CBS' Vietnam series plans assault to break ground ,Cosby stronghold

By Rick Du Brow

Herald Television editor

It will be touted as the show that tries to knock Bill Cosby. But CBS's 'Tour Of Duty' is much more than that - a hard boiled smouldering adventure that is network televisions first weekly drama about the Vietnam war.

The first episode has already been produced in Hawaii - a one hour pilot show that looks like nothing  else in prime time starring Terence Knox , formerly of " St.Elsewhere ", is the leader of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam in 1967. Tour Of duty renders a harsh, intimate, totally compelling atmosphere that is light-years from prime-time fantasy.

Knox, as veteran Sgt. Zeke Anderson, is so convincingly ( and winningly) tough that he makes he-men Don Johnson of " Miami Vice" and Bruce Willis of "Moonlighting " look like mouseketeers.

'Tour Of Duty' unquestionably will be the show to watch in the coming new TV season. And as it gears up this week to begin its regular filming, either in Hawaii or Jamaica. It is breaking new prime-time ground in subject matter, major casting of blacks and hispanics and network strategy-- defying precedent by scheduling a powerful adult drama at the traditional children's hour of  8pm .Thursday against NBC's Cosby Show.

None of this is by accident, CBS Entertainment programmer Kim LeMasters, credited by all concerned in Tour Of Duty as the driving force to create the series, thinks that if Cosby's show "has any weakness, it would be with the audience of men between 18 and 40 .And I think they will comprise much of or audience. We expect 'Tour Of Duty' to be talked about and we are depending on critical acclaim".

LeMasters' gamble could well be refreshing for those adults who wonder why they have to wait until 9 or 10pm to see shows specifically targeted at grown-ups. The gamble is also based on TV's new reality - that adult dramas are available on pay TV at all hours, thereby rendering obsolete the ancient network theory that 8pm is strictly for kids.

Inevitatbly, 'Tour Of Duty' will be regarded as an offshoot of the Oscar winning film about Vietnam "Platoon" - and the movies huge success certainlty didn't hurt the series timelines on TV. But in fact , LeMasters had conceived the show before "Platoon's" success, sending a new compassionate attitude towards Vietnam veterans, once treated as outcasts because of America's failure in the unpopular war.

Already the pilot of 'Tour of Duty' has won praise  from the Washington based Vietnam Veterans of America. Barry Hesinitz, a spokesman for the organisation said this week.

" A number of our people have seen it, We're very supportive of what CBS is trying to do - and we'll be working with CBS on it. This television program seems to be aimed at the realities of Vietnam and what really happened to Americans. So many of the portrayals of Vietnam have been inaccurate.

Aware of the big yet eminently worth while gamble of the show, LeMasters and executive producer Zev Braun have assembled a team of creators unique to network TV. There are , for instance, the writers, Travis Clarke and Steve Duncan, both black Vietnam veterans. Clarke was an air force gunner and Duncan served in the Navy on an aircraft carrier.

The producing team is better know for its motion picture credits than for TV which may well explain the look of the pilot. The producer of 'Tour Of Duty' Ronald Schwary, was also the producer of the Oscar-winning "Ordinary people" a co-producer of Norman Jewson's "A Soldier's Story" , supervising producer of "Tootsie"-- and he recently completed a film for Steven Spielberg, "Batteries Not Including".

Directing "Tour of Duty", mean while , is Bill L. Norton, one of whose film credits - "More American graffiti" - contained a memorable Vietnam War sequence. A film graduate of UCLA , Norton, who is also co-executive producer of "Tour Of Duty", says "I'm very proud of this show. I did the Vietnam segment of "More American Graffiti" documentary style, and I tried to do the same in this .I want a rough look. Its a style in which sloppy works."

But how will other problems of the Vietnam series be worked out - the racial tensions among the the American minorities that were such a larger percentage of the troops, the heavy use of drugs and strong language that marked "Platoon", the atmosphere of war protesters back home that was such a major factor in the southeast asia conflict.

With the strong backing of LeMasters, CBS censors and New world Pictures - which is making the show in association with Braun  - "Tour of duty" is being encouraged to go for broke.

The show's platoon has a heavy representation of blacks and hispanics. And there is no hiding of racial tension. In the pilot, a cocky Hispanic enters a barracks, confronts some black soldiers and says challengingly says "What's the matter? You niggers never seen a spic before ?"

Explains writer Clarke "We wanted to take groups from different ethnic backgrounds and different parts of the country and put them together , using the war as a backdrop rather than a focus - to emphasise how characters change over time". Doesn't that abdicate the idea of a series about Vietnam?

"No. It takes place there. But I don't think people would tune in each week just to watch a war. It would turn a lot of people off. But if you see it through the eyes of the characters and begin to discover the war that way - well, we're going to weave a history lesson through characters."   As  for the war protester ,Clark says "we have one episode called 'Burn, Baby, Burn'. a black soldier from Detroit arrives and tries to make trouble, and we look at how that affects the bonding of the men. What he brings from back home makes them question why they're there."

And what about the laundering the language and drug scene for TV? " I think each week we'll get a little bolder," says Clarke. "CBS is allowing us to get away with more than usual"

Executive producer Braun acknowledges "there was not unanimity at CBS" about doing the series- " but Kim personally undertook to do this show. He told me he wanted to do something on Vietnam. And now everyone at CBS is behind the series."

Braun is deeply committed to the minority casting: "If anything, we don't have enough blacks. It was a black man's war at times. We have what I consider an absolute minimum of blacks, Hispnics and Asians in the show, and I hope we have more. Kim is very sensitive about this"

For producer Schwary, the decision to sign on came from the script "It was class material. I was excites by the potential, unlike "Platoon" or "Full metal Jacket", which each tell one Vietnam story, you can tell 22 stories a year in a series ,110 in five years, - and affect people."

But what about the time slot opposite Cosby? "Brilliant," says clarke "It gives the viewer a clear choice. "Says Braun "At first I thought Kim was crazy. But the more you think about it, it's the only alternative to Cosby. It makes sense. "Adds Schwary; "Brilliant planning". Cosby of course, seems unbeatable. But "Tour Of Duty" could always be moved. And Norton says the attitude of the CBS censors indicates how much the network is behind the show; "They said, 'Don't limit yourself. Try to deal with real issues and be intelligent about things. I was surprised. they said "Don't censor yourself. If there are any problems, we'll work it out".