Former Marine captain and veteran actor of the stage, TV and film, Dan Lauria, sat down with We Are The Mighty to share about his recent projects, time in the Corps and his current direction.
Best known for his roles in The Wonder Years, Sullivan and Son, JAG, and as the lead actor in the Broadway play Lombardi, Lauria has retained his Marine Corps leadership values. His Corps experiences have been foundational in his success. He has worked with many great actors in his career to include Charles Durning, Gregory Hines, Mark Harmon, Judith Light, Alley Mills, Mykelti Williamson, Fred Savage, Mark Harmon and many more.
Lauria became close friends with famous actor and decorated veteran Charles Durning. “Charlie was like my dad…he always did everything for vets,” Lauria said. He worked on stage with Durning in the play Men In Suits and he gave the eulogy at his funeral. He would go to dinner about once a month with Jack Klugman, Charles Durning, Peter Falk and Dom DeLuise. Stage acting is Lauria’s favorite type of craft and being able to do long scenes without a “cut!” like in film is one of his passions.
Lauria grew up on Long Island, N.Y. in Lindenhurst and his father was a truck driver. Many of his friends from playing football had parents that worked at Grumman (predecessor to Northrop Grumman). He said, “It was very blue-collar, and I had no idea we were poor until I went to college. I didn’t know you got more than two Christmas presents. I mean we got socks and underwear. You always knew what you were going to get, but at Thanksgiving my father would ask, ‘What do you want for Christmas this year?’ I would say, ‘Hey pop, I could use a new baseball glove or the football is wearing out or a new basketball,’ and he would always say the same thing: ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ Christmas Eve was always opening gifts after church and I would always say, ‘Hey, just what I wanted pop,’ and he would say, ‘Yeah, I had a feeling.’” Lauria’s parents have now since passed and he still goes back to see friends from his old neighborhood.
Lauria’s father was a World War II veteran of the Army who served as a Forward Observer for an artillery unit. He shared that his father was one of the first Americans to enter the town of Muhlhausen, Germany, which had a concentration camp. He noted about his father, “For the rest of his life he didn’t have problems looking at war movies, but if he saw anything about the Holocaust, he would get violently sick.” He stated, “One day I asked him, ‘Bad images huh, pop?’ and he said, ‘No. The smell comes back. Those people knew. They knew…we were five miles away… we could smell it.'” Growing up Lauria shared that everybody’s father served in World War II and it was the thing to serve. Lauria and his father had quite a rivalry. “He was in the Army, so I had to top him, so I went into the Marine Corps,” he said.
Lauria served as an 0302 Infantry Officer in the Corps. He stated, “They gave me my wish list, where back then I think 99% of us wrote down Vietnam three times.” He was sent to Vietnam, however the Corps stopped his unit in Okinawa because the US government was pulling the Marines out of the war. Lauria prepared to go and floated off the coast of Vietnam constantly, however, he spent time training the ARVN how-to call-in air strikes on Okinawa. He did go in-country for a couple of weeks and once his unit was hit by the Viet Cong/North Vietnamese Army they were ordered out of the country. There was fear of the American public thinking Marines had been redeployed to the war. He shared, “I didn’t go through what a lot of those guys went through. We were there, we volunteered, we did our job, and we were ready.” His experience with Vietnam took place in 1972 and Lauria wants to keep the record straight that he was there but did not experience what is seen in movies like Platoon or Hamburger Hill.
General Fulford, Captain Fulford at the time, was Lauria’s CO while in the Corps. There were a lot of racial issues in Okinawa and Lauria taught a Black History course after hours, once a week. It was packed he shared, “…I think I was the only white guy in there (the class).” There was a riot as well at the camp at the time and the whites rioted while all the Blacks were in the mess hall. Lauria served as a conduit in running the mess hall and the issue was resolved and the base CG even came down to see what happened. Fulford took Lauria to the Army-Navy game in 1988. “That was an experience,” he recalled. “What I love most about Army-Navy game presented by USAA is that it’s the one time that everybody in the country seems to be on the same level. We are all waving the same flag. Why is this game so popular when no one is in the top 10 anymore? It’s because of what it means.” Lauria added his affection for USAA. “I joined USAA in 1971. I’ve been a member for 50 years and I’m always so impressed with them.”
