Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Douglas finally up where he belongs

'There have been many crazy chapters in my life. I can prove that I started the Vietnam War. People don't believe me but it's true'

Jonny Fines and Emma Williams in the stage version of ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’.
Jonny Fines and Emma Williams in the stage version of ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’.
Debra Winger and Richard Gere starred in the original movie
Screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart. Photo: David Conachy

You can sort of understand, listening to him, why it took Douglas Day Stewart 20 years to get round to writing An Officer and a Gentleman. For while his tumultuous time in officer candidate school was undoubtedly as vivid as its fictionalised screen version, this bronzed and genial Californian has since packed in several lifetimes worth of drama and jaw-dropping anecdotes.

As a young man, he almost lost his life in a motor accident in which several others were killed. He basically started the Vietnam War, he assures me, as my eyebrows hover halfway up my forehead.

He once witnessed a young Brooke Shields being ogled on a Fijian island by locals. He had three marriages, four kids, "and a lot of heartbreak". You could say he has lived a little.

Fittingly, given the sweeping, swooning romance of Officer, which remains one of the iconic films from the 1980s, the unifying theme of his life and his work, he tells me, has always been "the search for love".

He grew up in southern California and his parents' marriage, he says, set an unrealistic standard of what a relationship should be. "The longing I always had, that came from my mom and dad. I saw two parents who were in love with each other and, I thought, I want that for myself - but it seemed to be more elusive for me. They made it look easy and they never told me all the things about marriage that aren't so great."

As a child in school he thought of himself as an artist and an outsider, a sense of identity that carried over to college. "As an artist you are more sensitive than you want to be. All my friends thought I wore my heart on my sleeve. I tried hard to be a macho guy. I ran with the top athletes, I played a lot of tennis."

During his sophomore summer he decided to go travelling in Italy and became involved in a motor accident.

"I was in such a tragic situation, it is so difficult to talk about because there were lives lost," he explains. "I was in hospital there for quite a while. I nearly lost my own life too. It was really scary. For a while after, I felt a little mad, and I went around just wishing so much that I could undo events, as if I had the power to do that in my mind. I had a sense that I could have died."

After his long recovery he went to officer candidate school in Rhode Island, an experience that would provide the material for his career-defining hit. "It was the most difficult, nightmarish 13 weeks of my life," he says. "Nothing could possibly prepare you for what went on. It wasn't hazing. People talk about boot camp but this was worse than that. There was so much to learn, it was so intellectually demanding, and physically it was so exhausting. I had a drill instructor who seemed to know my psyche better than I knew it myself and it was like this trial by fire. Twenty years later I thought to myself, I have to write all this down, and it became the basis for the movie."

First, however there would be some time to serve in what was back then - the 1970s - considered something of a writing ghetto: television.

"I was lucky in that I got into it quickly and out of it quickly. It wasn't like today where there is so much good stuff going on in television. It was a place that you could get lost and never get out of it. It was a secondary place, movies were the A league and TV was the B league, unlike today when a lot of people working in features, the movies, would actually prefer to be in TV because you can do more personal work there."

He "got lucky" he says, with his first big feature, a coming-of-age story which was based on a Victorian novel, which Grease director Randal Kleiser had given him. The book would become the basis for The Blue Lagoon, for which Day Stewart wrote the script. "Because (the novel) was Victorian there was nothing sexual in it whatsoever so although I worked with the book, all of the coming-of-age stuff - that was all me." The film was highly successful and highly controversial, because of the sexual content and the nude scenes that its star - 14-year-old Brooke Shields - undertook.

"I remember being told that she was cast and it was my job to pick her up at the airport with her mother. We became close friends. Brooke the Cookie, I called her. She was so young. She had done Pretty Baby so there had already been controversy. We decided we didn't want to be prudish about it but she didn't do any of her own nudity and so on.

"She had to be tanned but how would she tan all over without people gawping at her? So they made this little enclave on the beach in Fiji and she could lie inside there basically naked without being seen. We did this for a while and then we saw all the islanders trying to climb on to high ground to see her and peer in."

When the movie came out, the crowds around the block outside his local cinema told Day Stewart that "maybe I would have a chance in this film world".

And there would be plenty of living to draw on for his writing. There have, he says, been "so many crazy chapters in my life".

"I can prove, for instance, that I started the Vietnam War. People don't believe me but it's true. I was on a seven-person team in the navy. We loaded up the 7th Marines and when they hit the beachhead in Vietnam it stopped being called a 'police action' and became the Vietnam War."

He has been married three times. "The search for true love was the toughest quest of my life. I embarked on every turn with the hope and dream and it wouldn't happen until I was a lot older."

He explains that it was a strange serendipity that rounded out his story.

"We met in a place where her mother and father and my mother and father both lived - just two floors apart. We had grown up in the same world and never met. When I had my little baby boy, from a previous relationship, we borrowed this family's crib. I met her, this daughter of the house, finally by a pool for the building and I felt like I had known her all my life.

"We hit it off and we were eventually married. It took a while coming, but the love I'd longed for all those years had finally come."

'An Officer and a Gentleman: The Musical' opens at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin, on May 29 and runs to June 2. Tickets, from €21, via www.bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

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