The story behind ''Men of Honor'' -- The film about the first black master diver finally surfaces on the big screen

By Lori L. Tharps
Updated December 01, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
  • Movie

The story behind ”Men of Honor”

Survivor‘s Rudy isn’t the year’s only all-star Navy man. With Men of Honor recruiting $13.3 million at the box office opening weekend, Navy diver Carl Brashear (played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the flick) should be awarded a distinguished service medal — for convincing Hollywood to make a movie out of his struggle to become the first African American (not to mention the first amputee) to earn the title of master diver in the U.S. Navy.

”I had my first movie contract in 1980,” recalls the suave, soft-spoken Brashear, 69, who retired in 1979 as a master chief petty officer after more than 30 years of service. After his battle to overcome racism in the armed services was featured in the short-lived 1979 syndicated series Comeback (a heroes-despite-the-odds reality show), Hollywood came calling. But Brashear, who chalks up his place in military history books to perseverance and a healthy dash of providence (”I think I was the chosen one,” says this son of a Kentucky sharecropper), would need ample reserves of both as his story worked its way through the studio development process.

”A contract would last for sometimes two or three years,” says Brashear, who struck deals with a number of TV and movie execs, ”but we never did get off first base.” Then Bill Cosby came on board. After breaking the color barrier on TV with 1965-1968’s I Spy, the onetime Navy enlistee Cosby, perhaps identifying with Brashear, quickly snapped up the rights to the story. He commissioned a script in 1994 and sold Paramount on the idea, but the project again stalled for reasons that remain unclear. (Cosby was unavailable for comment.) ”In Hollywood, there are always about 5 to 10 scripts laying around that no one is doing something with,” explains Men of Honor producer Robert Teitel, who got wind of Brashear’s story through his agent. ”This was one of those scripts.”

Teitel and his partner, director George Tillman Jr., were drawn to Brashear’s story as a follow-up to their $44 million-grossing Soul Food, one of a handful of groundbreaking dramas starring black actors that attracted both black and white moviegoers. ”We read the [Men of Honor] script and were blown away,” remembers Teitel. The duo spent a week with the retired diver at his home in Virginia Beach — listening to him describe how he integrated the Navy’s diving corps in 1949, lost his leg during a recovery mission for a lost nuclear device in 1966, and rose to the rank of master chief petty officer, the Navy’s highest position for enlisted sailors, in 1971. Says Teitel, ”We knew we were going to make this film.”

But they would have to convince Fox execs that this soldier’s story was worth navigating around some sizable obstacles. First, the studio needed to buy the rights to the Cosby-commissioned script from Paramount (eventually accomplished for an estimated low six figures). Then there were budget issues: The filmmakers wanted $50 million to make this period piece with very technical underwater sequences, but Fox held firm at $32 million (”Every day we had to go out and change the script or take pages out to fit under that budget,” says Tillman). Ultimately, the studio had to be convinced this story wouldn’t be restricted to one type of audience — and could play in foreign markets. Their misgivings? ”It was period, it had a racial aspect, and it was a drama,” recalls former Fox 2000 president Laura Ziskin, who greenlit the film. But when two Oscar-winning actors, Robert De Niro and Cuba Gooding Jr., agreed to make the film for one-third of their regular salaries, says Ziskin, ”That was it…. [The studio] knew they had a film they could market.”

Ironically, the Navy was an easier ship to sink. Portrayed as a hotbed of racial hostility and virulent discrimination, the boys in blue were, nonetheless, happy to provide research and technical support. ”Carl’s like the Michael Jordan of the Navy,” says Teitel, who visited the Pentagon with Brashear and witnessed firsthand his godlike status. ”Nobody wanted to deny [him] his story.” Says Lieutenant Commander David Waterman of the United States Navy, ”The Navy did the research…. The historicity and the gist of the film is accurate.”

But this is still Hollywood, which begs the question of what is fact and what is fiction. Brashear says the screenplay by newcomer Scott Marshall Smith ”portrayed [my life] very closely, but we just couldn’t get it all in there.” Among the missing details are Brashear’s eight siblings (he’s an only child in the movie), his stint as a military escort for President Eisenhower, and his divorce from his beautician wife (who is portrayed as a doctor in the movie and played by Aunjanue Ellis).

What did make it in the film are the racist indignities that Brashear endured during his years of service: bunkmates who deserted the barracks because they refused to sleep with a black man; Brashear being locked in a stockade for jumping into the water on whites-only swimming days. Though De Niro’s character, the boorish commander Billy Sunday, is a composite of two specific naval instructors Brashear had at the Navy’s New Jersey diving school (one a racist and the other a champion), his actions are real. ”When you see De Niro fight an officer, all that stuff happened,” says Brashear. ”It might not have been in that one bar, but it happened.” And though audiences might assume the movie’s final scene — where Brashear has to prove he is still fit for service as an amputee by walking in a 290-pound scuba suit — was embellished, every sweat-inducing step that Gooding takes is true. ”The [Navy] tried to break my spirits,” Brashear says, ”but they’d have to do more than that, because I wanted to be a deep-sea diver.” Says Teitel, ”We always say this film only scratches the surface of [Brashear’s] life. It [all] happened and there’s so much more.”

In fact, Brashear, who returned to school and worked as an environmental-protection specialist for 10 years after retiring from the Navy in 1979, is hoping for a documentary that includes all the missing pieces. In the meantime, Men of Honor is winning accolades from high-ranking notables like President Clinton. Even Al Gore went to see it while Florida residents debated the chad. ”I knew this story would inspire people if it was ever shown on the big screen,” says Brashear. ”It’s powerful to see what one individual can accomplish if he works hard and has a good attitude.” Even in Hollywood.

Men of Honor

  • Movie
  • R
  • 129 minutes
  • George Tillman, Jr.