From Vietnam to ‘The Wire,’ actor John Doman on his time with the USMC and in Hollywood

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Before he went from a lucrative career as an advertising executive-turned actor, John Doman served in the Marines in Vietnam as an infantry officer and aerial observer. Doman goes in-depth on his youth, influences for joining the Corps and values that enriched his life and carried him from the advertising industry to the acting world.

Doman sat down for our latest iteration of a continuing series on successful Marines post-service. He shared about his life and time in the Marines which helped him prepare for his dream job, acting.

Doman at an event for the show Gotham. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.

John is known for his work on The Wire, Gotham, Borgia, The Affair, ER and Oz having worked with some of the greatest actors and TV showrunners in recent history.  He holds his experience in the Corps as a pivotal moment in life that reinforced his values and provided him the skills to succeed in corporate America and as an actor. 

John shared about his early life, “I grew up in Philly in a neighborhood called Fishtown where back in those days it was for the Irish working class. I was a post-war Baby Boomer and our neighborhood was filled with kids where everybody was out playing. My father was from a family of 13 and my mother was one of four, and both grew up in the neighborhood. Guys usually married the girl down the street, and my parents dated in high school. My father was a World War II vet and while home on leave they got married.” Doman’s family moved in with his great grandfather when he was born. He shared a room with his great grandfather until the age of 12.

Doman and his mother on commissioning day in the Corps. Photo courtesy of John Doman.

Doman grew up in a working-class family and his parents led by example with values. He shared, “My father was a blue-collar guy. He was a driver/salesman for a small foods company that sold condiments that were served in restaurants and bars. My mom worked as a secretary and was a hard worker. As soon as I was off to school she was back at work. My parents were aware of how alcoholism had harmed their families — they stayed away from alcohol and were serious about their Catholicism.” He spent a lot of time with his family as many relatives lived in the neighborhood.

Doman learned about honesty, respect and friendship from his family. His father stressed the importance of friendship and having relationships with people you care about; John maintains old friendships to this day. Doman’s father was very wise and he learned a lot from him. His parents stressed education as well and they planted seeds early about going to college. Doman played baseball, football and basketball growing up. Doman played football at North Catholic to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

John worked hard at football and was named to the All-Catholic League team and was recruited to play at the University of Pennsylvania. “My life changed a lot going from Northeast Philly to West Philly at UPenn,” he said. “It really opened my eyes to the world and met a lot of great friends there. I majored in English and graduated in 1966….I was the first to graduate from college in my family.”

Doman during his playing days with the UPenn Quakers. Photo courtesy of John Doman.

One of Doman’s friends was going into the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) program and invited him to join. John decided it was a good idea as he was, “…going to be drafted into the Army and I did not want to go into the Army,” so he, his friend and a third guy hopped into John’s car and drove to Quantico in January of 1967. Doman stated, “OCS was great where it was very physically oriented. About 85% of us went infantry while at The Basic School (TBS). We even did an amphibious landing at Little Creek, Va.” 

Doman was selected for a special language course in Washington, DC, post his time at TBS and was selected to be an Infantry Officer. He spent time in DC studying Vietnamese, while most of his TBS classmates were sent to Vietnam and were involved in the Tet Offensive of 1968. He shared, “We watched it every night on the news and would once in awhile see one of our friends or classmates from TBS being interviewed by some journalist.” Doman was getting ready to go forward to Vietnam while a lot of his fellow classmates that made it through Tet were coming back. Many of his classmates were killed during the offensive.

Doman during his time in the Corps. Photo courtesy of John Doman.

He shared, “I arrived in country a first lieutenant — I picked up rank while in language school. I met with the Battalion Commander and was put out with a company my first night with my unit.” The Company Commander of Kilo Company in his unit had been shot and was being medevaced out. The Battalion Commander turned to him and said, “…well you are the next highest-ranking officer in the Battalion you are now the Company CO for Kilo Company.” Doman said, “First night! The threat while in TBS had been, you never know when you will be made the company commander.” 

He further stated about his time as a CO, “I called all the guys together with the platoon commanders and sergeants and I told them that I was damn green and needed their input. I told them, ‘I have the responsibility and have to make a decision and I want to hear from all of you.’ And then I was the CO for about three months when a captain came in which made me the XO for awhile.” During his time as CO and XO, no one was hurt or killed in his company. Doman went back to Division HQ to work in G2 because of his language skills and he was a liaison with the local Army Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) unit in Dong Ha. “I felt like I was out of the war in G2 and I ran into a former TBS classmate that was a pilot. He asked me if I wanted to be an aerial observer and I said, ‘Sure’.”

Doman at the Marine Corps of an Iwo Jima Memorial statue. Phot courtesy of John Doman.

