A &E's "Ike: Countdown to D-Day," which airs on Monday at 8 p.m., is a profile of one man and a slice of history, a dramatization that ends just as Operation Overlord begins on June 6, 1944.
To Tom Selleck, who is in virtually every scene as Dwight D. Eisenhower, the role is an opportunity to find the spirit of the man who commanded the Allied troops and planned the D-Day landing at Normandy, France. Eisenhower was, Selleck came to believe, essentially a farm boy from Kansas, an ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances.
For co-producer Lionel Chetwynd, who wrote the script for the two-hour production, "Ike" is "a piece of the story that stands for the whole. What it set out to do was to capture a side of Eisenhower, to find a small aperture that would reveal the entire condition of this person."
Chetwynd takes credit for choosing Selleck, a long-time friend with whom he had never worked. "There are other actors who may have looked more like Eisenhower, but I knew immediately that Tom Selleck was the guy to do this," he said. "He has that inner confidence and the responsibility that comes with that, which is rare in our industry. Eisenhower was not a self-absorbed man -- that was one of his strengths -- and I knew no one who could do a better job than Tom Selleck. This is the most genuine, decent man I know."
Selleck said he never expected to play the general who later became a U.S. president. Long after CBS's Hawaii-based series "Magnum, P.I." had made the actor a household name, Selleck was focusing on that most American of all film genres: Westerns.
But when he read Chetwynd's script, he was impressed. The movie reveals Eisenhower's diplomatic and managerial skills and the pressures that weighed heavily as the leader made decisions that would culminate in Operation Overlord, the largest military operation of World War II.
To play Eisenhower, Selleck -- at 59, several years older than Ike was in 1944 -- shunned an actor's prosthetics and instead shaved off his trademark mustache and curly dark hair to get Ike's steeply receding hairline. "His hair was light brown with gray on the side -- I bleached mine," Selleck said.
He also read Stephen E. Ambrose's "Supreme Commander" ("I stopped just before D-Day until after we'd finished the movie," he said); "At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends," by Ike himself; and "General Ike: A Personal Reminiscence" by the commander's son John Eisenhower, who confirmed that his father had been a four-pack-a-day smoker.
Selleck doesn't smoke, but his doctor said he didn't think taking up the habit for the movie would hurt. "So I lit one when I showed up [at the set] every morning. Ike smoked Camels but they're too strong -- I smoked Lucky Strikes."
Smoking is so much a part of "Ike" that viewers may be taken aback. Except for British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (Bruce Phillips), everybody seems to smoke -- from a U.S. paratrooper who audaciously asks for a light from the obliging Supreme Commander to Britain's King George VI. (The king, who had lung cancer, died at 56.)
Selleck even acquired a small silver lighter on which he had engraved "Dwight D. Eisenhower" with four small stars. He also wanted replicas of the "lucky coins" that Ike carried. Among them, Selleck said, were a silver dollar, a French franc and a St. Christopher's medal, all provided by the movie's props crew. And he intends to keep the uniforms that he wore as Eisenhower. "Those four stars on the shoulders were heavy," he said.
Watching film footage of the general, Selleck found one segment that seemed to capture Eisenhower in a private, reflective moment. The Supreme Commander seemed especially tired, Selleck said, and worried about the potential loss of life. In the film, Eisenhower writes to his wife, Mamie: "It leaves me heartsick to send so many young men" into battle.
"He was truly a soldier's soldier," confirmed Chetwynd. "He had deep compassion for the men who were under him."
A&E's movie, scripted in 1997 and put into production for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, was made in 20 days ("warp speed for a movie," said Selleck). It was filmed in and around Auckland, New Zealand, which had the sort of buildings that director Robert Harmon wanted, places with a sense of 1940s London. Most of the scenes are interiors, however, with Eisenhower talking first to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Ian Mune) and then to various British and U.S. generals, including his confidante, Gen. Walter Bedell "Beetle" Smith (Timothy Bottoms), and French Gen. Charles DeGaulle (George Shevtsov).
"One of the things that struck me about Eisenhower is that he had the capacity to stand toe-to-toe with Churchill," said Chetwynd. "And he was a good communicator. With Churchill, he could 'talk Churchillian.' With the troops, he could talk their language."
Chetwynd also acknowledged that he consulted many sources but created most of the film's dialogue.
The movie begins as Eisenhower tries to convince Churchill, who had been an infantry officer in World War I, that if the Americans are to enter the war, there should be only one commander over the Allies -- and that person should be Eisenhower.
Initially, Churchill, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is reluctant -- no one person had ever held that much power over so many land, sea and air troops -- and remarks, "My other generals say it is too much responsibility for one person."
More to the point, no American had that much experience. British Field Marshal Montgomery, who had bested Germany's Gen. Erwin Rommel in Sicily and at El Alamein in Egypt, complains to Churchill that Eisenhower is essentially a "relatively untried American."
In another scene, Eisenhower and Gen. Omar Bradley (James Remar) discuss how, in 1938, when promotions were slow, they feared they would be passed over and mustered out as colonels. In reality, Eisenhower rose from lieutenant colonel to five-star general in little more than three years.
Just before Christmas 1943, Churchill decides that Eisenhower will lead the Allies. On Feb. 12, 1944, Ike officially gets the job. The film shows him to be a good politician and diplomat, dealing with jealousy and towering egos among general officers of several nationalities, including the imperious DeGaulle (called "the French iceberg" by Mune's Churchill), who has been out of the loop and wants changes in the invasion plan -- but doesn't get them.
In one scene, knowing that seven of 10 paratroopers are projected to die in the invasion, Eisenhower visits a group preparing to be airlifted behind German lines.
As D-Day nears, Churchill remarks: "Surely God himself must tremble at the task before you." And Eisenhower replies: "If God is at my side, how can I fail?"
But, as Chetwynd pointed out, the real Eisenhower did ponder failure, even writing a press release taking full responsibility for the D-Day invasion if it turned out to be a disaster.
It didn't, of course, and Eisenhower went on to become the nation's 34th president, serving two terms.
Selleck said John Eisenhower told him, "It must be difficult for an actor to play someone who was so ordinary."
But Chetwynd saw it slightly differently: "There's material in here we need to know," he said of the film. "He was, at the end of the day, an ordinary man who grasped opportunity."
Chetwynd, Selleck: Military Men
Born in London, Lionel Chetwynd moved to Canada as a child. Before going to college, he served in Canada's Black Watch, Royal Highland Regiment, at a time when World War II veterans had not yet retired and still told their war stories. "Canada joined the war in 1939," he said. "In a country of 11 million people, Canada raised an army of 1.2 million volunteers, the largest army in the world per-capita."
Selleck also has military connections. Born in 1945, he said he was 2 before he met his father, Robert, who was in the Army. From 1968 to 1973, Selleck served in the California National Guard (his Glendale unit was activated during the Watts riots in 1965) and said he attained the rank of E-5 and went to Officers Candidate School, but wasn't commissioned.
"In the National Guard, your civilian job always comes first, and I was acting -- I couldn't have my hair cut military-short, as they did then. But I learned a lot about how officers are taught to think and command."
Selleck made public service announcements for the Guard and, in September 2002, received an honorary commission of first lieutenant.