Gene Hackman has appeared in more than 70 motion pictures. He won two Academy Awards—Best Actor for The French Connection (1971), Best Supporting Actor for Unforgiven (1992)—and he has been nominated three times—Best Actor for Mississippi Burning (1988), Best Supporting Actor for Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and I Never Sang for My Father (1970). His acting career did not take shape, however, until he finished an enlistment in the U.S. Marine Corps, which he joined at age 16 after lying about his age. Now, he has entered a new realm as coauthor of Wake of the Perdido Star (New York: Newmarket Press)—reviewed in the January 2000 U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings—with veteran U.S. National Park Service underwater archaeologist and historian Daniel Lenihan. Hackman talked recently in Washington with Naval History Editor Fred L. Schultz about his Marine Corps service; the coauthors then discussed their tale of 17-year-old Jack O'Reilly's high-seas adventures in an early-19th-century sailing ship.
Naval History: Why did you choose to enlist in the Marine Corps?
Hackman: It was probably because of Lowell Ford. His sister was my girlfriend. This was when I was 14 or 15, at a time when young men don't quite know who they're in love with. Her brother had been killed on Guam. A year-and-a-half or so later, when I wasn't quite 17, I thought it would be very heroic of me if I joined the Marine Corps. I wanted to show her that I was proud not only of her, but of her brother, too. When you are a young man, sometimes your motives are pretty obscure and complicated.
Naval History: Did your military experience affect your career in any way?
Hackman: Yes, I think it did. I think it gave me a kind of a discipline that I wouldn't have had; a tack on things that would have been different if I hadn't been in the Corps.
Naval History: Do you think military service is worthwhile?
Hackman: I think it's good for some people. It depends on who you are and what you need. I grew up somewhat without a father. I mean, my father was in and out a lot, and my mother and father divorced when I was young. So I probably didn't have the discipline that I needed as a young man. And the Corps brought me back to reality about what I could do and what I couldn't do, in terms of authority.
Naval History: Do you keep in touch with any of your old acquaintances from the Marine Corps?
Hackman: I run into some of them once in a while. Somebody occasionally will come up behind me and say, "Semper Fi!" A couple of years ago, I was walking down the street in New York, and I heard a voice behind me. He said, "Have you been to Ping Kong Tung Lee's lately?" This got my attention; that was a whorehouse in Tsingtao, China.
Naval History: Did you know what your mission was when you were in Tsingtao?
Hackman: I was so young, I had no idea what I was doing there. I didn't understand why the Marines were there. I was just looking to have a good time. I played on all the sports teams that I could try out for. And I ended up also working for the Armed Forces Radio Service in Tsingtao.
I guess our mission was to guard whatever interest the United States had in that town. Exactly what that was, I had no idea.
Naval History: We've heard a story that your former company commander once dressed you down as "a sorry son of a bitch," when he saw you working as a hotel doorman after your discharge from the Marine Corps. Is that true?
Hackman: Well, it was something like that. He was actually my recruiting sergeant. Why he remembered me, I don't know. I had been given a job as a doorman at the Howard Johnson's restaurant in New York City, during a Shriners' convention. This was a little, tiny Howard Johnson's. But it did a tremendous business, because it was right on Times Square. And they wanted even more business. So they rented white uniforms with green piping and hats to match. I had been standing there opening the door dressed like that for a week.
Then along comes this Marine in dress blues. He stopped momentarily, then he came close to me. And as he walked by me, he said, "Hackman, you are a sorry son of a bitch."
Naval History: And what did that mean to you?
Hackman: It just meant that I looked terrible, that I was never a great Marine. I suppose people who end up making the Marine Corps a career—and I'm sure that this man did—would see somebody like myself as a traitor to the Corps, because I diminished the look of a Marine by wearing this tatty looking uniform. It did give me pause for a while.
Naval History: Your new book certainly seems to lend itself to a movie. Which part are you going to play?
Hackman: Hmm. There really isn't a part for me in it, other than maybe a small part—the sea captain [the oft-besotted Captain Deploy]. If somebody wanted me to, I'd probably do that.
Naval History: Is a movie in the offing?
Hackman: The book is in the hands of a theatrical agent now, who is shopping it around, as they say in the parlance. It's only been out there a short time, so we haven't heard anything yet.
It would be a difficult movie, a big, sprawling production. Anytime you're working on the water, it adds a whole new dimension. I'd guess it all would be shot in the Caribbean. You could doll things up there to look like the South Pacific and parts of Cuba.
Naval History: Besides being neighbors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, how did you two get connected?
