The Lie That Got Laurence Fishburne His Role In Apocalypse Now

"Apocalypse Now" is widely considered to be one of the definitive war movies, and for a lot of good reasons. Not only is it a disturbing look at the physical horrors of the Vietnam War, but the mental ones as well. After all, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) didn't just suddenly become the cultish military leader he is out of the blue. This is a film that shows how the U.S. military was thrown, ill-prepared, into a war they didn't belong in, resulting in the deaths of thousands of soldiers and the emotional scarring of many more. This is not even taking into account the trauma left on Vietnamese civilians, who dealt with the brunt of the warfare — hundreds of thousands of lives were lost.

Among those thrust into the war were young men, since the minimum age for enlistment was only 17 years old, although many recruits were actually younger. If "Apocalypse Now" serves as a portrait of the American military during the Vietnam War, then the character of Tyrone "Mr. Clean" Miller (Laurence Fishburne) represents the naive young men who went to great lengths to fight in a war largely considered meaningless. In a strange way, Fishburne's story of getting cast in the movie is not that dissimilar to these young men, which brings their stories into a much more terrifying perspective.

A bizarre sight

In a 2013 interview on "George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight," Fishburne explained that he had auditioned for the role of Mr. Clean claiming to be 16 years old, a year younger than the character's age. However, there was just one problem with this — he was actually just 14 years old.

"I think they knew," he joked. "I don't think I was fooling anybody, you know?"

He especially wasn't fooling producer Fred Roos, who Fishburne says knew him from a project he did when he was younger. Needless to say, the casting team wasn't entirely sure if he looked as old as he claimed to be, so they needed an extra set of eyes. It was this outsider's opinion that ended up changing Fishburne's entire life.

"A young woman who was working in the offices, a secretary, got up and walked through," he said, "and as she was walking, Francis [Ford Coppola, the director of "Apocalypse Now"] finally spoke up and he just looked at her and said, 'excuse me, you think this kid could be 18? And whoever this young woman was, she turned around, looked at me, and went, 'yeah.'"

With the validation of an unaffiliated third party, Fishburne got the part. Although he was 14 when shooting began, he was 18 years old by the time the movie was finally released in theaters.

The horrific real-world parallels

Of course, Fishburne was able to get away with his casting because, at the end of the day, it was just a movie. A movie that would become a nightmare to make, but a critically acclaimed one nonetheless. The same cannot be said for the young men who lied about their age in order to serve their country in the Vietnam War. It's currently unclear just how many teenagers did this during the war, which makes the casualties and trauma even more tragic.

One tragic example is that of Dan Bullock, a U.S. Marine that was killed in combat at only 15 years old. He was enlisted because he had lied about his age, pretending to be 18. The New York Times reported in 2019 that he had been one of four Marines killed at the An Hòa Combat Base in June 1969, one of nearly 60,000 American deaths in the war.

It is stories like Bullock's that make the character of Mr. Clean, as well as the story behind Fishburne's casting, so poignant. Although the young actor in a movie about the Vietnam War would eventually go on to have a lengthy career, the young kids that died in the actual war didn't. Don't be surprised if this hangs over you the next time you watch "Apocalypse Now."