Tim Abell — From US Army Ranger to acting in Hollywood, this vet has lived a life of adventure
Actor and former Army Ranger Tim Abell brings a unique approach to his profession where he has worked with some of Hollywood’s finest producers and directors. Abell joined the Army on the Delayed Entry Program while still attending high school. After graduating Abell served 4 years active duty from December 1976 through December 1980 with the elite units of the 2/75th Ranger Bn (now the 75th Ranger Reg) and the 3rd US Infantry (The Old Guard) Caissons. He additionally served 3 years in the reserves while attending the University of Maryland College Park.He became skilled as a horseman through his duty with, “The Old Guard” where he portrayed General Robert E. Lee and President and former Major General Andrew Jackson in dramatic reenactments such as “History of the United States Torch Light Tattoo” and a longer version titlted “The Spirit of America." He has since acted in films such as “We Were Soldiers”, “Substitute 2: Failure is Not an Option”, and on TV shows including Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Soldier of Fortune”, “JAG”, “Criminal Minds”, “CSI:Miami”, “CSI:NY”, and “Sons of Anarchy." He continues his work in the industry as an actor, producer and providing voice over work as well.
- Can you share about your family and your life growing up?
At the age of 8 his parents divorced. Tim, his sister Debbie and brother Jay chose to stay with their father. Tim’s sister soon married and moved away, and Tim and his brother Jay grew up as “Latch Key kids." Their Dad worked long hours at the Cadillac dealership while Jay and Tim were given the responsibility of making their own meals, vacuuming, and dusting the house, washing their clothes, and all of the years’ work too. They spent most weekends with their grandparents Pappy & Granny Abell where they learned to cook. Pap Abell , a WWI veteran, also taught them how to catch herring with a bamboo rod and a treble hook, how to pitch good motor parts at the junk yard, how to find and pick wild Blackberries quickly and efficiently so Granny could make us Blackberry pie and how to truly laugh and have a good time!
Abell says he wouldn’t change a thing growing up but, believes kids should have both a Mom and Dad in the growing up if possible… he often wonders what his childhood would’ve been like had his parents stayed together.
Abell became self-sufficient at an early age. While growing up he reluctantly helped his Dad and brother work on cars over the weekend which his Dad called “Shade Tree'' work to make extra money. His brother Jay loved helping his Dad work on cars, but Abell’s real passions lie elsewhere. His mind was on building large battlefields with his plastic army men or cleaning his old shotgun and hunting with his buddies in the nearby woods.
Abell does come from a family rich in military service where his grandfather served in World War I and his great, great grandfather was a blacksmith for the 49th Virginia Infantry on the Confederate side in the Civil War. He found even more history on his grandfather’s mother’s side where his great, great grandfather named Jerome Laurence fought for the 65th Volunteers from Pennsylvania, which was a part of the 5th Regiment on the Union side in the Civil War. He has relatives that served even in the Spanish-American War and the Revolutionary War, which Abell describes as “cool." Surprisingly, his brother tried to talk Abell out of going into the military even with such a rich military history in the family.
Abell’s brother Jay, whom he always idolized, became an outstanding carpenter and gifted woodworker. Abell recalls his father being an awesome father and role model, who taught him responsibility, integrity and respect for his elders.
Abell played trombone and trumpet in elementary school but never really put the time and effort required to learn because he was so much more interested in hunting, shooting, and fishing with his pals and with his hunting mentor his “Uncle Bruce” a former Marine during the Korean War.
In junior high school Abell faced a new reality.... he faced adversity stemming from the racial tensions on the time exacerbated by school bussing. Abell’s hatred of bullies came from that troubled time.... seeing 12-year-old kids beaten, robbed and humiliated and enduring some of the same himself just because of the color of one’s skin made Abell grow up in a different way. It made him learn to fight back and not be a victim, especially when his father told him to deal with it himself. So many life lessons learned from that era… “…you just go screw it I am taking this shit anymore. I am not letting myself get beat up without taking a couple of guys down with me. You know, pay the price….it’s wasn’t just about black and white it’s also about bullies in general. People that are unsavory people that can pick on the weak. I learned that across the board. I took that same experience into the Army.”
