Former Marine Sgt. Donald P. Bellisario loves the Marine Corps and cherishes what he learned during his time in service. He has developed and produced some of the greatest tv shows of all time such as Magnum, P.I., JAG, NCIS, Airwolf and Quantum Leap to name a few. He is proud of his military service and wrote many strong and real veteran characters for his shows. The main character of Magnum in Magnum, P.I. was one of the first positive veteran characters in TV up to that point.
He joined the Corps in 1955 and served until 1959. He was raised in a coal mining town which was 20 miles from Pittsburgh. His father owned a tavern, Al’s Place, since his first name was Albert. It was filled with miners that would come off of a shift and all black except where the cap was on. It was a man’s town where women were not allowed in the bar. Bellisario shared, “I only once saw a woman in the bar and she was from out of town. The miners were aware of her presence and took note not to swear in her midst. Swearing in front of a woman at that time was deemed not right.”
His father taught him a strong work ethic and ingrained in him that you don’t take something for nothing, which has stuck with Bellisario all his life. He has one brother that is seven years younger than him that lives in Boston where they are as different as two brothers could be. Honesty was stressed at home. The work ethic was really stressed too, “when you start a job and you finish it.” He started working at a very young age for his father at the tavern including tending bar way underage. He did road construction while growing up and helped build the superhighways around Pittsburgh that were being built at the time. His job was to put burlap sacks over the concrete so it wouldn’t dry out too quick in the sun. He had to come by a week later to pick up the sacks and sweep four lane highways. He also was a brick layer which he believes he inherited from his grandfather who was a stonemason. His grandfather built homes, buildings, wells and sewers.
His mother worked in the bar in the morning. Bellisario’s job was to sweep it up, clean it and prepare the glasses. His father never got in until 5:00 in the morning after closing the bar. He would get up around 4:00 pm and be in the bar until closing at 2:00 am. His father was a generous man where if a person needed money, he would give it to them, knowing that he would likely never get it back. His mother was tight with money. He took after his dad where his brother took after his mom.
He shared, “I was raised in World War II and we had a large bowl in the bar that would collect letters from people that wrote letters to us from the service.” They also kept the photos on the wall of everybody from the town that went into the service. Quite a few went in and the town lost three in the war. Bellisario said, “All the propaganda that comes out during a war I was inundated and loved it.” He had an uncle in the Corps that served in Guadalcanal and was injured on Tarawa, where he came to the bar in his blues after he came back from being wounded. Bellisario just liked the way he looked in his uniform.
It was interesting how he joined the Corps where he spent a year and a half in college. He always had an interest in flying and becoming a Naval Aviator, so he went with some friends to join the Navy and he saw a Marine recruiter first. The Marine recruiter told them they could be Marine Naval Aviators. He signed up for the Corps for four years and left a couple of days later. He went to Parris Island and was designated an infantryman initially where he still remembers his serial number to this day! He applied for Marine Corps Aviation and passed all the exams. The Marines flew him up to Cherry Point for testing as well. He graduated with his platoon and didn’t leave with them where he was to be assigned to Pensacola. He stayed at PI and was put in charge of the platoon of misfits. He had to form them up and march them to chow.
He was assigned to guard a prisoner and to take him to chow by himself. The prisoner had to eat by himself as well. His head DI GySgt West came through the chow hall and saw Bellisario with the prisoner. The DI liked Bellisario and his sing-song cadence. There was another DI with his platoon in the chow hall where he saw Bellisario and started going after him like he was still a recruit. Bellisario doesn’t know why he did, and he informed the DI to stay away from his prisoner. The DI kept coming where Bellisario pulled his M1911 from the holster and put it to the DI’s head. Bellisario shared that the next day they shipped me out and he figures the Corps had given him enough punishment for wanting to be an aviator.
He then went up to Great Lakes to be trained as an aviation technician. He met his wife up there as she was in the Navy. The Marines cordoned her off from the Navy personnel at the school during the breaks and free time. This opened the opportunity for Bellisario to ask her out. He asked her for a date many times and finally got one. He showed up an hour and a half late for the first date. He shared, “She wanted to know why I was late to a date that I had persisted about for so long. I made up some story about being stuck in Chicago where she forgave me.” The first year of their marriage she got pregnant and was discharged from the Navy. He said, “You could not be in the Navy and pregnant at the same time during that era.” His first duty station was in San Diego after the schoolhouse.
