Creator of JAG, NCIS
In the late 1950s, Don Bellisario spent a four-year hitch in the Marine Corps that by his own admission he thought he'd want to forget. But he never did. Instead, the determined young man from Cokeburg, Pennsylvania, used his experiences in uniform to create, write, and produce a spate of military-related hit movies and TV shows—from Air Wolf and Magnum, P.I., to JAG and NCIS—that helped pave the way for Hollywood's move toward portraying the armed forces in a favorable light. Here's his own delightful story of how his frustrations during his active-duty days turned into fond memories—and loyalty—when he got out.
When I enlisted in the Marine Corps for four years in 1955, it was with the promise that I could go to Marine aviation cadet (MARCAD) training if I qualified. True to that promise, a month after I arrived at Parris Island the Corps flew me to Cherry Point, where, on passing all the tests and physicals, I was assigned to the first MARCAD class after my boot camp graduation. Since I was a kid my dream had been to become a military aviator, and now it was going to come true!
Then, I made two mistakes.
I opened a letter from the Department of Defense. It informed me that the West Point appointment I had sought since graduating high school two years earlier had been granted. I was to report to the Point for my physical and on passing would join the class of 1959.
The second mistake was showing the letter to my senior drill instructor (DI), who showed it to the lieutenant, who showed it to the captain, who . . . well, you get the idea.
The Marine Corps loved it. They thought it would be just great to have a Marine at West Point. It would be a first. And since I was in the Corps I would graduate as a Marine second lieutenant.
The only problem anyone could see was whom I should root for at the Army-Navy game.
I saw a much bigger problem.
With the MARCAD assignment I would attain my dream to fly now, not in four years. When you're 19, four years is a lifetime—so I told my senior DI that I was turning down the appointment. Word of my decision went up the chain of command, and back down came: "You will report to West Point!" To which I replied a very loud: "Sir! I do not choose to go, Sir!" The more pressure the Corps applied, the more I stiffened. It climaxed on the rifle range when I received a call on the day I was to report to West Point. It was General Randolph McC. Pate, commandant at Parris Island and later Commandant of the Marine Corps.
I can still see myself standing at rigid attention on a field phone with a DI in my face. After a few fatherly words of advice, General Pate told me he would have his R4D fly me to West Point so I could report by midnight.
"Sir! I do not choose to go, Sir!"
"Son," he replied, "you are making a big mistake."
That night my senior DI informed me that I could no longer be the platoon guidon. I understood. Then he said he couldn't give me one of the three PFC promotions awarded to the top recruits in the platoon at graduation. "That's okay, Sir. I'm going to be a MARCAD cadet."
After a pause he said, "No you're not."
Through the various "unofficial" punishments that followed, and there were many, I was determined to tough it out. My only request was to be sent anywhere but the Air Wing.
I was sent to the Air Wing.
It was painful to watch three of my fellow boot camp recruits, who had also applied to MARCAD, show up at El Toro with their bright gold wings.
Eventually, the unofficial punishments eased up. However, two years later when I transferred from MACS-9 to MATCU-65, I was still a buck private. My new CO looked over my conduct and proficiency reports, which were all "outstanding," and asked me why I was a buck private.
I told him.
He meritoriously promoted me to corporal on the spot. A few months later I meritoriously made sergeant. I finished my enlistment as a staff sergeant.
Upon separation, I went back to Penn State with my wife and two children. It was there in 1961, as I was about to graduate, that a Marine captain with gold wings showed up at my front door.
Over a beer he said the Corps would like to offer me another shot at flight school.
I was stunned. My wife sat with our children and a panicked look on her face—she had spent two years living in a Quonset hut at MCAS Mojave with two small babies and no car.
After a moment I said, "No thanks, captain, but I do appreciate the offer."
That night I thought a lot about the Corps and was surprised at the pride I felt in having been a Marine. I walked taller, stood straighter, and faced the world with a confidence that didn't exist before joining the Corps. Any vestige of acrimony I may have felt vanished when that captain showed up at my door to offer me what the Corps had once denied.
My tour in the Corps has heavily influenced my television career. The first TV series I created, Magnum, P.I., told the tale of three Vietnam buddies who returned home from 'Nam to lead normal lives—well, normal for a handsome TV detective in Oahu.
When CBS read the pilot they said they didn't want their hero to be a Vietnam vet. At the time Hollywood was depicting returning vets as druggies, wife-beaters, thieves, or crazed snipers.
Determined to change that image, I lied to CBS.
I said if they didn't like the Vietnam flashbacks I'd written into the pilot episode, I could edit them out. Of course they were so integral to the story that they couldn't be edited out. When CBS executives saw the pilot they changed their minds. And when Magnum aired so did a lot of people in America.
The Village Voice called Magnum a watershed television series in how it portrayed returning Vietnam veterans.
I'm very proud of that.
Almost all of my TV shows, from Air Wolf to Quantum Leap to JAG and NCIS, employ military themes. I rely heavily on incidents I either experienced or heard of while a Marine and my experience in the Corps has given me an uncanny ability to anticipate military events. For example, the Magnum episode that opened the 1981 season involved a story about the United States and Vietnam holding secret talks in Hawaii to identify and return the remains of American MIAs.
The FBI wanted to know how I knew.
We wrote a JAG episode about a naval aviator who was shot down over Bosnia. A few weeks later, Air Force Captain Scott O'Grady was downed by an SA-6 missile and escaped in much the same way as our fictional naval aviator. Another episode featured the capture of the number 3 man in al Qaeda. While our cameras were rolling, it really happened. Even more surprising, the actor could have doubled for the real terrorist!
I'm constantly surprised at how the Corps has stayed with me, even in small ways. I groaned while watching A Few Good Men when two Marines saluted Tom Cruise in a courtroom even though neither was wearing a cover. Even now, at 73, I remove my cover when entering a building, although now it's usually a golf cap. I still swell with pride when I hear the Marine Corps Hymn and wish I could salute the flag at Penn State football games instead of putting my hand over my heart.
In writing this, I've come to realize how much I owe the Marine Corps for my success in television.
However, they can't have any of my residuals.