He remembers a fellow private in the Army at boot camp that would get picked on because he was, “easy prey." While at boot camp the private would get bullied and beat up all the time. Abell did not like this kind of behavior. He came across the private being beaten up while in the bathroom at the rifle range complex. He confronted the attackers and told them to stop. He sent the private out of the bathroom and broke up the fight. Later that night the assailants from the bathroom confronted Abell outside of the barracks while he was walking with his fellow soldiers back from the Post Exchange. A fight ensued that was eventually broken up by the drill sergeants. It came to light what was happening among the platoon where the drill sergeants put a stop to it. Abell recalls the volatility of the situations he was in and how racial tensions flared going through entry-level indoctrination in the Army. As new soldiers all the men were still learning their new Army identity and to work as a team regardless of skin color or ethnicity.
Abell during his time in the Army. Photo courtesy of Tim Abell.
- What made you want to become a Ranger and what was your experience like?
Abell attributes his desire to become a Ranger from his avid reading habit and loving military biographies where he read a book in his junior year of high school named “The Green Berets” by Robin Moore. The movie starring John Wayne titled “The Green Berets” is based on Moore’s book where Abell loves the film as well. He initially wanted to be a Green Beret where told the Army recruiter the same thing. He wanted to the join the Army to do something he could only do in the Army, “…like be a Special Forces guy.” The recruiter could get him a slot as a Ranger, but not as a Green Beret, so he went with going in the Army to be a Ranger. Abell wanted to be tested as a man and see if could he handle that stress. He says, “…I loved being in the Ranger Battalion.” He describes it as a “wonderful experience” in his life with “camaraderie” and enjoyed the “people he met” where he was “pushed to be his best."
Robin Moore’s book “The Green Berets." Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.com.
He still remains close with his pals from that time period and he felt invincible as a young Ranger. Abell believes life is about testing yourself and finding out about what you are made of. He remains grateful of his success and his place in life the older he gets. Words of wisdom he lives by are, “How you perceive a situation influences how you respond to it.” He remains grateful in situations, even those that may seem arduous, which allows him to keep a level head. He goes by a phrase, “…embracing the suck,” when it comes to facing tough times on set or in life.
Abell center of picture (to the left of the African American Ranger in the center) with his Ranger class RC 5-78. Photo courtesy of Tim Abell.
And Abell still embraces the Ranger Creed which he had to learn by heart as a Ranger.
The Ranger Creed
Recognizing that I volunteered as a Ranger, fully knowing the hazards of my chosen profession, I will always endeavor to uphold the prestige, honor, and high esprit de corps of the Rangers.
Acknowledging the fact that a Ranger is a more elite soldier who arrives at the cutting edge of battle by land, sea, or air, I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move further, faster and fight harder than any other soldier.
Never shall I fail my comrades. I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be, one hundred percent and then some.
Gallantly will I show the world that I am a specially selected and well-trained soldier. My courtesy to superior officers, neatness of dress and care of equipment shall set the example for others to follow.
Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle for I am better trained and will fight with all my might. Surrender is not a Ranger word. I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.
Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission though I be the lone survivor.
Rangers Lead The Way!!!
- What are you most proud of from your service in the Army?
What I’m most proud of stems from Gen Abrams and the Abrams Charter. The Abrams Charter stated that the obligation for Rangers is to “Lead the Way” for the entire Army. In the Ranger Bn., the more senior Rangers set the example for the younger Rangers who had just graduated from RIP (Ranger Indoctrination Program) to follow. Always leading by example. The new Rangers learned very quickly what was expected of the in order to be a part of this elite group of Soldiers. To live up to the high standards and esprit de corps was not always an easy task. But more importantly the Abrams Charter spoke to those 75th Rangers who would set the example for the soldiers in the big Army after they left the Rangers.
So, when Abell was assigned to the 3rd US Infantry (The Old Guard) Caissons, he knew that he could be an asset as well as a role model to his fellow Old Guard soldiers. He was able to share his Ranger training and experience while being the NCOIC of the Expert Infantry Badge (EIB) Movement Under Direct Fire course at Ft. AP Hill. Abell’s station was a highlight of the EIB training due to the rigorous and realistic training Abell put the Old Guard soldiers through.
Abell (center) in “Sniper: Special Ops." Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.
