Bob Gunton is a prolific stage actor known for his roles in Evita and Sweeney Todd on Broadway, but perhaps his most well-known film role is as Warden Norton in The Shawshank Redemption. Gunton served with distinction in the Vietnam War in the last great multi-unit battle of the conflict, The Siege of Firebase Ripcord. We Are The Mighty sat down with Gunton to talk about growing up, his Army service and his incredible career.
This is Bob Gunton's story.
WATM: Tell me about your family and your life growing up?
My mom and dad met at a USO dance on Santa Monica pier, and within two weeks, they were married. I am the oldest of six children: three boys and three girls. My parents were from the coal country; my father being from Pennsylvania (Anthracite-hard coal) and my mother being from the coal country of Montana (Bituminous-soft coal), so I have the hard and soft coal running through my blood.
I had been influenced by many folk singers in high school, where I was affected by the ethos of folk music through such acts as The Kingston Trio, The Limeliters, The Brothers Four, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. I put together a trio called The Deacons. We went to coffee houses to perform, like the Mon Ami in Orange, CA. Around the same time as we performed at Mon Ami, Steve Martin was on the marquee as well since he grew up in Orange County.
I went to the seminary of Paulist Fathers -- St. Peter's College in Baltimore, Maryland, for a few years from 1963 to 1966. I started out as a supporter of the Vietnam War in 1963. I'd even made a speech at my high school for a Toastmasters Speech Contest about the "domino theory," but then, my views changed rather dramatically after the seminary. My opinion shifted, especially after Senator Eugene McCarthy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy moved away from the Democratic party line supporting the Vietnam War.
A friend and fellow seminarian classmate arranged for me to audition for his father, Paul Crabtree, who was a successful Broadway actor, writer and director. He'd written a musical called TENNESSEE, USA! for the new theatre he had founded, The Cumberland County Playhouse, in Crossville, Tennessee. It was going to run during the summer between seminary and Novitiate. I had done a couple of operettas in high school. After that wonderful summer, I recognized that I was gifted far more in music, acting and performing than in what was required to be a good priest. I left the seminary and had gone to UC Irvine to study theater when I dropped out for a semester to do Carousel in Tennessee. I knew I was chancing being drafted. And when I returned to California, I was.
When I was called up, I had to spend some time thinking if I was a Conscientious Objector (CO). My father had been in the Marine Corps during WWII in the Pacific and I had grown up steeped in WWII history. My father's six brothers were all WWII veterans as well. By that time, I was opposed to The Vietnam War. I probably could have gotten a CO because of my divinity school experience. But although I was opposed to the Vietnam War, I was not opposed then to a just war in general. I didn't feel I had the right to be a CO because of my political beliefs. I also had to ask myself if I could measure up to my father as he was a supporter of the war. My father and I had lots of very agitated and loud arguments about the War.
When I came home from Vietnam, I discovered that my father had grown long hair, sideburns and had himself come to oppose the war. My willingness to go fight may have affected him in some way. While I was in 'Nam I had been given the Bronze Star with a V (for Valor.) Our local paper had run a story on it. Many years later, when my father passed, as the eldest son, I had to clean out his belongings. In his wallet, I found a folded-up piece of plastic-covered newspaper clipping about my Bronze Star award. He had carried it in his wallet for many years. All of this brought us much closer together than in the first 20 years of my life. I had earned his respect and we could speak to each other as not just father and son, but as survivors of conflict.
WATM: What is the most distinct memory of your mother and your father?
Hmm…It's a memory shared with me after Dad had died. While he was alive my father's Marine Corps buddy, Robert Newtbaar, had borrowed my father's dress blues and wanted to return them. When I came to pick them up, he told me a story about my father. When my father and he were on a troop ship heading to Hawaii, then on to the South Pacific, Newtbaar had become very depressed and anxious about what might happen to him. He decided he was going to jump overboard. Newtbaar made a move and was on his way over the rail, when my father dashed over and pulled him back onto ship amid a volley of curses. Newtbaar said very tearfully that my father had saved his life.
After they got back and were mustered out of the Corps, Newtbaar, who was from a fairly wealthy family, came to my father with a check. He loved to hear my father sing, especially Frankie Lane's hit songs. like "Georgia," "Jezebel" and "The Flying Dutchman." Newtbaar told my father he had the most beautiful voice he had ever heard. He wanted my father to go to Hollywood and be a singer.