He did two and a half years of living in Mojave California at Marine Corp Base Twentynine Palms in a Quonset hut. He painted the hut dark green and got sidewinder missile boxes, broke them down and made a white picket fence out of them. He put down grass outside of the hut where he said, “you could watch it grow, literally.” Bellisario elaborated, “People wondered why I was putting so much time into where he would have to move it would go to someone else.” He told them, “I am living here now, and am going to make it as comfortable as I can.” He put a new floor down of Masonite for his children that were crawling around. Marines lined up for his Quonset hut when he shipped out.
While at MACS-9 he had to go over to another unit to pick up a part in the supply office. A junior Marine was sitting on the floor cross legged and reading Pravda. He said, “This was in the late 50’s and you didn’t read Pravada.” The young Marine started spouting off to Bellisario about the Russians, and Communism which angered Bellisario. It got to the point that they were going to fight where one of the Marines in the Marine’s unit grabbed Bellisario before he hit him. The Marine that grabbed him told Bellisario told him, “Leave him alone, he is harmless.” Bellisario said, “I will never forget that.”
When President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Bellisario was at Penn State University when he saw a picture of former Marine Private Lee Harvey Oswald on the TV he said, “My God, I know that man.” Bellisario’s wife said, “You don’t know him, you just think you do.” He argued back and believed he did know Oswald. It came to him later that Oswald was the same man that he got in an argument within the Marine Corps in that supply office. He said, “Oswald was totally spouting propaganda, and no one did anything about it.”
He is most proud of his service in the Corps, just being a Marine and he loves the camaraderie of the Marine Corps. Bellisario loves the inclusion of a small group where the Marine Corps is better than the Army. He said,
“I am proud to be a Marine even though I have a love/hate relationship with the Corps. Once I got married, I couldn’t go through flight school in Pensacola. At that time, you couldn’t be married and go to flight school unless you were commissioned. Once I was in college, I had a Naval Aviator show up at my door and ask me if I wanted to go to Pensacola with me.” Bellisario responded with, “What’s the difference between me now and five years ago, see those two little kids crawling on the floor. That is the difference and I can’t go now because I have two little babies. Going to Pensacola as a cadet at the time would have been tough and take a pay cut from where I was working so it wasn’t a good idea.”
He got his pilot’s license himself in single engine planes and helicopters. He flew the helicopter in Magnum, P.I. sometimes for the filming of the show. The Air Officer, former Marine Captain J. David Jones, on Magnum, P.I. was a former Marine Corps helicopter pilot that was stationed in Marine Corps Air Station Tustin at the same time Bellisario was, but they never met. Jones taught Bellisario how to do everything with a helicopter. He said, “We did things that were not in the book.” Jones was a great guy and was patient as an instructor. On the show they flew Hughes 500s and a Bell 206 helicopter.
“Magnum, P.I. is his favorite project he has done in Hollywood. It was his first time creating a show and working with Tom Selleck is great. They got along really well. It was his chance to run the show. The Corps set me up for success where nothing bothered me, I wasn’t afraid to do anything. I took charge when I needed to.” In year two of Magnum, P.I., his federal and state income taxes exceeded his lifetime earnings up to Magnum. He said, “I used to think that a loud voice coming from above would tell me they made a mistake and it wasn’t supposed to be me.”
He wanted to make a film while he was making commercials where he shared, “I wanted to make something that lasted longer than 28 seconds.” Bellisario turned 40 and decided it was time to take the leap. He was at a Raoul Walsh retrospective in Dallas where they were screening a famous film. Virginia Mayo was in attendance with fellow Hollywood stars. He was in a group of six guys and was drinking beer. In walks Jack Nicholson and he has a beer with Bellisario and his friends. Bellisario told Nicholson that he wanted to make films. At the time he was living in Dallas, TX where Nicholson said, “If you want to make films you can’t do it from here, you have to come to Hollywood.” Bellisario’s wife at the time heard Nicholson’s discussion and yelled a profane comment at Jack over the crowd. Nicholson responded with surprise and questioned why he was being cursed at. Bellisario’s wife did not want to take the family with four children to the Hollywood “drug culture.”