The Corps made Lauria play football again which ended up in him being sent back to Quantico and teaching at The Basic School. He was an instructor for Human Relations, which he describes as, “…tough, because here I was as a lieutenant and I hadn’t even got my captain’s bars yet and I am teaching generals and colonels about…the power check.” Colonel Schultz was the Commander of The Basic School at the time. Schultz directed Lauria for him to get the Marine Corps involved with the local community. At the time, Marines were not wearing their uniform off base — “People were throwing rocks at you,” he shared. He also noted that, “We didn’t even wear our dress uniform flying home. It was getting bad back then with the protesting.” No matter the circumstances Lauria remained steadfast to solve the problem.
Lauria got Marines to be Big Brothers to inner-city kids on the weekend. “It was 72-73, and there were lots of protests going on. To see the Marines with their Little Brothers, people getting along and working, I don’t have the war stories other people have, but I thought that was a good contribution.” The Navy started doing the program as well. He commented, “In 1972, I was the national Big Brother of the Year because of the Marine Corps program.” His first Little Brother, Glen Wade, recently retired as a grip from the entertainment business — his first job was on The Wonder Years.
When asked about the program, Lauria recalled going into Washington, D.C. and The Black Panthers approaching him. “One of them said, ‘We want to talk to you. Next time you come pick up the kid we want you to come to our storefront.’ I got in my dress whites and walked in. It was a little hairy, but by the time it was over the head of the group, Genet, said, ‘If you or any other Marines, white or Black, have a hard time picking up your Little Brothers, you let us know.’ And we never had a problem. Then out of respect, when the Navy said they were going to do it, I went over to that storefront and they were looking at me and I said, ‘I am a friend of Genet’s, can I speak to him?’ He wasn’t there, but the guy in charge was, I said, ‘The Navy is also going to do the program.’ The guy said, ‘Ok, we will take care of them,’ so we never had a problem even in uniform or not in uniform.” Lauria’s first two Little Brothers were Glen Wade and Marshall Grant. Fellow First Lieutenant Ed Sandrick, who later retired as a Colonel in the Corps, was also a Big Brother to Wade and Grant. He is currently on his fifth Little Brother, Julian Farnsworth. Farnsworth was accepted to Buckley High School in Los Angeles and Lauria will be paying for his tuition to the school.
“Colonel Schultz was the first Big Brother,” Lauria shared. After Schultz, Lauria and Sandrick, the next Big Brother was Captain Oliver North, later retired Lieutenant Colonel. He said about North, “His first Little Brother was named Andre.” North was Lauria’s OIC while at The Basic School as North was in charge of Marine Corps academics and history. Lauria laughs about some of his interactions with North and would say to him, “You are going to teach a class full of generals now? Good luck.” North would do the Sign of the Cross as Lauria would exit the room heading to the class full of generals. Lauria noted that North would also joke, “I don’t know if this guy (Lauria) is coming back alive…send in your coordinates we’ll send in artillery.” Lauria said of North, “He’s a good guy.” He also took North likely to his first play, which was about basketball and was in Washington, D.C. at the Arena Stage. He believes North remembers him most for, “….dragging his ass to a play,” as Lauria laughed at the comment. When Lauria made North go to a play, North’s comment was, “What is the Marine Corps coming to?”
“I saw Ollie not too long ago,” Lauria said, “and I asked him, ‘Hey, how is Andre?’ He got a big smile on his face and said, ‘Great – I just got back from seeing him!’ Of all of things I’ve done in my life, starting the Big Brother program for the Corps is my greatest accomplishment.”
Throughout his life, Lauria has had interactions with notable military leaders to include getting to work with Senator John McCain with the National Veterans Foundation years back.
