jerks right before D-Day and how they’re still jerks now.

Selleck: The French never change. Actually, some liberals who have seen the movie say it validates the need for broad coalitions in war fighting. One of the things I wonder about, though, is whether the D-Day invasion could happen today in a 24-hour news cycle. The media would be asking all time about the exit strategy. Remember, 1944 was an election year. There would probably be a December 7 commission running around. Reporters would be saying that Patton doesn’t have an army up north and you’ve been lying to us for two years, and that you can’t put our boys in those firetrap Sherman tanks. We’re living in a different world now.

NRO: Would you ever consider playing Ronald Reagan?

Selleck: I’d have a hard time. Reagan is so indelible, at least for me. I’m proud to say I know him well. We’ve golfed together. He’s a much better golfer than me. Playing him would be really hard. He was a great communicator and a strong leader. He was an actor who was never acting. I don’t know how you could enhance that. I don’t know how you could play him in a way that wouldn’t disappoint.

NRO: Have you been watching the presidential race?

Selleck: Yes I have, but my access to the media usually comes when I’m promoting a movie, like now. I don’t want to politicize my movies. A lot of actors are willing to toot their own horns. I feel like I’m on someone else’s nickel here and I don’t want to alienate anybody. Some of the people I might alienate are the ones I most want to see Ike. I’m a registered independent with a lot of libertarian leanings. I think we should have stoplights, fire departments, and strategic missile defense. I’m keeping quiet about a lot of that right now but I’m becoming so concerned that I might have to speak up. I don’t know if that will help me get more work in Hollywood. So be it.

NRO: Did you serve in the military?

Selleck: I’m proud to say I was in the Army National Guard, infantry, for six years, from 1967-73. I’m sick of hearing people trivialize that service. It was a tremendous honor to put on the uniform.

NRO: What’s your next project?

Selleck: I’ve always got a Western in production. I’m currently involved in adapting The Empty Land, a book by Louis L’Amour.

NRO: Do you still wear a Detroit Tigers baseball cap?

Selleck: I do! How about those Tigers? It’s quite a turnaround this year, like the 1994 elections. I was born in Detroit and when my family moved out to Los Angeles, there wasn’t a baseball team here. I’m always rooting for the Tigers.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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