- What values have you carried over from the Army into Hollywood?
Abell is grateful for his life experiences...especially in the Army. He brought discipline over to his Hollywood career. W/O discipline he has seen people fall off into the abyss of drinking, drugs, partying and sex.... some with fatal consequences.
He believes good judgement is vital. Character integrity and leadership are important as well. Abell says as a civilian he always refers to the Ranger Creed in tough times, which helps carry him forward and stay on track.
Abell hosted the “Grateful Nation” tv series on the Outdoor Channel for 10 seasons where he helped tell the story of our returning war veterans.... many of whom needed to find a new Mission & Purpose in life after the military in order to find happiness... if not then it was a slippery slope for many veterans who find it too easy to just take their meds, drink a fifth of booze, play video games and start thinking stupid thoughts.... but Abell found that many veterans who found that new mission and purpose saved their own lives as well as inspiring other veterans to do the same.
Abell (right) while serving with “The Old Guard." Photo courtesy of Tim Abell.
- What project did you most enjoy doing while working in Hollywood?
Abell most enjoyed playing USMC Scout/Sniper SSG Benny Ray Riddle in Jerry Bruckheimer’s syndicated tv series “Soldier of Fortune inc.” It was a role where Abell could utilize all of his military and even use some of his old Ranger gear to bring and authenticity to Benny Ray whom was an amalgamation of more than a a few of the hardcore leaders he was led by as a young Ranger.
Abell also loved playing SFC Vic Mosby in the action film “Sniper Special Ops” starring Steven Seagal and Dale Dye, directed and written by his pal and Navy Veteran Fred Olen Ray. This was a role the director had written specifically for Abell who was quite honored by his friends' trust to carry his film in a starring role.
“ Circus Kane '' was Abells first foray into a feature length horror film directed by Navy Veteran Christopher Ray. Abell underwent 5 plus hours of prosthetics makeup to create Balthazar Kane. Abell felt like he was channeling Rob Zombie in a Circus of Horrors as the Ringmaster! The director allowed Abell to use all of his creative abilities to bring Kane to life on the screen.
And Soldier of God is still one of Abell’s favorite projects that he starred in and helped produce. He plays Rene’ a Knights Templar who is separated from his men after the Battle at The Horne\s of Hattin... Rene becomes a warrior
in search of a war… a warrior questioning his faith. It’s a film with so much beauty yet so much darkness.
Abell in “Soldier of God." Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.
Abell as “Balthazar Kane” in “Circus Kane." Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.
Abell (far left) for MOH Dinner and Gala, with Special Agent Tim Clemente, MOH Col. Bruce Crandall, USA and with Matthew Mardsen. Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.
- What was it like working on such projects as We Were Soldiers, Soldiers of Fortune, JAG, NCIS, CSI:NY, CSI: Miami, Criminal Minds and the like?
As Benny Ray Riddle in “Soldier of Fortune, Inc." Abell played a USMC Scout/Sniper. Abell did extensive research for his character who was the quintessential sniper and Marine. A stoic man who loved his job and was the best at what he did . Navy SEAL Harry Humphries who was the Technical Advisor for SOF series linked Abell up with SEAL Steve Bailey at NSW Coronado for some training. Abell’s SF buddy, Matt Anderson, created Benny Ray’s Sniper Range book that Abell used on the show. It all came down to attention to detail in creating Benny Ray so that if military types watched the series Benny Ray would be believable and authentic to them. Abell recently did a short film called “Father and Sons” with pal Michael Broderick, Vernon Mortenson and Ryan Curtis. All veterans. The film was based on characters from author and Navy SEAL Jack Carr’s books. Abell says, “what is cool is Jack sent me a few of his books and sent a note saying he was a fan of the “Soldier of Fortune, Inc” series especially Benny Ray Riddle who was also a sniper like him! Jack said he and his pals would watch the show to get fired up!” That was a great compliment to hear from a SEAL sniper and operator like Jack Carr.... Abell’s preparation was not in vain.
Tim has played a member of every armed forces branch in film and tv .... he even played a Coast Guard pilot in a commercial. He finds a lot of similarities among military roles and in the research he has done. It is in the little differences between each branch he finds diversity. He supports veterans as a member of VME to help those new to the acting biz.