However, my father already had a wife and two kids and was working in a grocery store. He was in no position to give up his responsibilities for his family in order to pursue a singing career. He'd actually had to rejoin the USMC at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro just to find housing for our family. A few years later Dad suffered an injury in a grocery store in Santa Monica which resulted in a case of amnesia. He eventually recovered from his injury; however, he lost a lot of memories of WWII and the early post-war period. We had some pictures from his time in the service. I also learned from his friends some of what my father had experienced. It was touching for Newtbaar to share these stories with me and they impacted my life.
Occasionally, in the summer, my family would drive up to Montana to visit my grandmother and uncle on my mother's side. Part of the journey up there was along a stretch of highway which was called the Grapevine which is now the I-5, full of steep switchbacks and rapid changes of elevation. My father was agoraphobic which I learned through my childhood. As an adult, I took my parents NYC and then to Windows on the World, which was a restaurant overlooking the city in the North Tower of the World Trade Center on floors 106 and 107. My father stood at the back of the elevator once the doors opened to the restaurant, saw the tip-tops of skyscrapers. He barely was able to inch his way around with his back against the center walls. It was the most vulnerable I had ever seen him.
The WTC memory makes me flash back to those trips to Montana where my father would look out the window over the rocks and chasms below. After looking, he would get anxious and sweaty. My mother would reach out and touch his shoulder. She'd start singing "Whispering Hope", which is a gospel song, but also popular at the time. As she began singing, my father would join in. All of a sudden, we kids in the back seat, comforted by the sound of their soothing harmony. For us, their duet signified their love for us and their shared history together.
WATM: What values were stressed at home?
Our Catholic Faith; our blue-collar status; my parents' Depression-Era values, sense of responsibility. All of us had to pitch in. My father was self-taught and a great reader but was educated only through the seventh grade. My mother had been a schoolteacher in a one-room schoolhouse in Montana. There was a strong expectation that all of us would work hard in school and be a good person. Basic, decent 1950s values.
WATM: What influenced you to join the US Army? What was your experience and what lessons did you take away from your service?
I was drafted. Basic and Advanced Infantry training were tough physically in many ways since I was not particularly athletic. I was appointed cadence caller for our early morning five-mile runs, probably because of my loud voice. One of my cadence calls was, "…we are the mighty, mighty mighty Charlie, everywhere we go people want to know who we are, so we tell them, we are Charlie, mighty mighty Charlie…" Classic. Although I sometimes ad-libbed a couple, including: "If you got a half a buck...Call someone who gives a (bleep.)" I was sent to Nam near the end of the war during Vietnamization and was put into an S-1 shop for the 101st Airborne in Bien Hoa. What a relief! My thoughts were of a dry hooch, spit-shined boots, pressed combat fatigues, and weekends in Saigon. I lasted at the S-1 just one week. Because American grunts were being phased out of the war, the Division Commander wanted all soldiers with a combat MOS to be sent out into the field to get the ARVN up to speed. I was an 11B-20 --infantry, boonie rat, ground pounder -- so off I went to "the bush."
I was sent up to I Corps in Quang Tri province. I reported to the 2nd of the 501st Battalion Headquarters and then to their Charlie Company, Third Platoon. The platoon leader, SGT Yonashiru, took a look at me, being six feet tall and husky, and the PL asked, "Who's the (effing) cherry?" He scoped me out. Given my height and apparent strength, he ordered me to take the "gun" or the "radio." The "gun" was the .50 caliber machine gun. I chose the radio, which seemed kind of "show business" to me. Apparently, some of the grunts initially thought I might be a Criminal Investigation Division (CID) narc because I showed up by myself to the unit with spit-shined boots and crisp fatigues. I was also a few years older than the rest of the platoon. I was warned by a fellow soldier about being viewed as a narc and warned me about "fragging." Fragging was when someone rolls a grenade under another soldier's hooch to get rid of a "problem." For the first time in Vietnam, I was really scared.
I went into the company area and went up to a soul brother and asked for a doobie. I'd never smoked grass in my life. He handed me a joint. I stood there in the company area and toked up so anyone watching would see. I then went back to my hooch and passed out for like twelve hours. From then on, I was one of the guys and no longer a target of fragging. I was now "in" in the outfit.