A year later he went to Hollywood without his wife and family. He said, “I didn’t have anything but the ability to direct commercials, which most were done for free and were Public Service Announcements.” He decided he had to do something where he wrote a screenplay and he had copies of it on his desk in his office. A casting director came into his office and wanted to read it. He let her read it and she gave it to her husband who was a B director at Universal Studios. Her husband wanted Bellisario to shoot some film with him and write something. He also wanted to introduce Bellisario to his agent, which is serendipitous because getting an agent is so hard and to get that first gig you need an agent. Bellisario said the director introduced him to the agent and the agent said, “I liked your script and you are a good writer.” He asked the agent how long it takes to sell a script. The agent said, “You’ll sell a script within a year.” Bellisario had enough money to last six weeks. The agent said the fateful words, “Have you ever thought of writing for television?” Bellisario said no - - “It had never occurred to me to write for television.”
The script was sent to Stephen J. Cannell at Universal where Cannell called him in for a meeting. Bellisario spent about 30 minutes in the waiting room and when he walked in Cannell did a double take because of his age. Cannell said, “I can make this script and will make this script right now without any changes.” Cannell dropped the script on the desk and asked Bellisario if he wanted a job as a story editor. Bellisario asked, “What does a story editor do?” Cannell said, “A story editor turns out scripts.” Bellisario agreed and he got a job as a story editor for Cannell. That started the whole thing for Bellisario’s career. Bellisario is a self-taught writer where most of it comes from writing advertising commercials. He had to write something that entertained the public and sold a product in 28 seconds. Learning to write short and crisply where only what is necessary is carried over to the script. He wrote the screenplay the same way without anything extraneous in it.
Throughout his career Bellisario enjoyed working with all of his leads in the series. He said, “Some were nicer than others, all of them were okay.” Thankfully he didn’t end up with anyone who gave him any problems. Bellisario comments, “Catherine Bell was very nice to work with.” One actor, Jan Michael Vincent, the lead of Airwolf was having alcohol problems on set. Bellisario talked to him one day where he said, “Jan, why are you doing what you are doing? Why don’t you straighten up and work on the show, this is your chance to be a hit again?” Vincent responded with, “Bellisario, I am a drunk, I have always been a drunk and I only want to be a drunk.” Bellisario refers to it as a sad moment for him and for Vincent. Bellisario credits actor and star Ernest Borgnine with keeping Airwolf professional and helping the show get done.
The values Bellisario had when he went into the Marine Corps were strong and he said, “The Corps just reinforced them.” The values were devotion to duty, do a job the whole way through without much delegation, he shared, “Parris Island wasn’t a chore for me where it was something I had prepared my whole life for.” He was made Platoon Guide at boot camp and was the Honor Man for the platoon. He had a great DI, GySgt. West, and when he was kept at PI after graduation, GySgt. West and he would go out fishing together. He shared, “Not too many Marines get invited by their DIs out fishing.”
The best leadership lesson Bellisario shared is to finish the job you start and take charge when needed. You must go above and beyond what you must do, which is what he learned in the Corps. He encourages Marines that work in Hollywood to write more and about their time in the Corps. You need an accurate portrayal where those who have never served in the Corps don’t write the best Marine scripts because they lack the experience.
Bellisario shared, “I am most proud of Quantum Leap in his career and it is the most creative show I have done.” He stated that, “I loved making it and considered it the best show I created where Quantum Leap was a different movie every week.” He said, “It made it challenging and made it interesting.” Bellisario did a two-part episode of Quantum Leap focused on Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy Assassination where it is worth re-watching the episode.
It is a time travel show and when he pitched it to Branden Tartikoff, Tartikoff responded with, “I don’t get it.” Bellisario said, “Branden, your mother would get the show.” Tartikoff replied, “Yeah, but I don’t get it.” Bellisario replied, “Yeah, but your mother gets it Branden.” Tartikoff retorted, “Get out of here and go make it. You’ve got a pilot.” Bellisario always gets a kick out of a Marine Corps sergeant telling the head of a studio what to do.
He does know how to sell and uses his advertising skills even in Hollywood. His children work in the industry where some worked for him on his shows. He held them to a higher standard where his kids worked extremely hard so that no one thought they got the job just because of their father.
Bellisario and his family are grieving the loss of one of his sons, David Bellisario, who recently passed away. David had worked on a lot of his father’s shows where Bellisario is, “Extremely proud of him and the work he did.” Bellisario described him as, “A good man and he was disciplined.”