Adrian Cronauer: RIP to an old friend

Adrian Cronauer

Many people around the world knew Adrian Cronauer as the Armed Services Disc Jockey played by Robin Williams in the movie “Good Morning Vietnam.”

We knew Adrian and his wife, Jeane, as longtime friends.  She died in 2016 and Adrian died Wednesday in Troutville, where they moved in 2009 after years in Washington as an attorney and later as Pentagon official working on MIA veterans issues.

I met Adrian in Roanoke in 1968.  He managed Channel 27 (WRFT) and appeared in plays with Showtimers.  Jeane Steppe Muse, a probation officer for Juvenile Court in Roanoke, introduced us after they began dating and they became lifelong friends.

After Channel 27, Adrian worked at radio stations and produced commercials. His announcer’s voice was perfect for broadcast work.

Adrian talked me into appearing in a play at Showtimers, fun years in Roanoke, where I reported for The Roanoke Times and wrote a column.  Our paths crossed a lot.

When I left Roanoke in 1969, we stayed in touch and they came to visit at my home in St. Louis. I took them to the Playboy Club there for dinner and a show featuring a then-young and relatively unknown comic, Gabe Kaplan.  During the show, Kaplan warned the audience to “start laughing or I’m going to call a cop.”

“Don’t bother,” Jeane told him from the audience.  “I am a cop.”  Her comment got a better laugh than any of Kaplan’s jokes.  He later became the star of TV sitcom “Welcome Back Kotter.”  His comedy routines improved.

When Adrian talked about his time in Armed Services Radio in Vietnam as an Air Force airman, his stories came alive with anecdotes and descriptions of the people he met during the war.  He kicked off his early morning shows with the now classic greeting of “Good Morning,Vietnam!” during his time in the war from 1965-66.  His antics often ran afoul of the officers who ran the radio operation but he proved popular with the grunts who listened.

He and Jeane left Roanoke in 1979 and went to New York, where he worked in radio and commercials and earned a master’s degree at The New School.

They visited us in Washington after we moved there in 1981 and Amy saw them when she worked in New York or when we visited.  It wasn’t unusual for us to ride the Amtrak Metroliner up to Manhattan from DC for dinner with the Cronauers and then catch the last train back for the night.  When Amy worked in New York on entertainment projects, Adrian and Jeane helped.

In New York, he reunited with Ben Moses from their Armed Forces radio days in Vietnam and, while remembering their times in Saigon, developed stories about the “Good Morning, Vietnam” days that they thought could be a sitcom on TV.

That idea, passed around by agents and producers in Hollywood, became a possible TV movie.  Adrian called us with news the treatment had become a full-fledged movie concept now under consideration by Robin Williams.  The revised script, he learned, was nothing like his real-time in Vietnam and was now guided by Williams’ ideas and talents.

“I’m not Robin,” he said.  “The character he played in the movie was nothing like me.  Besides, I look more like Judge Bork (a one-time nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court).”  Director Barry Levinson wouldn’t let Adrian meet Williams until after filming completed.  He didn’t want the comic to tone down his performance.

The film became a hit, earned an Academy Award nomination for Williams, and gave Adrian fame and speaking invitations. It also gave he and Jeanne enough money for him to pursue a dream to go to law school.  He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania at a time when others are starting to think about retirement and, soon afterwards, he and Jeane moved to Washington,, where he practiced media and communications law.

They liked our home in a high-rise condo in Arlington, bought a unit in the same building and became neighbors and frequent dinner companions.  After time with his own law firm, Adrian got a chance to combine his time as a veteran with his political beliefs and won an appointment to the Pentagon to serve as confidential assistant to the Secretary of Defense to work on POW/MIA issues.

Adrian helped me on a documentary about the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall and he appeared in it during a stop in Illinois.

During my time as vice president for political programs at the National Association of Realtors in Washington, he called with an invitation for lunch but I was out of the office and, when I returned, my secretary said “some nut case claiming to be Adrian Cronauer called.  I told him to get serious and hung up on him.”

I told her the nut case really was Adrian Cronauer and she must call him back and apologize.  We had a good laugh over lunch the following day.

We shared a love of good scotch whiskey, the music of songwriter-cartoonist-children’s author Shel Silverstein and the absurdities of the media and entertainment industries.  We differed, however, on politics.  Adrian was a conservative, hard-core Republican.  I was a political agnostic, even though I worked for the GOP for part of my time on the dark side of politics.

“You were a lot more fun when you drank,” he joked after I gave up alcohol in 1994.

After I returned to journalism, we clashed over his politics.  As an appointee of President George W. Bush, we had angry debates over my work critical of his boss.

We left Washington in 2004 and they remained until the end of Bush’s two terms in office in 2009 before retiring and moving to Troutville.

We talked via phone and email about lunch or dinner but never seemed to find a compatible time.  I  saw them during motorcycle rides  when I stopped at their house.  The last time that I saw them was on one of those trips.

When I left on that visit, we promised, once again, to find time for lunch or dinner.

In 2014, we exchanged emails about questions raised on use of his name in a scheme that some veterans felt was used to defraud them on foreclosures and loan modifications.  He said he had lent his name to the program before knowing that it was a scam.  It cost him his law license in the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania after he volunteered for disbarment in the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania followed suit in 2015.

‘I thought I was doing something good,” he said.  “I was wrong. I was had.”

As before, we ended the conversation with a promise to have lunch or dinner soon.

Sadly, it never happened.  Jeane died in 2016 and we lost him on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.  He died in a nursing home near his home in Troutville.

Damn.  Adrian will rest with Jeane at the Southwestern Virginia Veterans Cemetery in Dublin after a private military service with honors.

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2 thoughts on “Adrian Cronauer: RIP to an old friend”

  1. Adrian’s outside, may have looked like Judge Bork, but inside he was truly wacky. He could sit at his keyboard and create wickedly funny political songs or satirical songs on any subject, His humor was dry and sly. If you knew him well you could see his eyes dancing with delight when he got on a roll. We will miss him. We will miss his intelligence, humor and courage. I feel sorry for those who never got to know him. In a world of pretenders, he was real and made a difference.

  2. Superb column (once again), Doug. A few years ago I had the good fortune to meet Adrian, just briefly, when he came to Richmond and was doing interviews about his MIA/POW work, focusing on recovering remains of those who died in service, and locating any who might still be alive but lost to their home country. He was passionate about his work, and a great interview. I can imagine what fun it must have been to know him well.

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