Steve Duncan

Steve Duncan co-creator of the television series Tour of Duty.

 
 

Steve Duncan co-creator of the television series Tour of Duty.

Co-Creator
Executive consultant

Tour of Duty
TV Series

This page is combination of a two stage interview with Steve Duncan,
the co-creator of the televisions series '
Tour Of Duty '   conducted  25-30 July 2001.
 
Not only did Duncan help create a great representation of how the Army and Marine Corps loans their services while in war, but you can read about his many other credits and accomplishments after the interview, further down the page.

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HUM90:
What you think now after all this time that, Tour of duty is being rerun for the third time in a year due to its new popularity amongst a new audience?

STEVE: I’m very thrilled to know that people are still interested in the series. I even hear it’s very popular in Canada.
Of all of my work, Tour of Duty is what I’m most proud of writing.
This was my “big break” into show business. I hadn’t done anything before this for the studios or networks. To say the lest, it was an auspicious debut for me.

HUM90:Did the characters evolve the way you hoped they would , when you first thought about them ?

STEVE: The series bible was originally conceived with about twenty-four characters who represented the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.
In fact, the pilot episode story was originally conceived as a two hour film and followed the arriving characters from their hometowns to arrival in-country. But the network’s decision to do a one hour pilot eliminated that part of the story.

The actors that were cast really brought the characters to life and their growth over three seasons was pretty much laid out in the series bible.
So, even after I stopped working on the series full time, the producers and writers followed the bible fairly closely. It’s still pretty cool to watch the series and see the characters that I created alive and talking to each other.

HUM90: How it makes you feel ,to know that through your idea and writing, that you are helping in someway to enlighten a new generation about the Vietnam war , who may never have shown an interest before watching your show ?

STEVE: It feels wonderful.
My older brother, Michael, served in the First Infantry Airborne Rangers, was a company commander (Captain, U.S. Army) and did LURP duty (Long Range Recon Patrol) during his tour of duty. I was in college at the time and wanted to follow in his foot steps and become an Army Ranger too. But he strongly discouraged me. Instead I got a commission as an U.S. Navy officer. But it was many of his experiences that went into my writing and development of the series. I also had many friends who served and returned from ‘Nam. I also lost a lot of high school buddies to the bush.
It’s really great to see the “Tour of Duty” series holding it’s own up against all the factual programs being aired on stations such as the History Channel.
War is ugly, always has been and I’m proud to say that “Tour of Duty” is still helping to point out that fact to people young and old.

HUM90: How did you and L. Travis Clarke , set about selling your idea to the TV bigwigs ?, if indeed you did , as I don't know how this sort of thing works, did you sell the idea to Zev Braun and then he took it from there ? How hard was it to get them to agree to the idea,  I read that Kim Le Masters was keen on the idea and he helped push through the idea , do you know anything about this , that you could explain for me ?

STEVE: In Hollywood, they say it’s who you know.
Well, Travis knew Kim LeMasters. I think they jogged together several times a week. So, that’s how we got to pitch the big wigs at CBS.
I had met Travis through a mutual friend and he knew I was very interested in the Vietnam War, a voracious reader about it and had become somewhat of an expert. As a naval officer, I was very involved in the press relations for the Vietnam POWs and, of course, had a lot of scary true stories to tell.

So, once Kim LeMasters decided he wanted to do a series about Vietnam, it was a matter of finding a production company who would finance this very expensive series. Zev Braun had a development deal at New World Television, they had a lot of money, and a marriage was made. Since few people really knew about Vietnam from the soldiers’ perspective (many of veterans were not talking about their experiences to friends and family), we had to educate the network executives on everything. We even put together a dictionary of terms used by soldiers so they could understand the dialogue in the scripts.

Of course, there was some pushing and pulling of ideas during the development stages.   all in all, everyone wanted to do the series, so it was simply a matter of coming together creatively. But it still wasn’t easy since we had never done a network series before. There were other writer producers with more experience also pitching Vietnam series ideas to CBS.

When I found out the creators of “Thirty-something” were pitching, I just knew it was over for us.
But we had the real deal in our ideas and concept.
I was able to make the hair stand up on the necks of executives during pitch meetings. So, we got the opportunity to write the pilot. Since I was a Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve at the time, getting the Pentagon to work with us was fairly easy. I think that helped to sell the series too.
I knew the right officers in the Public Information Office back in the Pentagon on a first name basis because I had worked with most of them while on active duty. But from the production side it was Executive Producer Ron Schwary who really helped to smooth out the wrinkles. It was going to be a very expensive pilot (it cost $3 million to produce the one hour pilot episode, a lot of money in 1987) and we needed Army assistance. He also knew key U.S. Army officers in the Pentagon and we were able to get 100% military co-operation.