Abell loved working on “We Were Soldiers." It was his first big studio film and working with Mel Gibson and Sam Elliott was a dream come true.
Working on JAG was an outstanding experience! Abell loved working with Jon Jackson and Catherine Bell!
Abell said, “Mark Harmon was a real pleasure to watch work and work with.... I’ve learned so much from working with and observing great actors like Joe Mantegna on “Criminal Minds” and Gary Sinise.”
Abell as “Benny Ray Riddle” in Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Soldier of Fortune, Inc” TV show.
Abell in “Angels and Fire." Photo courtesy of IMDB.com.
- What leadership lessons in life and from the Army have helped you most in your career?
Abell has also brought a perspective of maturity over from the Rangers. If he auditions for a part and doesn’t get it, he moves on. He focuses on the positive, processes what he needs to, and refuses to let a rejection be a devastating blow to his career. When in acting classes, he takes notes from the acting teacher, integrates them as needed and moves forward. He won’t argue with the acting teacher over opinions or comments, he takes the note and stays professional. Same as would be done in training where constructive criticism is taken in stride and you improve your performance the next time around. He appreciates honesty and directness in his professional work. While studying acting at the Studio Theater in DC, he most appreciated the feedback from Joy Zinoman, who was one of the professors at the theater. He shies away from talking about his abilities on or off set, where he prefers to assess the situation and quietly lead by example where it counts. He sets a standard like how he did as an NCO in the Rangers in his work in Hollywood.
He overlooks negative reviews where some of the critics have bad things to say about the projects he works on. He keeps complaints to himself and tries to find ways to fix challenges that are ahead. Abell wants to accomplish the mission on set. He still uses his military discipline in preparing for roles and in his work as an actor. He likes to ask the question to young actors on set, “What have you done today to be a better actor?” Where many times the young actors don’t have a coherent or logical reply to the question. Preparation is key to Abell’s success and stems from his upbringing and time in the service. Abell said, “…I take all those things I learned being in the military and being a Ranger. It’s like being prepared, not being a whiner, taking responsibility for myself, having a mission and purpose everyday when I wake up in the morning.”
Abell (center, left) with his fellow castmates on “Soldier of Fortune, Inc." Photo courtesy of Tim Abell.
- As a service, how do we get more veteran stories told in the Hollywood arena?
Abell believes having more writers with military experience are needed to get veteran stories told more in the industry. He relies on his belief that a person may be a veteran, but that does not preclude them to only writing stories on the military. They are an individual with military experience that can write anything they want to write. Writers with military experience have a vast life experience from which to draw upon, some of which may come from having served. Abell references fellow veteran and Army Ranger Brian Hanson’s film “The Black String'' which is a horror film without any ties to the military. The film was produced by Grindstone and has been released on VOD and DVD starring Frankie Muniz from “Malcolm in the Middle'' fame. Just because a writer is a veteran does not mean they are not capable of writing a story completely independent of the military.
Abell (second from the left) and his squad mates training while serving with the 2nd Ranger Battalion on an artic field operation near the Canadian border. Photo courtesy of Tim Abell.
- What would you like to do next in your career?
Abell says, “I would love to be on a network or HBO or Showtime series and get to play a character again for three, four or five years where you just get to develop that character over the long haul.” He wants to delve in and build a character with depth. He also looks forward to working on a series again with great people where they make a show that moves people.
He recalls fan mail from across the world for his role on “Soldier of Fortune” where the show affected people’s lives. Abell has received fan mail that would be up to five pages long about how people were inspired by his character to become a sniper in the military in their country. People created a life based on a character Abell portrayed, which surprised him. Playing evil or hard characters are what most actors are remembered for where it is difficult to develop such characters and find redeeming traits to portray on screen in them.
Abell with MOH recipient SFC Leroy Petry, USA.
- What are you most proud of in life and your career?
Abell is proud of service to the United States to serve as a Ranger and serve with “The Old Guard." He is proud of his children and their successes in life as well. He is grateful for having made men out of his boys and for the example they set today. He is proud of being an American as well. Abell says, “…I have been all over the world and this is the greatest country in the world…that we have so many young men and women that are willing to join the military and sign that blank check for their life… I applaud them all.”