Another notable point of history he was involved with while waiting for football to start at Quantico was serving on an investigation into President Kennedy’s assassination. Lauria served as the Range Officer for the Corps reconstruction and testing for the investigation — a tower was constructed, and body dummies were used to simulate that fateful day in Dallas. Retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel William McMillian, a highly decorated Marine and expert marksman who had competed in the Olympics, oversaw the project for Congress and was known to be one of the best shots in the Corps. He shared about McMillian, “LtCol McMillian never got the shots off in the same time….but what really got him (McMillian)…when he came down straight on with the bullet from the weapon (Mannlicher–Carcano Italian Rifle) that Oswald used…didn’t go through one body density dummy – no less three – even flat on the ground. At the end, he (McMillian) said, ‘The first shot that hit Kennedy from what I’ve seen in the film and what they showed the Senators…easily could have been Oswald in that tower and then maybe he pulled and missed that shot that went across the street… he even could have hit Connelly in the shoulder or leg, but the bullet that took off Kennedy’s head at least had three times the velocity of that weapon (Mannlicher–Carcano Italian Rifle),’ I will never forget as long as I live, as we were leaving, I said to LtCol McMillian, ‘Who do you think did it?’ He gave me a look, man I still can’t get it out of my mind, and he said, ‘That’s not our job Lieutenant. As long as they talk about who did it, they are not going to talk about the facts. The facts is the velocity of the bullet went into Kennedy’s throat and the velocity of the bullet that took off his head are two weapons. Who did it and why they will argue that forever. That was not our job.’”
“LtCol McMillian dismissed the grassy knoll and dismissed the thing about being in a sewer shooting up. He said, ‘No. This was almost a head-on shot if they were at the grassy knoll, they would have been of the knoll and there would have been many more people seeing him. He (shooter) would not have been laying down like on a slope or at the bottom….he would have to been at eye level.” The full report is in the 1978 Senate investigation into the assassination, and at the bottom of the report where it says “Range Officer,” you’ll see Lauria’s name. McMillian eventually retired from the Corps and worked as a deputy sheriff for the San Diego County Sheriff’s office in retirement. We couldn’t help ourselves and had to ask Lauria: So, who killed him?
“McMillian would kill me if he heard me say this,” Lauria laughed, “but I think the latest theory about what happened is accurate. I think one of the Secret Service agents in the car with him had his weapon drawn and accidentally fired. I think we covered it up because it was the Secret Service.”
When asked about his favorite project to have worked on, Lauria quipped, “The next one. That’s a Charley Durning line and whenever somebody asks me, I totally mean it. Don’t look back.” He stated, ’The Wonder Years is such a classy show…We won the Emmy after only six episodes, so we won best show. Matter of fact they changed the rules after that…from then on you had to have twelve (episodes) on-air…” With regard to The Wonder Years, Bob Iger, former Disney CEO, “…was our real champion. Great guy…” He shared, “Sullivan and Sun was without a doubt the most fun I have ever had. I had to back up to the bank because I felt like I was robbing the place for my check. I never laughed so much in my life. There were four standup comics. I’m with Brian Doyle-Murray, who sat at the end of the bar and I was behind him and we were like the two critics on ‘The Muppets.'”
Lauria enjoyed working on JAG with fellow former Marine Donald P. Bellisario and on the TV show Pitch, which was about a woman breaking into Major League Baseball. He stated, “I just worked on NCIS, I’ll tell ya, those guys, that was one of the most joyous sets I have ever been on. The reason why is Mark Harmon, he will not allow anybody to act like a big shot. He comes over to your trailer and ensures you’re good.” He said, “You can always tell by the crew. If the leader is good, the crew is good.” He sang high praises of working with actor and Marine Corps supporter Joe Mantegna on Criminal Minds with, “It is one of the nicest sets….if anybody comes on the show, Joe is right there at the trailer. Sometimes he is not even working, he’ll go over to the set just to greet the guest star for the week.” He also does Celebrity Reads where famous actors read through new plays to help writers get literary representation. Guests he has worked with include Charles Durning, Jack Klugman, Bryan Cranston, Peter Falk, Joe Mantegna, Wendie Malick, Kim Brockington, Tony Shalhoub, Jodi Long and Alfred Molina.