It’s not well-known, but the series “China Beach” was being developed as a half-hour version of “MASH” in Vietnam with a focus on nurses. When Warner Brothers got wind of “Tour of Duty” they changed their dark comedy series to a drama about women.
When the network screened the pilot episode to an audience of Vietnam Vets and the Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C., there was laughter and tears. We knew we were on to something then.

HUM90: You  mentioned the "series bible", would I be right in thinking this to be the characters backgrounds  which have already been worked out before the series starts ,  so writers couldn't suddenly change a characters hometown for instance ?

STEVE: Yes. They are just short sketches used mostly to establish basic background information such as age, hometown, attitude, rank, military speciality.

HUM90:Do you have any Tour Of Duty memento's ?

STEVE: I have a large movie style one sheet poster and a crew jacket. I can't really scan the big poster because of size and the fact it's professionally sealed in a frame.
And please don't ask for the jacket. :-{)}

HUM90:When did you stop working on the series full time ?
And what involvement did you have after that time, what did it consist of ?

STEVE: I stopped working on the series full-time after the first season.
Since I was an Executive Consultant, not a producer, I was still able to work on other projects. After the first season, I had no direct involvement with the series which is not uncommon for a first time series creator. In fact, I went on to work full-time on an ABC series called "A Man Called Hawk" this time as a writer-producer during the second season of Tour of Duty.

HUM90:I have already found out through and interview I did with Thomas Peterson, (TOD editor ) that TOD shot for 7 days on average for each episode.
I was wondering how many days it took you to write a completed script, before any re-writes & edits?


STEVE: Television works very fast. You have a week or so to develop a story.
Once the story's approved by the studio and network, you have to write the first draft in a couple of weeks (usually less time). You get notes from everyone, then do a final rewrite in several days.


HUM90:Did you go on set at all during the filming of TOD ?

STEVE: I went on the set in Hawaii during the shooting of the pilot.


HUM90:Can you describe what was it like to see, (actors as,)  your characters walking about and perhaps even talking to you about things  ?
I imagine that would have been quite strange.


STEVE:  I visited the set of the pilot without the actors knowing I was there.
I sort of lurked around to observe how they got along when the camera wasn't rolling.
Then once I was discovered, I interacted with them. But then everyone was a bit nervous since I was the series creator.
Oddly, it didn't feel strange to me to see the actors in their roles. It felt very right.
At this point, with the crew running around trying to get shots between rain cloud bursts, it became just plain work. And the set was very rugged. Mug. No trailers, only equipment trucks. There were only a few military style tents.
When it rained you pretty much got wet. When it was hot, you sweated. It was like being in the bush in 'Nam.


HUM90:Did you make a cameo appearance in the background anywhere ?,( like Hitchcock in his films)

STEVE: No.

HUM90: The unfilmed pilot episode "operation redstar" , was this the first draft that you pitched with  ?

STEVE: "Operation Red Star" was the backup script.
This is a script generally ordered by the network while the pilot is in production so that the producers will have something that's considered more of a typical episode (since the pilot is the prototype and more expensive).
This script was so rich in story and texture, it actually became two separate episodes written by other writers. I took that as a compliment not a slam.
One of the stories that came out of the backup script was the tunnel rats episode.


HUM90:About the pilot episode, Once you had the idea sold, how long did you have from the agreement to
film to the first actual shots were filmed ?


STEVE: It took 7 or 8 months from the time the network said they wanted to do the series to the actual shooting of the pilot. During that time, the concept that was originally sold was modified a bit, and I went through the process of developing and writing the pilot script which took about two months.


b&wGoldman,Taylor,Johnson.jpg (209688 bytes)HUM90:As the original idea was to have 24 characters in the 2 hour pilot, Which if any character, survived the cut and made it through to the character we see on the screen ?
Is there a little of you in any of the characters ?

STEVE: The original core characters were always the core of the series. The idea was to bring in other services as the series progressed. And yes, the character of  Marvin Johnson played by Stan Foster does have some of my ideals and point of view toward life. But the character has a very different background than I .


Stan foster as Marvin Johnson (front)

HUM90:The character of " Private Roger Horn", (played so well by Joshua Maurer) ,
by announcing his opinions about the war allowed a different view point to the war to be directed through that character , how important was it to you that the series explored different areas of the Vietnam experience, and was the character of Horn created to fill such a role ?


STEVE: Each of the series' core characters were designed to hold a specific point of view about the Vietnam War.
This was a very important part of how the series was developed. The goal was to have the war affect these points of view over the course of the series and show how Vietnam and war in general can change people in a real way.
Horn was the draft dodger, flower child, hippie war protester. The idea was to have him become more patriotic and have his eyes well-up whenever he sees the American flag upon returning home.