Doman was then transferred down to Quang Tri to fly as an aerial observer (AO) in a spotter plane with 3D Marine Division. He went to “swing with the wing.” He flew for the next six months in a Cessna 01 Bird Dog. He was with the last active duty unit to use Bird Dogs and then his unit brought in OV-10 Broncos. He stated, “It was wild and whenever there was any action we were there and we took a lot of hits. The Bird Dogs pilots were mostly jet pilots and they treated the Bird Dog like it was an A-4 Skyhawk.” He shared, “We would fly down to the treetops, I would hang out and throw the smoke grenade and then get on the radio with the A-4’s to guide them to the target. It was wild.” John flew about 150 missions. “It was rewarding helping those guys,” he shared. He earned a handful of Air Medals for those missions. 

Doman in Vietnam during his tour. Photo courtesy of John Doman.

He credits seeing Midnight Cowboy and The Graduate while on break from the Corps with inspiring his love for acting. John felt he knew nothing about acting so he pursued a career in the ad business. He spent his last six months at Camp Lejeune and then got his MBA from Penn State after leaving active duty. He stated, “I wrote letters to advertising agencies. I sent out 20 letters, then received 10 responses and got five invitations for interviews in NYC. I did all five interviews and was in one interview with a hiring manager when he shared that he had a guy from the Corps working at the company.” He and the HR representative went around the firm meeting people throughout the day. He said, “I went to meet the Marine at the end of the day and turned out I knew the guy from TBS. Out of the five interviews I got one job — I believe the Marine Corps connection got me my first job.” Doman then spent 20 years in advertising as a career.

His goal was to be acting by 45 years old. He was 41, had not done any preparation and then he looked to get into a class at night. He eventually found an acting teacher through a theater company he had supported. He was recommended to an acting coach that would not return his calls. One day while in Carnegie Hall he saw the name of the acting coach on a door, Robert X. Modica. He slid his resume under the door with a note about him having called Mr. Modica. Modica then called Doman and invited him over to meet. Upon going into his office John saw a 3D Marine Division flag on the wall. Former Marine Corporal Modica had served in the Corps in the Korean War and was highly decorated for his service. They worked together for two years and Doman thoroughly enjoyed his time with Modica.

Modica in his office with the Marine Corps flag on the couch and the Vietnam War painting Reflections center of the wall. Photo courtesy of robertmodica.tumblr.com.

John shared about his transition into the acting world, “I lived a double life for the next few years — I got a manager that sent me out to commercial agents.” He went to auditions while he would sneak out of the office. He stated, “I had a locker at Grand Central Station where I would change for the auditions. I was offered an audition for AT&T which the day of the commercial shoot was the same day of a big pitch for me at the advertising firm. I told them that I could not do the commercial shoot that day.” The pressure was on Doman, “An hour later my agent called back and asked if I could come out later in the afternoon on the day of my big pitch.” He found a way out of the office for the afternoon and the next day.  He stated, “I then made my way to the commercial shoot where we shot all the next day. There was a ticking time bomb there now. Once the commercial went on the air the jig was up. Three weeks before the commercial went on the air, I resigned from the advertising firm.”

Doman as Major William Rawls in The Wire. Photo courtesy of John Doman.

Doman’s life since leaving the advertising has been great. Even before the AT&T commercial, he was making appearances in Law & Order through a friend in the ad business that was a casting director.  He commented, “She got me a small role on Law & Order as the bailiff reading the charges during a courtroom scene. That was his first actual acting job where nobody in the company noticed.”

John credits his Marine Corps values of, “self-discipline and the ability to stay focused on the task at hand. It is about teamwork and having an objective where you work together to achieve the objective. In entertainment it is a team effort to put that show up, complete that episode or make that movie.” Doman believes his most significant roles are on Borgia and The Wire. He said about the shows he has worked on, “….they were all enjoyable,” and John was the lead in Borgia which he believes is his most impactful production. He commented, “Showrunner Tom Fontana said my work ethic and leadership example set the tone for the show. Since I didn’t complain, Tom said others didn’t complain.”

Doman (center) as Rodrigo Borgia in the series Borgia. Photo courtesy of frankfurt-tipp.de.

Doman details his first big break in acting with, “My first time on film was as a construction foreman in Die Hard with a Vengeance where Bruce Willis starts asking me questions about the tunnel. I had paragraphs to say and he had little interjections. Bruce was putting the pressure on me — I had to talk fast and get it all right. He was testing me. He is a good guy and he found out I was a Marine when we worked together in Mercury Rising. Bruce was a little more taken aback then.”

John stated, “We need more Marines to become writers; where they write what they know. More Marines in the business, therefore more Marine stories.” He shared that the best leadership lessons he learned from the Corps are, “Have a goal. Have a plan to get to the goal. Focus on it. Take it step by step and work hard. For the acting world, don’t be afraid to fail. The only way to succeed is being willing to take a risk. True of the work of an actor. You can’t censor yourself and have to get out on a ledge.”

Doman as Don Carmine Falcone in Gotham. Photo courtesy of in.mashable.com.

Doman’s proudest moments in his life and career are, “Certainly proud of the opportunity to serve the country and the Marine Corps. I treasure that experience. I am proud of taking the chance to change careers and become an actor. Everybody thought I was crazy quitting a decent-paying job to go into a career where the odds are always against you. I have been fortunate and very lucky.” He stated encouragement and wisdom in, “If you have a dream, go for it.”