Fifty years ago this month one of the most beloved characters in the history of war movies hit the screen, waxing philosophical about the power of positive persuasion.
“Always with the negative waves, Moriarity,” tank commander Sgt. Oddball would tell his beleaguered mechanic, Pfc. Moriarity. “Always with the negative waves.”
Oddball (no first or last name given) helped make “Kelly’s Heroes,” which premiered July 23, 1970, a continuing hit among troops and veterans, especially those who served in tanks. Played by Donald Sutherland, the character quickly stood out as a favorite among an amazing cast featuring the likes of Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor and Gavin MacLeod, who played Moriarity, Oddball’s constant, dour foil.
In a movie about a group of soldiers in WWII plotting to sneak behind German lines and steal $16 million in gold bars from a bank Oddball was the anachronistic long-haired, bearded hippy, whose introduction comes as he is interrupted from a dalliance atop some supply tent crates.
Eastwood plays the eponymous Kelly, a former lieutenant busted down to private for giving the orders to attack the wrong hill, getting many of his men killed in the process. Kelly hatches a plot to steal the gold after learning from a captured Nazi officer about a cache of bars in a bank behind enemy lines.
The iconic Oddball is given his first line 31 minutes into the movie, when he overhears Kelly and Staff Sgt. Crapgame, the conniving quartermaster played by Rickles, discussing how much the heist would net.
“You could probably use some armor,” says an as-of-yet unseen Oddball, who seconds later comes into view from where he has been enjoying an afternoon romantic encounter with a woman of unknown origin.
“Who the hell’s that?” Kelly demands.
“His name’s Oddball,” says Crapgame, rolling his eyes.
For Sutherland, 1970 was a historic war movie double header. His role in “Kelly’s Heroes” came fresh off a star turn in “M*A*S*H,” in which he played Army surgeon Hawkeye Pierce in a movie set in the Korean War — but clearly a jab at the then-raging conflict in Vietnam.
That role cemented Sutherland’s next one, he said in an email interview with Military Times.
“Troy Kennedy Martin’s script and the person of Brian Hutton,” Sutherland said when asked what attracted him to the Oddball role, referring to film’s writer and director.
“I’d just finished ‘M*A*S*H’ and my beloved producer Ingo Preminger told me my life was going to change when it came out. So I figured maybe I’d not get a chance to play this kind of a fellow again. I was wrong. I have had many such chances. But that’s part of what sent me to MGM and Brian Hutton’s office. The bigger part was that I loved Oddball. Adored him!”
Sutherland, who turned 85 on July 17, said that while he instantly loved the script, he didn’t realize at the time just how endearing the movie would become.
“My first impression was that it was hysterically funny. Iconoclastic, perfect,” he said. “Nobody died. At least they didn’t die in the original script, but then some idiot producer, (now dead himself), who insisted that there had to be deaths. Brian fought it, didn’t want it, but money shouted so Brian ended up giving him a minefield.”
Sutherland was referring to a scene — about 70 minutes into the film — where three of their band of burglarious brothers — Michael Clark as Pvt. Grace, Fred Pearlman as Pvt. Mitchell and Tom Troupe as Cpl. Job, are killed — one by a mine and two by German small arms fire.
“I love Kelly’s,” said Sutherland. “About it being a favorite? You don’t think about how it’s going to be received when you’re doing it. But afterwards, when people speak to me about it, it always pleases me. I liked his dog imitation. Woof Woof.”
The year 1970 was a bonanza for war flicks. In addition to “Kelly’s Heroes” and “M*A*S*H,” movie goers went to see “Patton”, “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” and “Catch-22,″ among many released that year.
The WWII films debuted during a time when protests against the Vietnam War were raging. By 1970 nearly 35,000 U.S. troops had perished in the conflict, including more than 6,000 that year. That May National Guard troops shot four students dead at Kent State in Ohio, further eroding any support for the war and expediting efforts to pull out.
But despite everything going on in the world at the time, and though Sutherland was coming off a decidedly anti-Vietnam War movie, the Canadian-born actor says current events didn’t influence how he played the seemingly permanently baked Oddball.
“No,” he said when asked if reaction to the Vietnam War influenced his portrayal. “None that I can think of, just Troy’s script, Hutton and my imagination. It was about staying alive. Being in Europe. Watching Rickles make money. There’s a song that the British 8th Army in Italy in WW2 sang about Lady Astor that touches my heart. It’s about soldiers. Infantrymen. That’s the pain and suffering and struggle of war. We were about the idiocy of war.”
NEGATIVE WAVES, POSITIVE REACTION
Shot during a time when marijuana and acid were widely used and mysticism was gaining pop culture traction, Oddball uttered what would become one of filmdom’s most endearing, and enduring, catchphrases — even though it doesn’t come until nearly 53 minutes into the film.
“Don’t hit me with them negative waves so early in the morning,” Oddball tells Moriarity, after the latter wonders what will happen if a railroad bridge, one needed to get the three M4 Sherman tanks over a river, is no longer there.
Sutherland gave full credit for the “negative waves” words and scenes to screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin.
“Troy’s line,” he said when asked if it was scripted or ad-libbed. “All of it. Pretty much everything I said was scripted. I thought it was a terrific script. Oddball took over my life. He inhabited me. Guided me. I was in love with my Sherman tank.”
From the chiding encounters between Oddball and Moriarity, to the French cafe scene, to “drinking wine and eating cheese,” to the Tiger tank showdown riff on the “Good The Bad and The Ugly,” fan-favorite Oddball moments are many.
But not Sutherland.
“I liked everything,” he said of his character, who wore the tri-color, triangle patch of the 6th Armor Division on his leather jacket. “Beginning to end. He was exactly who he was and he carried me with him all the way through the six months of shooting.”
“Kelly’s Heroes” had an all-star cast that, in addition to the aforementioned actors, included Stuart Margolin as Little Joe and Harry Dean Stanton as Willard, among many others.
It was a fun group, Sutherland said.
“We had little campers out in a field near each location. Clint’s had a sign on it. ‘Clint Eastwood: Private.’ Don Rickles’ was right next to Clint’s and it had a sign on it saying: ‘Don Rickles — mister friendly — everybody welcome.’ That’s what it was like 24/7.”
Sutherland said he is “terrifically pleased” that Oddball is still such a favorite character, especially in the military and veteran communities.
After 50 years, is there any question about Oddball that hasn’t been asked?
“You’re joking, right?” Sutherland quipped.
Will the Tao of Oddball live on with future generations?
Maybe Oddball himself can answer that question.
“Have a little faith, baby. Have a little faith.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.