HUM90:In the pilot we met all of the characters, everyone watching has a favourite ,
As the co-creator of  TOD , which one did you enjoy writing for most ?, as asking you to choose a
favourite would be to unfair.

STEVE: It's not an unfair question. Marvin Johnson is my favourite character.
In fact, Stan Foster and I became friends while the series was running the first time. We worked on several projects together none of which got off the ground. Unfortunately, I've lost touch with him.

wpe09791.gif (400322 bytes)
HUM90:The dramatic start to the pilot in its self was a little unusual for an show at the time, (although not unique),
After the night time battle scene, we are straight into the reality of war's brutality by 'Johnson' searching and finding his dead buddy 'Mickey' .
How important to you was it to get  across as soon  as  possible (to the audience ), that TOD was going to be different to what they had seen before and their favourites where just as likely going to die as the bad guys ?


STEVE: The whole idea of the series was to show the audience that in war people on both sides die.
That's the reality of war. We also killed another character who seemed to be a part of the core characters when he steps steps on a land mine later in the pilot.


HUM90:The episode “Burn, Baby, Burn.” which you wrote.
Did you encounter any problems with the studios, army or network over the subject matter of this episode.

STEVE: None at all.
The studio, network and the army loved the story and the first draft. There were only minor rewriting before it was shot.
The key to getting the army (or any branch of service) to support the existence of racism was to show that the army as institution is the solution the problem.
Wrapping it all up in a murder mystery also helped.


wpe48830.gif (7243608 bytes)

HUM90:I have heard that although supported by the army for the first series they did have some approval on scripts ?


STEVE: During the first season in Hawaii, the army approved every single script.
That was among the reasons the series moved to Valencia, California, along with the cost of filming in Hawaii.


HUM90:They probably weren't entirely thrilled to discover the subject of racial tension with in the platoon, but credit to the army for letting the series cover such a sensitive issue.

STEVE: No, the army wasn't thrilled. As I said, the solution was to show that the army helped solve racial problems among it's ranks. It's a well known fact that racial tensions existed in Vietnam and the army realized they couldn't get around that.
The only compromise was not to show that the black and white soldiers actually lived segregated, which was the reality of early Vietnam. It wasn't from army policy, it's just the way the soldiers wanted it. Which should not have surprised anyone since it was like that here in the U.S.


HUM90: Could you tell me why you choose to write this particular episode ?
Is there a personal story behind it , or was it a means to an end dealing with the racial issue in one episode rather than over several ?


STEVE: I chose to write "Burn, Baby, Burn," because it gave me an opportunity to show the irony of the war. Here these guys are suppose to be on the same side fighting for America when back in the states, the racial divide was very wide and, in fact, there was a war on black people going on, specifically the FBI's war against the Black Panthers.
There is a personal story behind this episode.
While in college I got caught in my dormitory during a six hour shoot-out between the Black Panthers (who were on the roof of the dorm) and the police. The army reserve 82nd Airborne was called in and attacked us at sunrise using tear gas and live rounds. Miraculously no one was killed.
That was my little taste of what it was like in Vietnam.


HUM90:How much do you think , if at all, the films of the time ' Platoon', 'Full Metal Jacket' and 'Hamburger Hill', helped with the popularity of Tour Of Duty ?

STEVE: There's no doubt that the buzz going on over "Platoon" helped the CBS decide to do a Vietnam series. In fact, the military advisor on Platoon worked on Tour of Duty briefly the first season. The other films helped to fuel the week to week interest in the TV show.

HUM90: The decision at the time to air Tour Of Duty against ' Cosby ', ( the first time out ,1988 ) was seen as a bold decision offering viewers a distinct choice,
In your opinion & hindsight do you think it would have been more successful at another time slot ?
(even though you didn't have an option in the time it went out).


STEVE: I thought it was brilliant move by Kim LeMasters. It was ideal counter-programming. The audience that watched Tour of Duty did not watch Cosby or taped it. In hindsight, I think the network did the right thing. It also generated a lot of publicity for Tour of Duty.
Ironically, after I left Tour of Duty, the series I was working on, "A Man Called Hawk" aired opposite Tour of Duty on Saturday nights. So I had competing shows on at the same time. So my friends had to have two videotape machines going!

HUM90: Also the 8pm time slot caused concerns saying that Tour Of Duty was "inappropriate"
did this worry you at all ?

STEVE: No. I thought it highly appropriate and symbolic. Less we forget, during the war, network news programs bought the actual Vietnam War to us every night during dinner time.