One of his most famous and more recent roles was portraying Vince Lombardi on Broadway in Vince. To get the role he flew into NYC on his own dime for a staged reading of the play before it went into production. Per Lauria, “[NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell said, ‘If that guy (Lauria) doesn’t play Lombardi we’re not going to get behind this.'” The play was directed by Thomas Kail, who later went on to direct Hamilton. The play starred many great fellow actors to include Judith Light, Keith Nobbs and Chris Sullivan. Lauria describes portraying Vince Lombardi in the Broadway play Lombardi: “Broadway did not accept us…They were always objecting to our houses being filled with Packers jerseys. But we were the longest-running straight play.” He shared about professionals on the play that should have been recognized: “Tommy (Kail) didn’t get nominated…Chris Sullivan should have been nominated….our lighting designer should have been nominated.”
Through the production, Lauria was offered an open book if he wanted to speak to any of the Packers that played for Lombardi, which even included Bart Starr. On Thursday nights the production would have a Packer or pro football player that played for Lombardi come and do a Q&A session after the show. Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung and even Frank Gifford participated. Lombardi had a great sense of humor and a big laugh, which was put into the play based on input from former Packer players. Lauria said, “I really think that the play was a success ’cause it was the one play you could get the old couch potato, the old fart husband, to go see. The wife just wanted a night out!” Lauria also shared, “Lombardi couldn’t stand any kind of prejudice.” Lombardi was known to be hard on players he wanted and knew would succeed. The great coach was also known to have a strong rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys and their head coach Tom Landry, even though Lombardi and Landry were friends after having coached together on the New York Giants teams of the 1950s.
Lauria’s best leadership lessons he still uses from his Corps training are repeating the question before answering a person and then ensuring to ask a question for the other person once you have finished answering so they can talk. He referred to them as, “It’s kind of the nuts and bolts of leadership you get in the Marine Corps. These ethereal things, they sound good, but if you can’t put them into practice, they don’t work.” Lauria always waits to eat on set at the end with the director who also eats last just like Marine Corps officers do with their Marines. He is known to be a trusted member of the cast where if someone is bothering another person, especially a lady, cast members will come to Lauria to mediate the situation. He said, “You don’t let little things slide because they snowball…very practical leadership.” Lauria does love the Corps and the history about the institution.
Lauria described what the Marine Corps needs in Hollywood: “Now, you tell me why no one has done a mini-series on Smedley Darlington Butler? You cannot have a greater, true historical character. You can just do his war experience and do it as a war show. You can do his political thing. You could do it as a 10-part series. Any actor I know would give their right arm to play that character. And we still have footage on him. He literally was the most powerful man in the world….call Brad Pitt tomorrow and send him the book, Maverick Marine…and say, ‘Why don’t we do a 10 parter on cable about Smedley Darlington Butler.?What are you afraid of, because he wrote War is a Racket? Well that’s why Morgan (J.P. Morgan) had him (Butler) buried in history because they (Morgan and his crew) tried to take over the government and he (Butler) stopped them….” Lauria elaborates, “Hey, the McCormack Senate Investigation ends with Sen. McCormack saying, ‘If it wasn’t for Smedley Butler we would have lived under a fascist state.’ What’s more topical right now?” Lauria said, “You wanna know why there aren’t more Marine movies, because Marines aren’t investing in them. I’ll go hang the lights if you do a movie about Smedley Butler.” Lauria recommends the History Channel show, The Plot to Take Over the White House where more than half of it is about how Smedley Butler stopped it. Butler is one of Lauria’s personal heroes in life.
Lauria is also proud of doing Celebrity Read and saving a lot of regional theaters. He is currently working with Seven Angel Theater in Connecticut for the Keeping Live Theater Alive program which has readings from famous theater actors who support live theaters. More information can be found here. He has been given awards by Women in Film for fighting to get more films made on women heroes such as Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, who is the only woman to have ever received the Medal Of Honor. As of the date of this interview, no one has made a movie about her. She was the first woman doctor in the US Army during the Civil War and had groundbreaking ideas on medicine. Walker also fought for women’s rights post her military service. He stated of Hollywood, “Just like Smedley Butler, they don’t want to do heroes that are controversial.”
Lauria offers us thought-provoking stories based on real heroes and larger than life events where any of them could make for a successful film or TV show. The leadership traits he learned nearly five decades ago in the Corps still hold true in his heart and soul where we can all take something away from what he has shared. As a Corps and as a society we must continue to revisit history, learn from it to ensure we do not repeat it and ensure those significant events and people are remembered.