They made me the platoon, eventually company, and then battalion Radio Telephone Operator (RTO). Near the end of my year there in July 1970, our battalion was Op-Con to the 3rd Brigade of the 101st. They were seeking to take over a hilltop above the A Shau Valley where the US had been driven out a few years earlier during the "Hamburger Hill" period. Fire Support Base Ripcord was going to be emplaced during this two-brigade assault operation. At this time, I was just given the battalion RTO job and would be with the battalion CO, XO and the like on Ripcord itself. At the same time, my guys with Charlie company 2nd of the 501st were going to assault the area around FSB Ripcord with fellow companies of the 3rd Brigade. Bn Intel determined that thousands of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) were going to assault the FSB. A day or two after the Brigade-sized assault on the AO, my former unit was caught in a command-detonated ambush followed by an early morning assault by the NVA. All during this time I had been talking on the radio to my guys, handling supply and normal stuff.
One of my best friends there was fellow soldier Joe Patterson, a funny guy and great audience for my shenanigans. The night before they were hit, we were talking on the Delta One radio, which was scrambled so the enemy could not intercept our transmissions. He told me, "Gunton, I have a really bad feeling about this one." There had been no contact yet, but he still felt bad about the operation. Sure enough, when the unit was hit, Joey was gravely wounded. I called in the MEDEVAC for him and for our company commander. We had one KIA from Charlie's Headquarters Company where this soldier had to go out to replace someone's weapon and had to stay overnight and was killed during the assault. It was a terribly fraught and frightening time.
There were many major encounters around Ripcord which turned out to be the biggest, final, multi-unit battle in Vietnam. There have been books and films about it. We went on like that for about a week or longer. In the Tactical Operations Center (TOC), we had three RTOs. The intel suggested that the firebase itself would soon be under attack. At one point the NVA got really lucky when they shot down a Chinook over the ammo dump as it was unloading ammo. All of the crew survived the crash, but the entire ammo dump started cooking off: phosphorus, artillery, HE and CS rounds. All of that CS gas started infiltrating into the bunkers where none of us had gas masks, so we had to take our t-shirts and wet them to put over our faces so as not to be forced out of our bunkers.
At one point, I had to urinate really badly. With the rounds cooking off and NVA mortars coming in, I wasn't about to saunter outside to one of the "Piss tubes." The bunkers were well-constructed and had screen doors. I got to the door and decided I would open the door, step out halfway or so and then take a whiz. I was just about to finish when I heard, "TROOP!" right behind me. It was the brigade commander whose call sign was Black Spade. I stood to attention and zipped up. Other soldiers were in that part of the bunker when the brigade commander told me with cold anger: "If you have to go take a piss, go find a piss tube. We are NOT animals in here." It was a very embarrassing moment. I felt lower than snake shit. A few days later the brigade commander was evaluating positions outside when a mortar round landed directly on him. He and a fellow officer were killed immediately. The terrible irony of that sequence of events rocked me for awhile.
Companies then started being extracted from around Ripcord and then it was our HQ's time to leave. We knew Ripcord was going to be abandoned, and the Army would blow up what they could, then carpet bomb it with B-52 strikes. We got back to LZ Sally and all of us in HQ company got called together. A member of the battalion staff informed us about how two Delta One radios had been left behind in our TOC on Ripcord. The NVA could potentially use those radios against us. They needed two "volunteers" to go back and get them, which really meant the two who were least "short" would go. I was pretty damn short -- but not short enough. I went with another younger RTO on a slick (Huey helicopter) to head back up there. On the way out, one of the pilots turned around in the chopper and made a hand-dunking motion. Ripcord was taking incoming fire. We had to jump off the helicopter at about five or six feet off the ground as he was not going to land because of the incoming.
We found a hole to jump in and then found the Delta One radios. There were a lot of wounded soldiers that needed to be taken off the fire base before anyone else could go. We knew that no one could return to base until all the wounded had been evacuated. So me and the other RTO jumped in and helped load the wounded onto slicks while the mortars and rockets continued falling. Just before the sun set over Laos, we were able to get on a chopper to head back. I don't think any of that involved any kind of valor, much less heroism, but the battalion commander put us in for Bronze Stars, particularly for the MEDEVAC loading.
The questions of what is cowardice, what is heroism, what is self-preservation have been with me all my life. I've even used them in my acting. Everything is shades of gray, especially when it comes to combat and moral decisions that we make. Was I wrong not to go the piss tube with the self-preservation involved and the death of Black Spade as he followed his own advice and left the 3rd Brigade without leadership for a while? These experiences have definitely shaped my moral view of the universe. I have to accept that even the worst situations, the best remedies are going to be mixed. How we are trained, our wisdom, and our education play their parts in our decisions and choices. But we are human, have mixed emotion and inner conflicts. I have applied these in my life successfully and unsuccessfully.
