The Real Story Behind ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’

A real disc jockey inspired Robin Williams' classic character.
Good Morning Vietnam Real Story

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the real story behind Barry Levinson’s 1987 film Good Morning, Vietnam.

It is somewhat difficult to believe that Good Morning, Vietnam, the 1987 Vietnam War comedy directed by Barry Levinson, takes its inspiration from a real disc jockey. After all, the part of Adrian Cronauer feels like the kind of role written for — and could only be played by — Robin Williams. But, there was, in fact, a real Cronauer, and he wrote the story that formed the basis of the film and script, written by Mitch Markowitz. Here is the real story.

A Signature Opening

Adrian Cronauer was born in 1935 to a steelworker and a teacher in Pittsburg. He was born to be a broadcaster. At age 12, according to the BBC, he landed a “semi-regular” spot on the local children’s television show. As a college student in the 1950s, he helped found a student radio station and worked with local and professional broadcasters in Pennsylvania and then Washington.

He later enlisted in the United States Air Force. Cronauer trained in Texas and then received his first deployment to the island of Crete in Greece. While stationed at the Iraklion Air Station there, he developed what would become his signature opening. According to The Mercury News:

“It started out to be a calm, matter-of-fact, ‘Good morning, Iraklion,’ ” he told the Fayetteville (North Carolina) Observer in 2011. “But as the program developed, it got wilder and wilder: ‘Goooooood morning, Iraklion!’”

Off to Vietnam

In 1965, Cronauer volunteered to go to Vietnam, citing his desire to travel. The year marked the midpoint of the war, which lasted from 1955 to 1975. He first arrived as the news director of Armed Forces Radio. But on the first day, according to the BBC:

After his morning presenter left, he took up the 06:00 Dawn Buster show mantle, greeting troops with an enthusiastic yell of: “GOOOOOOOOD morning, Vietnam!”

He initially wondered whether such a greeting would be well received in Vietnam, where soldiers faced a far different situation than those in Greece. He later told CNN (via the New York Times):

“Do I want to do that?” he said in reference to using the opening line. “I said, ‘Yeah, I do, because if there’s a certain amount of irony there, and if they pick up on that, they’ll know what I’m really saying.’”

A radical?

In the film, the character played by Williams constantly battles with top brass over what and how he broadcasts on air. He takes risks, speaks the truth, and does not shy away from poking fun at important figures, including soon-to-be U.S. President Richard Nixon. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Williams’ character reports that a bomb went off despite direct orders not to broadcast the information.

Cronauer, by contrast, did not take such risks on the air. ”Williams is the disc jockey I would have liked to be,” Cronauer told the Chicago Tribune at the time of the film’s release. His Time obituary notes that Cronauer, who later became a lawyer and worked for Republicans, “admitted to some unease when he first saw the screen portrayal. But he got over it.” In an interview with Rolling Stone (via the BBC), Williams noted:

In real life he never did anything outrageous. He did witness a bombing in Saigon. He wanted to report it – he was overruled. He didn’t want to buck the system, because you can get court-martialled for that.

Like Williams’ character, Cronauer also taught English while serving in Vietnam. But unlike Williams’s character, who became a celebrity, Cronauer never reached a similar star status amongst the troops. But that does not mean he did not leave an impact. He played popular music, Rock & Roll, and other tunes that gave a slice of home to the troops. Cronauer told the Tribune:

The crowning achievement for me was when I heard from some guys that when they tuned into ‘Dawn Buster’ for the first time, they assumed they had picked up some radio station from the States.

Making the Film

In interviews, Cronauer always insisted that the film was meant to be entertainment, not a biography. According to the Times, Cronauer saw the potential for a film or TV show loosely based on his life following the success of programs like M*A*S*H. He wrote a treatment and tried to pitch it as a television show. When that failed, he tried for a TV movie. But the script eventually made its way into Williams’ hands, who immediately saw how the character and film could pair well with his existing work and persona. They got to work.

While the character is very different from Cronauer, his commitment to finding ways to communicate to the soldiers on their own terms, and in their own vernacular, was genuine. Williams told Rolling Stone (via the Times):

He says he learned whenever soldiers in the field heard his sign-on line, they’d shout back at their radios.

Later Years

Cronauer was able to put himself through law school with proceeds of the film. And, as previously mentioned, he worked for Republican political causes. In 1992, he recorded an ad for President George H.W. Bush, in which then-Governor Bill Clinton was labeled a draft dodger. According to Stars and Stripes, Cronauer accuses Clinton of lying in the ad.

In his later years, he continued to serve. Cronauer advised the Pentagon as part of the office dedicated to prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. He received the Secretary of Defense Medal for Exceptional Public Service. And after the release of the movie, he became a bit of a celebrity in his own right. Once, the BBC reports, Bette Midler asked him for his autograph. He died in 2016 at the age of 79.

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.