HUM90: There are fans who wish for a re-union show to be made, feeling that as the ending left to many things left unfinished, (due to the show not returning for its planned 4th series)
Having co-created Tour of Duty and seeing how it ended,
How do you feel about a re-union show ?

STEVE: It would be very nice. You and the fans should do a letter writing campaign to Sony/Columbia TV. They're the studio that owns the series.

HUM90:Thank you again for your time and kindness in helping me with the website.

STEVE: You're welcome.  Thanks for keeping the series out there in cyberspace.

   

    

 


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Steve Duncan

Credits/Resume

Writer, “AMENDMENT 25,”   feature film option at NuImage Entertainment (‘97). Option at Lion’s Gate TV (‘00).

Consulting Producer, “Auricon,” an independent film. Kusza Productions (‘97).

Co-writer-Producer, “The Liberation of Tall Pines,”  Option with New Star Pictures (‘97).

Co-Creator, Supervising Producer, “WIVES-IN-LAW,”  half-hour comedy series in development at Aaron Spelling Productions, Inc. (‘92).

Writer, “Paris Metal,”  a CBS-TV late night series, wrote  two episodes (‘90).  

Co-Writer, “THE COURT-MARTIAL OF JACKIE ROBINSON,” Turner Network Television original movie,  VonZerneck-Sertner Films (‘90).

Co-Creator, Executive Consultant, “TOUR OF DUTY,”  
CBS-TV one-hour Vietnam War series New World Television. With pilot, wrote a back-up script and the episode
“Burn, Baby, Burn.”  
This series ran for 3 years (‘87-89).

Staff Writer-Producer,  ABC-TV one-hour action series “A MAN CALLED HAWK.”  Warner Bros. Television.

Wrote three episodes: “Choice of Chance,” “Never My Love,” and “How Beautiful The Stars.”  This series ran for 13 episodes (‘89).

Co-Creator, Executive Producer, “THE JUDGE,”  one-hour drama pilot Script in development at Aaron Spelling Productions, Inc. (‘89).

Co-Creator,  Bible, “RICH RELATIONS,”  half-hour daytime soap opera drama in development at NBC Productions for  NBC-TV (’89).

Writer-Producer,  Bible, “THE SAGON PENN STORY,”   four-hour mini-series in development at Fries Entertainment for NBC-TV (‘88).

Co-Writer & Story, Producer, “NAOMI’S RAIDERS,”   in development for Tri-Star Pictures  (‘88).

Co-Writer & Story, Producer, “UNDER ONE ROOF,”   in development for Tri-Star Pictures  (‘88).

 Writer-Producer, FLIGHT LEADER,”  Movie of the Week in development at New World for CBS-TV (‘87).

Co-Creator, “PALS,”   half-hour comedy Pilot script, in development at Procter & Gamble Productions for CBS (‘87).

Educator Experience

Assistant Professor (tenure-track), Loyola  Marymount University (99-Present)

Visiting Professor, Loyola Marymount University (98-99)

Screenwriting Lecturer, Loyola Marymount University (‘95-98).

Screenwriting Instructor, UCLA Extension Writers Program (‘93-Present).

Pioneered the Internet Online screenwriting sequence of courses at UCLA Extension (94).
Continue to teach screenwriting online.

Mentor/consultant, European Film College to Danish screenwriters developing pilots for Danish television             
(96-97).  Travelled to Denmark twice.

Publications

“Presumed Dead.” September 2000. Fiction novel. Writers Club Press. iUniverse.com.

“Writing For Film & Television.” Burham Publishing Inc, Chicago. Publication date: 2002.

Other Experience

Independent Writer-Producer-Director of Industrial Film & Video, (1985-96)

U.S. Naval Officer, Public Affairs, active duty -1972-79, reserves - 1980-90). Attained rank of Lieutenant Commander.

Training & Audio-Visual Services Manager, Nestlé Corporation (1979-85).

Organizations

Member, PEN Center USA West (2001-Present)

Member, Writers Guild of America West (1986-Present).

 Member, Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Member of the Writers Peer Group Executive Committee (96-98)

 Member, International Television Association (79-95)

Awards

Screenwriting Instructor of the Year, UCLA Extension Writers Program, 1996.

Silver Angel, Company News Video, International Television Association, 1990.

Silver Angel, Corporate Training Video, International Television Association, 1988.

Golden Angel,  Corporate Training Video, International Television Association, 1987.

Silver Angel, Corporate Training Video, International Television Association, 1987.

Education

Master of Arts, Communication Arts, Television & Film, Loyola Marymount University, 1979.

Baruch College, New York, MBA Studies in Advertising & Marketing, 1973-76 (professional studies, no degree).

Bachelor of Science, Art Design, North Carolina A & T State University, cum    Laude, 1972.

   

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