Hackman: Through diving. My wife and I wanted to be certified, so we asked around Santa Fe, which is not the diving capital of the world, certainly. It does have a couple of dive shops, though, strangely enough. One man told us to get in touch with Dan, who has been very helpful ever since, in terms of my wife's and my diving.
Naval History: Do you dive in any particular spot? We understand that you have done some diving on World War II sites at Truk Atoll.
Hackman: My wife and I were on Truk Lagoon, "Chuuk," as they prefer to call it now. We've done dives in Hawaii, the Cayman Islands, some places in the Bahamas, and at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Totugas with Dan. That location became a scene in the book.
Naval History: We understand that one of you began writing at the end, and another started at the beginning. Is that correct?
Hackman: Well, it's somewhat right. We don't like to talk specifically about what we wrote, because I suppose it kind of pushes us farther apart in some funny way. Needless to say, Dan wrote the technical things about diving, because I don't know that much about what that might have been like. Dan's great imagination filled that in.
To answer your question, I started by writing a chapter in the center of the book called "Storm." Then Dan and I talked about the arc of the story. Later, we exchanged pages and chapters back and forth, and it just developed. We were in the middle, and then we were at the beginning. And then we went from the middle on. It worked for us, because we had a solid idea about where we wanted to go.
Lenihan: Perhaps there is a bit more emphasis in the second half of the writing, because that's where most of the diving scenes take place. I wrote chapters in the beginning and Gene wrote a number of the chapters in the end. And together we worked closely on the last chapter. So it's very hard to distinguish.
Some people have assumed that I must have been the one working on the technical maritime aspects. That's not true. Actually, Gene was involved heavily in writing several of the scenes that have to do with the men at sea on the ships—and how the ships are both being wrecked and then being rebuilt.
Hackman: I think our literary agent is the only one who really knows what Dan wrote and what I wrote, because he was much more aware of Dan's previous writing in scientific circles. But our publisher says that she doesn't know.
Lenihan: When Gene was doing a film, I would often work with Betsy, his wife, who was extremely critical to this book's being done, logistically and in every other way. She was a real driving force. After a while, Gene and I had merged sections and chapters to such an extent that we were a little confused ourselves about who had written what. If we disagreed on an edit, the final decision would go to the person who wrote the pages in question. I remember discussing edits with Betsy, and after about the fourth page, I said, "Betsy, I didn't write this." I think that was an indication that maybe it had been fairly well merged.
Hackman: All this was over a span of more than three years, and we were both doing other things.
Naval History: You've talked about the technical aspects of the story. Did you ever consider that you might be running a risk of turning somebody off with all the arcana?
Lenihan: I suppose you always run that risk, if the reader isn't going to care about how these characters reestablish themselves. The book wouldn't be for them, anyway. There's a bit of the Robinson Crusoe element at play here. And if someone doesn't care about ships, the sea, and diving it might be enough to dissuade them. Only a very few people have had that reaction.
Hackman: One of the most satisfying things we've heard about the book is the fact that women enjoy it, which we never thought would happen. Several have said exactly the same thing: that in reading the book, it taught them something about what men dream of, what men find interesting.
Lenihan: It was a real unexpected education for us. In fact, some women have used almost the same words to describe their reactions.
Naval History: Your main character, Jack O'Reilly, seems to be a rather sensitive guy for a 17-year-old in the early 19th century. Through him, you deal with issues like slavery and religious persecution—even animal rights. Was that a conscious effort?
Hackman: Yes, it was. I happened to write most of those parts. What I wanted him to be was a sensitive guy who was pushed into violence. And that in the back of his mind, in the back of his soul, there would be some kind of redemption. That there would be kind of a salvation for him; that he wouldn't end up being a pirate, a barbarian, a buccaneer. That he was better than that.
Lenihan: The one thing we both agreed on with him was his personality. Jack is a decent person. He's a young, highly energetic, physical guy, who has the capability of extreme violence. That's part of his makeup. He's basically a tough kid. But he's also, basically, a decent one.
As he's deprived of his family and develops a new shipboard family, he finds that in defending them—maybe defending his new family better than he did his old one—his proclivity for violence works for him, maybe too well. And by the end, he's taken up on it.
I think it's a complicated ending, because what happens is you see him find other ways to solve his problems. He knows he's gone too far.
Naval History: Did you base the Perdido Star on a particular ship?
Hackman: The one pictured on the title page of the book is a hermaphrodite brig, I think. It looks like it's gaff-rigged on the main.