MEDEVACs are miles ahead of what we had in Vietnam. There was an instance where a soldier from our recon platoon left the wire at night to take a crap. One of his buddies mistakenly set off a claymore on him and killed him. When the chopper came in to evac the body, there were huge winds in the AO and they could not get a jungle penetrator through the triple canopy jungle to get the body out, so they threw the soldiers a body bag. The soldiers then had to hump the corpse out for three or four days to get to a place where the chopper could get in.
I helped prevent a mutiny earlier that year where a loach (OH-6 Cayuse helicopter) had been shot down. I was a company RTO then. Our company was tasked to go down into this valley area to find the chopper to see if the pilot had survived. Our company commander was against the war and did all he could to stay out of it. He was one of the only officers I had met like that. The company commander wouldn't lead down and the battalion commander, call sign Driver, had to fly out. The company commander was ordered to go down after being chewed out by the battalion CO and I told him, "We got a lawful order to go down and we needed to go, otherwise, this is bad stuff." We did end up following orders to go down where we found the loach with the pilot dead. The pilot's body was able to be sent back to Graves and Registration for eventual burial. I was against the war but found myself on the other side of the argument with the company commander. It was gray even then and was not cut and dried. Our mission was, for most of us, to save each other and make sure our buddies got back.
Charlie Company had its 50th reunion, almost 50 years to the day many were injured, including Joey Patterson at the FSB Ripcord battle. Due to Covid-19 I was not able to fly out to Pennsylvania. However, I did do a Zoom call and got to see them all and meet their wives. Joey and I caught up as well. It was a great virtual reunion due to the pandemic. Keeping the threads of your life together along the way can give you a better sense of where you are from and going.
WATM: What values have you carried over from the Army into acting and film?
When filming a movie, you are all in it together, and everyone has their own duty. The expectation is that everyone knows exactly what they have to do and to do it as quickly and gracefully as they can. It includes keeping spirits up when waiting out a rainstorm to restart filming, and when moving locations and loading up the trucks, it is like heading to another combat assault. So, I must have my shit together and know my lines cold. There is a lot that carries over from being in the military to working on a film production. You depend on each other and don't want a weak link, and sure as hell, you don't want to be that weak link.
WATM: What is the most fulfilling stage and/or film role you have done?
Warden Norton from The Shawshank Redemption, without a doubt, is the best role I have ever had. It is the best movie I have ever been in. I have been back to many reunions and celebrations at the prison. People go to visit the prison and stay overnight. They even have a Shawshank trail where people get to see all the outside filming locations and then take a tour of the prison, which has artifacts from the movie. I have been to every continent except Antarctica and everywhere I go, people come up to me to speak about The Shawshank Redemption. People come up to me in Europe, South America, and Australia. To be a part of a movie that is such high quality and well-known across the board is truly a blessing.
I was invited to Akron for a special day celebrating Shawshank Redemption and by the local AA Akron baseball team, the Rubber Ducks, to throw out the first pitch. They also ordered a thousand bobblehead Warden Nortons. The first thousand people to come in would get one and I would sign them. I have one for myself and have given a few away, too.
*He shares some of the best quotes people request when he signs autographs from the film are, "Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me," "Lord, it's a miracle! The man up and vanished like a fart in the wind," and "…or am I being obtuse."
WATM: What was your experience like in working with such theatrical talents as Hal Prince, Patti LuPone, Theodore Mann, Susan H. Schulman, Beth Fowler and then with such film talents such as Oliver Stone, Tim Robbins, Frank Darabont, Clint Eastwood, Sly Stallone, Sandra Bullock and the like?
Hal Prince was a key person in my career and I am grateful to him. Oliver Stone was interesting and challenging -- a brilliant man. I enjoyed working with Robin Williams, perhaps more than anyone else. Jim Carrey is a deep thinker as well as being very charming, well-read and generous. Jim was extremely funny. I have liked most everyone I have worked with.
I got to play a chaplain in a film with Stacey Keach named Mission of the Shark: The Saga of the USS Indianapolis. I enjoy playing priests and military personnel because I feel I can put a little spin on the ball and make them more interesting and factual. My chaplain character got eaten by a shark. I had to do some tricky timing with holding my breath for the scenes of being eaten by the shark. Two divers were holding my feet and they start shaking me and then pull me down really fast. If my timing wasn't spot on in taking in breath, then having to hold it while they release a blood bag, to show his guy is really gone, it can be problematic. It was tricky to film, but nothing like the crew from the Indianapolis, though. Floating on a funky, tiny life-raft, off the coast of the Bahamas, with Stacy Keach and I laughing our butts off, was not a hardship assignment.
