The screenplay Hollywood is still too afraid to touch
By ANDREW MCGINN
For 38 minutes last month, people in Hawaii were made to believe they were about to be incinerated.
It was the most hope Clair Tomlinson has had in years for a business proposition.
While the warning sent to cellphones across Hawaii on Jan. 13 by the state’s emergency management agency turned out to be false — “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII,” it screamed out in all caps to residents and tourists alike, “SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL” — it’s good to be reminded every now and again that we’re never more than 38 minutes from nuclear annihilation.
On second thought, that’s a bit generous.
A nuclear missile from North Korea could actually reach Hawaii in under 20 minutes with no warning.
Tomlinson has watched with an almost macabre sense of glee as our nuclear fears are rekindled.
“Publicity for my script,” he deadpanned recently.
For 45 years, the Jefferson native has been peddling a screenplay based on his real-life experiences underneath the Arizona desert as the member of an Air Force missile crew — a crew, he alleges, that came within 20 seconds of launching a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile completely by accident one October morning in 1964.
But as the Cold War subsided, so, too, did our collective paranoia about nuclear destruction (even though, funny enough, the missiles never went away).
To Americans today, a zombie apocalypse somehow seems more plausible than a nuclear war, which speaks volumes about Hollywood’s influence in shaping national dialogue.
We’re now more fearful of someone trying to carry a bottle of breast milk onto a plane than we are of the world’s 14,900 nuclear warheads, any one of which could kill millions.
That has made Tomlinson something akin to a crazy old man with a cardboard sign that reads, “The end is nigh!”
Just a year ago, a “Dr. Strangelove”-esque script that questions whether humans are fit to be entrusted with firepower of such awesome magnitude would have been easy to dismiss as a period piece — a relic of its time with nothing new to say.
Then along came the war of words between North Korea’s “Little Rocket Man” and our own “mentally deranged dotard,” each spouting off like twin Khrushchevs banging their shoes on a desk at the U.N. General Assembly.
A House subcommittee in October was told that an attack on the U.S. by North Korea from a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse would knock out the power grid indefinitely.
If that happened, 90 percent of Americans could die within a year.
“The time is definitely right for it, if the time is ever going to be right for it,” said Bill McIntyre, Tomlinson’s collaborator on “Nuclear Warriors: A Serious Comedy,” their screenplay “from the stories of Clair Tomlinson,” as the title page puts it.
Both men are now 77, and it remains one of their great disappointments that no one snatched up “Nuclear Warriors” when it first was shopped around Hollywood in the ’70s.
McIntyre initially thought they’d have a deal within a year.
One network, according to Tomlinson, even envisioned it as a series in the vein of “MASH” about a nuclear missile unit.
“It’s too real,” McIntyre theorized. “It scared them.
“It challenges everyone’s assumptions about how safe we are.”
I’ve come across my share of bizarre stories in nearly 20 years of reporting, but Tomlinson’s is easily one of the wildest.
I told part of his story last year, but I simply ran out of space (and stamina) to tell it in full.
Plus, I feared a story that combined Elvis, nuclear war, countercultural comedy legends the Firesign Theatre, the author of “Black Elk Speaks” and copious amounts of marijuana would have been impossible to follow.
Oh, and just for good measure, the story also includes infamous pornographer Larry Flynt (of course!), who once paid Tomlinson $1,500 for his story, published in the September 1984 issue of Hustler as an expose titled “I Nearly Started World War III.”
But seeing as how our time on Earth might actually be limited, here’s the rest of the story. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
All hail Marx and Lennon
I first connected with Tomlinson last spring when I tracked him down in Tempe, Ariz., where he lives with his daughter, for a column about the 15 minutes of fame he achieved locally in the ’50s for impersonating Elvis.
Or at least I thought that’s what the column was going to be about.
A member of the Jefferson High Class of ’59 whose unholy gyrations won a state contest for Presley imitators at the Val Air Ballroom in Des Moines in 1957, Tomlinson proceeded to tell me how he ended up in the Air Force.
He signed up thinking he was going to fly airplanes. Uncle Sam instead stuffed him in a hole in the desert, where, as a missile facilities technician, he was among the first to baby-sit the Titan II, an ICBM with a nine-megaton nuclear warhead.
“We were tasked with being the hangman for humanity,” he said.
Not long after that first story on Tomlinson was published, McIntyre hit me up, suggesting a possible follow-up story on the screenplay they had written together in the early ’70s.
Included in his email was the script, which in every way reads like a worthy successor to Stanley Kubrick’s legendary 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” the ultimate black comedy and a scathing send-up of America’s nuclear might.
Who can forget the sight of Slim Pickens (as gung-ho B-52 pilot Maj. T.J. “King” Kong) riding a nuclear bomb as if it were a bucking bronco?
McIntyre, who now lives in Mount Shasta, Calif., knows a thing or two himself about comedy.
He’s been a friend to the Firesign Theatre and their producer for the better part of 50 years.
In the ’60s, no comedy act was hipper than the Firesign Theatre. Owning their comedy records — including 1970’s “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers,” which was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry in 2005 — was itself a sign that you could grok, to borrow a word from the era.
You were in the know.
When troupe member Peter Bergman died in 2012, The New York Times wrote in his obituary that the Firesigns were “to their generation of 20-somethings what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are to today’s.”
“The minute you were in their presence,” McIntyre recalled, “you knew it was special.”
“Whenever you were in a room with the Firesign Theatre,” he added, “you were going to see a Firesign Theatre show. They just couldn’t help it. It was like the Marx Brothers.”
McIntyre was working as a producer at a TV station in Los Angeles when he first encountered them.
