A film paying tribute to Dwight D. Eisenhower and his World War II D-Day achievement required precise casting, said writer-producer Lionel Chetwynd.
So how did Tom Selleck, definitely not an Eisenhower lookalike, end up with the title role in A&E’s “Ike: Countdown to D-Day”? It was all about character, Chetwynd said.
“This is about the loneliness of command, the extraordinary courage it takes to command men and send them into battle and not lose your humanity. ... It’s the story of a man of courage, confidence and decency.
“That’s what was important in the casting, not to get somebody who looked like him,” said Chetwynd, whose TV credits include “Kissinger and Nixon” and the recent “DC 9/11.”
Based on their longtime friendship, he said, “I would play poker with Tom Selleck over the phone — he’s that honest and decent a man.”
An effort was made to give the husky, dark-haired actor a few of Eisenhower’s physical characteristics: Selleck’s hair is shaved and dyed, he’s sans mustache and his eyebrows are less prominent.
Selleck, the former “Magnum, P.I.” star, “Friends” guest star and recent lead in a variety of TV movies, wanted to approximate but not ape Eisenhower’s appearance.
“I knew I had to get in a certain ballpark physically, but I didn’t want to wear Eisenhower ears and Eisenhower nose and bald caps,” the 59-year-old said. “With a known quantity like me, I sincerely felt the audience would be looking for the lines in the latex rather than listening to the lines in the movie.”
Assuming command of Ike
The actor did modulate his voice in an approximation of Eisenhower’s restrained, Midwestern speech, part of a persuasive and intelligent performance.
Selleck didn’t want to take on the role as an acting exercise, he said, but because he felt a responsibility to history and the sacrifices the war demanded.
“My dad was in this war and all my uncles, and their wives waited at home and raised kids and hoped for the best. It (the film) was kind of a way of paying homage to all that,” he said.
The movie creates battle-free but eloquent drama as it details Eisenhower’s stewardship leading up to the June 6, 1944, Allied invasion of Nazi Germany-occupied France.
Germany, caught between the Allied push from the west and Soviet forces in the east, surrendered 11 months later.
According to “Ike,” he was a general who cared deeply about the soldiers in his command, a homespun diplomat who could influence even a crafty politician like Winston Churchill, and a bold leader.
The movie (airing Memorial Day, Monday, at 8 p.m. EDT on A&E) opens with Eisenhower making the case to the British prime minister for unification of the Allied invasion forces under a single leader.
“There can only be one commander, one conductor of this orchestra,” Eisenhower says.
“One supreme commander, in the air, on the ground, at sea,” Churchill (Ian Mune) responds with a query in his voice, as if testing the idea.
“One invasion. One commander,” Eisenhower says firmly. He is ultimately given authority for the massive invasion that involved more than 130,000 troops, some 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft.
Researching the manChetwynd and his collaborator on the film, producer Stephanie Germain, relied on a variety of sources during more than five years of research and preparation.
Noted World War II historian Stephen Ambrose (who died in 2002) was a valuable source, providing Eisenhower letters and diaries, Chetwynd said.
“I think the reason he was forthcoming with me was because of my interest in Eisenhower and the problems of command, which he (Ambrose) felt no one had tried to do in a film before,” Chetwynd said.
Chetwynd, an Oscar nominee for co-writing 1974’s “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” also relied on the memoirs of Churchill and other key players including French President Charles DeGaulle, and on detail-rich Army histories.
The film’s focus is Eisenhower’s burden and how gracefully he bore it, including his nimble handling of self-important, flamboyant men such as Gen. George S. Patton.
Gerald McRaney plays Patton. The film co-stars James Remar (“Sex and the City”) as stalwart Gen. Omar Bradley, Timothy Bottoms as Gen. Walter Bedell Smith and Bruce Philips as British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery.
“Everything I saw and read about Eisenhower is that he truly was the best of what we were, that he was the perfect man to lead what we call the best generation,” Chetwynd said.
The wartime general and peacetime politician also is the subject of A&E’s new two-hour “Biography: Dwight Eisenhower,” which airs 8 p.m. EDT Tuesday, June 1, and includes interviews with family members and others.
Selleck recalled speaking with John Eisenhower about his celebrated father, who went on to serve as a two-term U.S. president, and being struck by one comment.
“’It must be hard for an actor to play somebody who’s so ordinary,”’ Selleck recalled John Eisenhower saying — and it was clearly a compliment from a man who loved and respected his dad, the actor said.
“That’s very much who Eisenhower was, he was everyman and what has become almost a cliche about heroes: an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances,” Selleck said.