He has played military roles in “The Deer Hunter” (1978) and “The Thin Red Line” (1998).
Now, John Savage stars in “SEAL Team” on CBS, a patriotic show to stream this Fourth of July.
“This is a good scripted show,” Savage told WTOP. “It brings little moments out that are enlightening to us here back home, what they’re dealing with over there. … This for me is what I think the TV is bringing to us is education. I respect the writing … representing great images of service over the Middle East: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran.”
Created by Benjamin Cavell, the show follows the personal lives and dangerous missions of America’s elite Navy SEALs. Savage plays Emmet Quinn, the father of Sonny Quinn (A.J. Buckley) in four episodes of Season 3, hoping for an Emmy nod for Guest Actor.
“A.J. Buckley was incredible … and I was so grateful to work with him as a dad, him coming back to his home area,” Savage said. “[It’s] very personal but such a real image of how much people have going on in their life experience and how important and how difficult [it is] sometimes just to relate to their own issues with their family or friends.”
Savage also admires Jason Hayes’ leading role as David Boreanaz.
“It’s just incredible his ability to take on a real different character than he played earlier in his other show [‘Bones’] — a very cerebral, almost humorous intelligence operative — but this one was definitely blood and guts,” Savage said.
Born on Long Island, New York, in 1949, Savage saw plenty of family service members.
“I grew up with that around me as a kid, post Second World War and Korean War vets coming home,” Savage said. “My aunts and uncles all went into the military. … My dad was in the [Marine] Corps in the Pacific [during World War II]. … He had nightmares about trying to save lives. He lost his squad. He lost everybody. He was a gunner.”
In 1978, he starred in Michael Cimino’s Best Picture winner “The Deer Hunter” (1978), which was divided into three distinct segments — steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania, Vietnam P.O.W.s playing Russian Roulette and wounded veterans in V.A. hospitals.
“The story was taken from a true story, a book that was banned by the Communist Party that had to do with post-revolution in Russia,” Savage said. “They changed the script to make it work here … the effect on young men from a Russian-American community.”
The result was the best look at PTSD since “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).
“[‘The Best Years of Our Lives’] was one of my favorites movies as a kid,” Savage said. “It was tough [for veterans] to get a job, a lot of times a job was hard to hold onto, you’re going through stuff where people are different than the ones you’ve been serving with. The real world, as much as you want to be a part of it, it’s not always easy.”
In 1989, he delivered a different social commentary in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” (1989), where his character scuffs the Jordans of Buggin’ Out, who tells him to go back where he came from, to which Savage defiantly declares, “I was born in Brooklyn!”
“It was a gift,” Savage said. “Spike gave me a ring. I was on my way back to South Africa actually and he said, ‘Well, let’s just put together this little scene.’ They hadn’t started filming yet. … I have family roots in old Dutch Brooklyn and it meant a lot to me. It was just one of those moments that was just captured brilliantly by a great writer-director.”
In fact, Savage sees many similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests today.
“We see the violent reactions and also tremendously strong efforts by younger people just to come together and take steps forward together,” Savage said. “I saw the need for new energy when I was young and kids sacrificed their lives in college [at] Kent State.”
Today’s movement is compounded by economic anxieties of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve been through this before as a country … in the ’20s and ’30s,” Savage said. “We took very aggressive moves to save what was considered the Dust Bowl. We are all dealing with a big Dust Bowl right now. We just we have to really work on our gardens.”
Either way, he remains hopeful that the nation will bounce back.
“It’s a growing process, but we have good people out there,” Savage said. “These peace marches in the last couple of days to me [are like Hal Ashby’s] ‘Coming Home,’ I love that movie, but these TV episodes [are] the closest we are to ‘Coming Home’ of people even in the same family or same community but needing to come together.”