Working with Clint Eastwood was good. He has a fantastic crew. He was a gentleman and one of the quietest directors I have ever worked for. He got that from doing so many Westerns where a director would yell "action," and people would get thrown off their horse when it bolted from the shouting. Instead of "action," Clint would just quietly say, "Go ahead."
I have maintained close ties with the Paulist Fathers and even done work for Paulist Productions as well. In the film Judas, shot in Morocco in 2004, on a huge set representing The Temple in Jerusalem, I played the High Priest Caiphas. Hotter than blazes in very authentic robes, etc. But I really enjoyed it.
WATM: What leadership lessons in life and from the Army have helped you most in your career?
After my service I went to NY, hoping for a career in theater. Many of my peers had gone to Yale or Julliard or Northwestern, and other great schools. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. It wasn't about their not serving in the war, it was because I felt they had a two or three-year head start on their careers. Establishing a career in theater means doing low-paying jobs, children's theater and dinner theater, etc., out in the boondocks. Then, if you are fortunate, you work your way up to Broadway. These guys had already networked with people from their professional schools and had jumped ahead of me. I felt I had missed out on that networking.
While on Broadway, after finishing "Evita," my agent told me about a play I should look at doing off-off Broadway, with no pay. Having just come from a big Broadway musical hit it didn't sound that appetizing it was entitled, "How I Got That Story." It was about Vietnam. There were only two actors. One of the roles was a journalist and the other role was every person in Vietnam that the journalist runs into while trying to get the story of why we were in Vietnam and what it all meant. Twenty two different characters! Because I had been there and seen and heard and lived with a wide range of people, both genders and three races, I knew who these people were, how they spoke, walked and behaved. The roster of characters included: a Madame Nhu character, a nun, a crazy photographer, a Viet Cong officer and, most surprisingly, a 16-year-old Vietnamese bar girl. The man who wrote this play had served as a CO medic in Vietnam. I told my agent: "I don't care if I don't get paid, I have to do this."
We performed in a tiny rooftop theater behind the building where John Lennon had been killed. The play got excellent reviews and was covered by many journalists who'd gotten their start serving in Vietnam as reporters. It got a lot of ink in all the newspapers, especially in the New York Times. We eventually transferred to an actual Off-Broadway theater in the theater district and we ran for nine months or so. The main thing is everyone in town saw that show, including casting directors, fellow actors, and movie directors like Alan Pakula (To Kill a Mockingbird, All the President's Men, Sophie's Choice). Alan came backstage after a performance. He said he wanted me to play an Arab in the film Rollover. He asked to meet a couple of days later and we talked mostly about Vietnam and the movie. I never auditioned. I knew he was going to have me do it and he did! It was the largest salary I had ever had for acting up to that point and opened myriad doors for me.
"How I Got That Story" really kicked off my career as a dramatic actor and not just a song and dance guy. At the opening night party we had, among others, the founders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Also, Ed Murphy, my seminarian buddy, who had served in Vietnam as well, came. This entire chapter was like karma where nothing is ever wasted; there is always something that even terrible experiences can feed your soul or change your life. In a good way. If, of course, you survive it.
Vietnam was tough, sad and frightening, although we also often laughed our asses off with our morbid humor in part to expel our anxiety. Vietnam served an important role in my character development as well as my work in theater and in films.
WATM: As a veteran, how do we get more veteran stories told in the Hollywood and stage arena?
We need to encourage veterans who have a story to tell them. We have had some good recent movies like American Sniper and The Hurt Locker. Most people who don't have military experience hear our stories, find them exotic and dramatic. It is life and death with a cast of interesting characters. As an Army draftee, I saw the full spectrum of humanity, which makes for a lot of interesting stories.
WATM: What are you most proud of in life and your career?
Being a father to my daughter, Olivia. And happily married to a former high school classmate, Carey. Career-wise Shawshank and "Sweeney Todd", which is the toughest stage role I had ever attempted and was well received. It felt like climbing Mount Everest to do it. It was my "swan song" to Broadway and am glad to have gone out on top. I am proud of my friendships from the seminary, Vietnam, theater and fellow film actors. I am also proud to have made it to this age and to still be working.
This incredible feature was originally published on WATM September 15, 2020.