Chapter 6: The Chopper Scene & John's Cameo

One afternoon upcountry, Robert De Niro (Michael), who keeping in character normally remained aloof, approached me for a smoke. He had a few days between shots and he could relax. Robert, Barry and I were drinking beer on the balcony after lunch at the River Kwai Resort where the VIPs lodged, when butterfly came and landed on my hand and stayed there as we talked and shared a joint or two. Barry has a photo somewhere.

Incidentally, I found out years later that I knew his mother Virginia in NYC, though I didn’t know she was his mother at the time.

  Chris Walken, who played Nick, generally remained out of sight in his trailer, or hotel room, when he was not occupied on set – thus keeping in character and maintaining his pallor; with heroin it was rumored.

 A most dramatic moment during filming was when the three main characters came within a flicker of dying. They insisted on performing the helicopter rescue scene without stunt doubles. As the helicopter hovered over the suspension bridge during the pickup, one of the Huey’s skids got snagged in the cables and the chopper started to tip in my direction downstream. I believe everyone on set stopped breathing for several intense seconds until the pilot’s fine-tuned skills and steady nerve saved the day. Barry had opted to stand in for de Niro's stunt double, as Cimino had not paid anyone in months. As it happened, he did not have to, and survived an nasty experience.

Mike Cimino brought Noi, a go-go dancer from Patpong with him when we shot upcountry. She was a friend of mine, the girlfriend of an American poet named Peter, a lady friend of Barry’s and fond of smoking heroin, as was quite common at that time. The famous director’s short-time paramour appears in the Mississippi Queen bar scene. She is the tight-bellied dancer in the pink bikini.

The Mississippi, and Charlie's Superstar across the street, were regular haunts for western weed-exporters to convene. In the books, “Mr. Nice” and “Reefer Men”, the Superstar is frequently mentioned.

I preferred the music and atmosphere in the Mississippi. It was owned by Australian, Tony Douglas, who was at the time, serving a lengthy sentence in Oz for the importation of large quantities of ganja. His Thai wife, Daeng, was the owner/manager.

Previously I mentioned that Cimino cut off the drinking water for the extras during the refugee exodus scene, after Michael pulls Stevie, from the river, with his legs shattered. My main duty that day was getting the column in position, giving the signal to start and moving it back when I heard "Cut!"; which was about 10 times, in the 40-degree Centigrade heat. 

 On one of the later takes, I gave the move out signal to the bus leading the column, nothing happened. The passengers had long since bailed out, as it was at least 50 degrees inside. Frantically I signaled again. Then I saw the driver had also abandoned ship. The cameras were rolling, Cimino was screaming over the walkie-talkie, "What the fuck is going on?!! He shouted, Get this the fucking bus moving, immediately!!"

 I'd never driven a bus before, but I jumped in and to my relief saw the keys were still in the ignition, so I started it up and put it in first gear. The column began to move. If you look closely at the refugee scene, you will see the bus, orange and white with Saigon-Danang written on the side, spliced into the middle of this mass of weary Asians on foot.

 If you look very closely you will see there is no one on the bus, except the driver, a white guy in a short-sleeve blue oxford shirt. I still can't figure out why they used that take. I had forgotten about it, my cameo role.