One man’s hero
The Irish News
July 30, 1999
(c) The Irish News

 By Robert McMillen

 It is two years since Tom Berenger did publicity for a film, so Belfast is doubly lucky
 in being able to welcome the Hollywood star. He talks exclusively to Robert McMillen about his
 Irish roots...

 You don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict that there won’t be a dry eye in the Cineplex in
 the Kennedy Centre next Monday as the new Tom  Berenger  movie One Man’s Hero
 gets its world premiere as part of the West Belfast Feile.

 The film tells the poignant story of Los San Patricios (the St. Patrick’s Battalion) a group of Irish
 soldiers who deserted the US army and fought for Mexico against their adopted country in the
 war of 1846/8.Original Movie Poster

 Berenger, star of  The Field, Platoon, and The Big Chill among others, plays John Riley,
 a Galwayman and drillmaster at the famous US Army training college at West Point for 20
 years. Riley and the Irish soldiers under his command suffered intolerable bigotry and inhuman
 abuse from other officers because of their religion and nationality.

 They joined the Mexicans and Riley was wounded by anti-government guerrillas inside Mexico.
 He was nurtured back to health by the beautiful guerrilla fighter Marta, played by singer and
 actress Daniela Romo.

 Riley, his men and the guerrillas end up joining the Mexican forces and fight for a common

 The San Patricios are valiant combatants, fighting under the green flag of Ireland, but are
 eventually defeated by the Americans. In the final heart-wrenching scenes Riley is branded and
 forced to watch his men hang.

 It is true to say that movie people are not exactly beating a path to Belfast for world premieres
 of their films, which makes the visit of Tom Berenger and the director of One Man’s
 Hero Lance Hool even more exciting for a city starved of big profile visitors.

 “We just got invited,” says Tom, speaking from his Maryland home. “We are coming over to do
 the show first of all in Belfast and then we travel to Dublin for a show on August 4.”

 The story of Los San Patricios has been a labour of love for the Chicago-born actor but it has
 had the gestation period of an elephant. Berenger  first heard about the story about
 1986 when he was working in New York City.

 “Another actor I was working with showed me the story and I was intrigued because I hadn’t
 heard the story of the San Praticios before,” recalls  Berenger .

 “I am a bit of a history buff myself, and since then I’ve become a little bit obsessed by the story.

 “The script has been around for well-nigh 20 years. The original screenplay was found by John
 Houston who re-wrote the love story and then Sam Peckinpah rewrote some of the battle
 scenes and for years after, Houston was trying to do it and Peckinpah was trying to do it -
 Houston even asked Charlton Heston and Paul Newman, but I really don’t know why it has
 taken so long to get it on screen.

 “It is a little bit anti-American and so if your are doing it as an American studio picture they tend
 to get a little nervous.”

 Getting funding for the film was a nightmare for film company Silver Lion.

 “Houston couldn’t do it, Peckinpah couldn’t do it - but I’ll tell you something, for three years it
 was the hardest thing that I ever did. It took years of my life.”

 Berenger says that the film does not take many liberties with history to make One
 Man’s Hero.

 “Those, including John Riley, who deserted before the declaration of war and swam across the
 Rio Grande were treated as merely deserters, so those 10 or 11 were whipped and branded
 with a D, the customary punishment for deserting the regular army back then.

 “All the others who were left maybe 80 or 90 out of the original 320 in the Batallion 70 odd
 were hung as traitors.

 “What could be licence is the love story it may or may not have happened but I certainly thought
 this was the kind of historical movie that you could have a love story in.”

 Berenger was born in Chicago in 1950 as Thomas Michael Moore, the son of a
 printer with the Chicago Sun Times who later became a salesman.

 Needless to say there is an Irish connection.

 “My great grandfather came over to Chicago and became what else? a cop, a precinct captain
 in Chicago. My grandmother during the depression, when it was very hard for people to get
 work, got a job in the Chicago police department because her best friend at school was Mayor
 Daly’s wife, and as you know Mayor Daly was the dictator of Chicago for a long, long time.”

 Tom Moore became Tom  Berenger simply because there was another actor and
 producer called Tom Moore who was a member of Equity, and Tom chose the name Berenger  after a school friend.

 While at college Tom excelled at sports and originally wanted to be a sports journalist.
 However, fate in the form of a bet with a school pal, stepped in and completely changed his life.

 “I just had a bet with a room-mate at college where I had to apply for a part in a play and I got

 “It was only a four-character play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf but it lasted for four hours
 and that kind of did it. I said to myself ‘I want to be an actor, I’m not playing football any more’
 but it just started as a bet.”

 It wasn’t undoubtedly the reaction of the audience that caused Berenger’s change of heart.

 “We had a number of standing ovations and on one occasion the audience were so stunned,
 there was no applause at all. Every night was standing-room only and we got no applause. The
 director said “that is the biggest compliment you will ever get.”

 (It happened one other time in a play Tom did with Kevin Spacey.)

 Since his first appearance as Tim Siegel in the TV series One Life to Live, aired in 1975/6
 Berenger  has made 47 films for the cinema and for television, but how does he look back
 on his body of work?

 When he is in Ireland he plans to visit as many places as he can he wants to visit the Glens of
 Antrim and would easily live there if he could.

 With such a high profile actor finally arriving on our doorstep no doubt he’ll be getting a warm

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