His first wife had gone to Yale with Bergman and Phil Proctor, one half of the Firesign foursome. The troupe had just finished recording their first album for Columbia Records, 1968’s “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him,” the day the McIntyres bumped into Proctor at a bank in Hollywood.
As fate would have it, Proctor was carrying around an acetate disc of the new record, which he excitedly let McIntyre borrow.
“I was just totally blown away,” he said. “I was just astounded. I played it twice that day. And two times the next day.”
What McIntyre heard was a radically new kind of recorded comedy — he wanted to know how he could work with them.
That led him to James William Guercio, who was managing the Firesign Theatre at the time but looking to hand them off.
Guercio was finding himself more and more preoccupied with a new band he’d just brought to California. That band would soon be known as Chicago.
Besides, Guercio warned, the Firesign Theatre probably wasn’t going to make any money.
“With work like that,” McIntyre remembers telling him, “who cares if they make any money?”
Elsewhere, Tomlinson was discovering he wasn’t the same man who left Jefferson yearning to zip through the wild blue yonder.
Finally discharged in 1966, Tomlinson left the service deeply disturbed by the realization that his crew — the 571st Strategic Missile Squadron — had come just seconds from destroying life on Earth as we know it.
“I’ve been terrorized since October ’64,” he said.
He had been told to shut up about what happened, and he was mostly able to shut it out until the day he found himself on the receiving end of a funny cigarette in a North Hollywood park.
As the joint made it around a circle, someone asked Tomlinson if he’d ever been in the service.
“It dawned on me,” he recalled, “that it was my destiny to tell the world about that night.
“Everybody’s name is on the bomb whether they like it or not.”
Still, no one wants to hear they’re a dead man walking, especially not as they’re trying to finish up dinner at an organic hippie restaurant in L.A.
McIntyre was just that hippie.
It was 1972 when he was introduced to Tomlinson.
McIntyre’s mind was on dinner, and on the spoken-word record he was hoping to produce for United Artists with John Neihardt, author of “Black Elk Speaks,” the 1932 book about an Oglala Lakota medicine man that had come to be rediscovered by the underground.
Poet laureate of Nebraska, the elderly Neihardt even wound up as a popular guest on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1971 and 1972.
Naturally, McIntyre started to blow off Tomlinson.
“That’s OK,” McIntyre remembers him saying, “I just wanted to tell people about the night we about blew up the world.”
Before long, they were back at McIntyre’s place, smoking joints and hatching plans for a movie based on Tomlinson’s time in the Air Force.
Calling Tomlinson “as honest as the day is long,” McIntyre could hardly believe the stories he was hearing.
“Everything was funny,” he said. “I would crack up, and then I’d become terrified.”
They also discovered a mutual connection to west-central Iowa: McIntyre spent two years in Denison as a student at Midwestern College, a short-lived satellite school of Parsons College in Fairfield.
Work on the screenplay continued in Missouri, where McIntyre recorded Neihardt for the album that would become “Flaming Rainbow: Reflections and Recollections of an Epic Poet” in 1973.
Tomlinson’s title during the Neihardt sessions was “assistant to the producer on location.”
Cryptically, Neihardt would tell Tomlinson, “You’re the one.”
That’s all, folks
If nothing else, Tomlinson is a master storyteller in his own right. Folksy and frenetic at the same time, he’s equal parts Mark Twain and “Looney Tunes.”
His retelling of the nuclear close-call in 1964 is the stuff of comedy gold.
He describes a four-man crew forced to strip down to their undies in Titan II’s below-ground launch control facility because the air conditioner was broken.
“They had a $20 million missile out there and they can’t make the air conditioning work,” McIntyre said. “How do you not fall down when you hear that?”
It was 3 a.m. — nothing good ever happens at 3 a.m. — when “Mother SAC” radioed their “mole hole.”
In the screenplay, McIntyre and Tomlinson throw a no-notice inspection from the vice president of the United States into the mix for added comedic effect.
Tomlinson said the role was written with Firesign Theatre’s Phil Proctor in mind.
In real life, the deputy commander was asleep at the console in just his boxer shorts — a pistol strapped to his hip and the launch key on a chain around his neck — when the coded message crackled in.
What they think happened is that a colonel at Strategic Air Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha had taken his friend, a freshly transferred major, into the emergency war order room.
“This is the story they told us,” he said.
Letting his friend practice sending out a launch order, Tomlinson said, the colonel mistakenly flipped the switch on an alternate console so that it became SAC’s primary console.
Out came the order to launch.
Missile crews were trained to disregard any and all verbal radio messages once they began the launch checklist. If orders ever came to launch, Tomlinson said, a verbal message was sure to follow saying it had been a mistake and that they should abort.
“That’s the Russians,” he said.
So what should happen that night in ’64?
Realizing what happened, the colonel in Omaha took to the air.
“All missile crews don’t launch,” he bellowed. “It’s a mistake!”
It was just as their training had foretold.
“That’s the Russians,” Tomlinson said.
Finally, Tomlinson said, the officer on duty in Omaha sent the coded message to stand down.
So how close did they come to starting, and also ending, World War III in a single night?
Well, in its day, a Titan II required only 58 seconds to be launched.
From there, it would have hit its target in the Soviet Union within 25 to 30 minutes.
The Soviets would have seen the ICBMs coming and responded with missiles of their own.
“I’m amazed to this day we’ve not blown ourselves up,” Tomlinson said.
Even after all these years, Tomlinson feels it’s his life’s mission to see the script produced.
“I feel guilty I can’t get the message out,” he said.
Especially now, he wants to remind the world that the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“Can you stand up to 900-mile winds and 2,000 degrees and 25,000 years of deadly plutonium fallout?” he asked matter of factly. “There is no escape.”