Adrian Cronauer: The DJ who inspired Robin Williams’ character in ‘Good Morning, Vietnam’

Like his screen incarnation, Cronauer ran into conflict with superior officers for shaking up the staid announcing style and bland musical playlist of military radio

Matt Schudel
Sunday 29 July 2018 11:53
Cronauer in 1987. The movie took liberties with his real-life experiences, but the resemblance was close enough that it brought him some celebrity
Cronauer in 1987. The movie took liberties with his real-life experiences, but the resemblance was close enough that it brought him some celebrity

In 1965 and 1966, Adrian Cronauer signed on at 6am from a Saigon studio as the morning DJ for armed forces radio, waking up US troops with a signature line that became the title of a hit movie and has echoed through the years: “Good morning, Vietnam!”

He was an air force-enlisted man with a golden voice and the aim of giving his listeners an auditory taste of home, with rock’n’roll, soul music and a sassy irreverence that became the basis for the 1987 film in which he was played by Robin Williams.

The movie took liberties with Cronauer’s real-life experiences, but the resemblance was close enough that it brought him a degree of celebrity.​

At first, Cronauer had reservations about being portrayed on film, especially by such a flamboyant talent as Williams.

“I was afraid of what they were going to do to me and it took me a little while to get used to seeing someone named Adrian Cronauer up there on the screen,” he said in 1987. “But I saw it and I liked it.”

Williams’ character displayed a more subversive, anti-authoritarian bent than Cronauer did. Williams’ DJ ad-libbed monologues about sex, politics and absurd regulations and invented a variety of characters, including an imaginary designer of military uniforms: “Why not plaids and stripes? When you go into battle, clash!”

Still, there were similarities between the character and Cronauer: both taught English to Vietnamese students and encountered reprimands from superior officers for shaking up the staid announcing style and bland musical playlist of military radio.

In Cronauer’s Vietnam morning show, called Dawn Buster, the silky strings of Mantovani were shelved in favour of The Supremes, The Beatles and The Righteous Brothers. He spoofed popular culture and made fun of military doublespeak, all in an effort to boost the morale of homesick US troops.

“There were lots of ridiculous announcements, like ‘Send your gifts by August to arrive in time for Christmas,’” he said. “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.”

After Cronauer left Vietnam in 1966, later DJs – including future Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak – continued his show-opening shout of “Good morning, Vietnam!”

Cronauer, in the meantime, worked for a television station in Ohio before moving to Roanoke, Virginia, in 1967. For the next 12 years, he worked as a local TV anchor, FM radio announcer and broadcast executive, but he seldom spoke about his days in Vietnam.

He moved to New York in 1979 to work as an announcer the classical music station WQXR. He also opened an advertising agency and did voiceover work. (NPR’s Scott Simon said in 2009 that Cronauer’s resonant baritone was “one of the great voices of all time”.)

In New York, Cronauer and another Vietnam veteran, Ben Moses, began to kick around an idea for a TV show based loosely on two popular sitcoms of the time: M*A*S*H, set during the Korean War, and WKRP in Cincinnati, about high jinks at a radio station.

Robin Williams played Cronauer with a more subversive, anti-authoritarian bent in the 1987 hit movie (Rex)

“It occurred to us that if you take the two of them and put them together,” Cronauer said, “you’ve got armed forces radio.”

They called their show “Good Morning, Vietnam”. They shopped the idea around with little success until it found its way to Williams’ agent. The sitcom idea was scrapped, and screenwriter Mitch Markowitz reworked the script as a feature film.

Director Barry Levinson kept Williams and Cronauer apart until the film was completed.

“His theory supposedly was that if we met, Robin would subconsciously start trying to do an imitation of me, which would change the characterisation,” Cronauer said. “When the movie premiered in New York, we met, and we shook hands and Robin said, ‘I’m glad to finally meet you.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m glad to finally meet me, too.’”

Good Morning, Vietnam earned Williams an Oscar nomination as best actor and proved to be his breakout film performance.

Adrian Joseph Cronauer was born in 1938, in Pittsburgh. His father was a steelworker, his mother a teacher. He first appeared on a local children’s TV programme when he was 12, and in high school he worked on a show with Fred Rogers, later the host of the long-running Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

At the University of Pittsburgh, Cronauer helped establish a student-run radio station before transferring to American University. A few credits short of graduating in 1962, he enlisted in the air force.

While stationed at Iraklion air station on the Greek island of Crete, he began using a version of his famous salutation.

“It started out to be a calm, matter-of-fact, ‘Good morning, Iraklion,’” he said in 2011. “But as the programme developed, it got wilder and wilder: ‘Goooooood morning, Iraklion!’”

In the early 1980s, Cronauer received a master’s degree in media studies from the New School for Social Research in New York. He used his earnings from Good Morning, Vietnam to attend law school at the University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1989. He then opened a communications law practice in Washington.

In 1990, he published a textbook, How to Read Copy, for professional announcers and voiceover artists.

Cronauer joined the Department of Defence in 2001 as a special assistant on issues related to prisoners of war and missing military personnel. He retired in 2009 and settled in the southwestern Virginia town of Troutville.

In 2014, he was disbarred in the District of Columbia and later in Pennsylvania, accused of misleading clients on matters related to foreclosures and loan modifications.

His wife of 36 years, Jeane Steppe, died in 2016. Survivors include a stepson, four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Cronauer recognised that Good Morning, Vietnam was forever a part of life, and wherever he went he was asked to repeat his signature wakeup call.

“The movie is much more interesting than the experiences I had,” he said in 1988. “Robin Williams is very funny. I’m not. Williams is the disc jockey I would have liked to be.”

Adrian Joseph Cronauer, 8 September 1938, died 18 July 2018

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