Lenihan: This would pass muster as a brigantine. The ship at the end, which is also the Star, is a barkentine. It was important to Gene, in the reclamation process, to get it right. I think this is something that comes partly from theater, but words are strong, especially to him. He pointed out that you can't really run a mizzen on a brigantine. So at the end, we made the Star a barkentine, which would be easier for that small complement of men to operate. So as the ship is reborn, it's one that's three-masted; the main and after-mast are fore-and-aft rigged.
Naval History: Dan, as a writer of mostly nonfiction in the past, what was it like to delve into fiction?
Lenihan: I think it's exciting. It's really liberating in a lot of ways. There's such a powerful sense of freedom of expression that comes from the ability to change the world to the way you want it. It's just not as constraining as nonfiction. That's the way it struck me. I found it exciting and took to it pretty happily.
Hackman: It was wonderful for me. I had the exact opposite process that Dan did. I had never had anything published until this. And just the other day we had a piece appear in National Geographic Traveller, a nonfiction article about the dives on Truk, which Dan helped to write.
Naval History: What are your favorite maritime and nautical authors?
Hackman: Well, I suppose Jack London would come to mind first, and Herman Melville. I think we probably stole a little bit from Robert Louis Stevenson and Treasure Island, in terms of ambiance.
Lenihan: I think those three motivated us the most. You pattern yourself after the things that grabbed you when you were younger. Part of what we were trying to do was to reach back to a different genre. Interestingly enough, people occasionally ask, "What about Patrick O'Brian?" Others have asked about the Hornblower television series. We were actually oblivious most of the time to O'Brian. Toward the end of this process, we looked at one of the O'Brian books. Once we realized that it covered the same time period, we didn't want to look at it.
Hackman: Some have intimated that we are jumping on the popularity bandwagon of the Hornblower television series and Patrick O'Brian. We started this project three-and-a-half years ago. I don't believe the Hornblower series had even started.
Naval History: Obviously, you could have chosen any period of history. How did you arrive at 1805 as the book's starting point?
Hackman: We wanted it to occur outside of any specific event. Lewis and Clark was about the most-publicized story at the time. Enough years had passed since the Constitution had been signed, and there was still turmoil in the country. It's 25 or 30 years after the Declaration of Independence and just prior to the War of 1812. We wanted it set so we wouldn't be obliged to have to deal with momentous historic events. And yet there was still an ambiance of the The Napoleonic Wars and the coming of the War of 1812.
Lenihan: We wanted to have that sense of turmoil and unrest in the nation, some of which you see come out in the interaction between Jack and his father. We wanted that to be a background so that we could isolate the characters. The plot could take place without having to be too dependent on events that were going on in the real world. It was a vehicle for this story of coming of age in these times.
The Dutch East India Company had collapsed; the government had taken it over. And literally, the crews in ships sailing at that time, in most parts of the world, didn't know who they might be at war with, or what port they could go into, with what flag raised. We wanted that sense of chaos, that the world was an unstable place at the time. The characters were playing out their own drama in that context.
Hackman: Also at that time, Eli Whitney was just getting under way with his mass production of rifles. And that played a bit of a role early in the story.
Naval History: What do you both think of treasure hunting, for the lack of a better term, and the people who are less scrupulous than others when diving on wrecks?
Lenihan: Well, it's our history. Patrimony is a fleeting thing. I don't see the big problem being the treasure hunters themselves, as much as society's—sometimes American society's—willingness to let that past become a commodity, letting it dribble through the hands of people for profit.
Hackman: I don't have the same philosophical leanings about treasure. I don't quite understand the big deal. I don't mean to be insensitive about it. I think I would tend to agree with Dan that somebody who goes down and absolutely devastates a wreck with big suction blowers is irresponsible. But I think it's okay if people pick up a coin if they dive a site by themselves. I must say that I pick them up, or I would if I found one.
When we were diving Truk, they were saying that the amount of artifacts that have disappeared over the years is astonishing. But to me it looked very rich. There were machine-gun bullets all over the place. And I think it's very tough to tell somebody they can't pick one of those up and take it home. There's a lot of ordnance on those ships that the locals take. They take the powder out and they use it to fish. They make dynamite explosions, and the fish come to the surface. That's wrong, yeah. That is definitely wrong.
But when I'm diving, I can't keep my hands off of things. I had my hands on a Japanese Zero at Truk.
Naval History: Most first-time authors dedicate their books to loved ones. You've dedicated this to the sea and the people who've navigated it. Why?
Lenihan: It comes from the heart. We both have very strong feelings about the sea and seamen, the whole class of society who grew up around the sea and live by it. It's the great unknown. Three quarters of the world is covered by it, and those who ply its surface and plumb its depths deserve some recognition.