Eric Roberts says he first saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at daybreak as he re-created the story of how the wall became a reality in the NBC movie "To Heal a Nation."
"I'd never seen it before, and I got there just as the sun came up," Roberts said. "I was the first person that day to walk its length. Halfway, I saw my reflection. I narrowed my focus to just one name.
"The wall became very dear to me. It has the names of 50,000-plus boys who died serving our country, for better or worse. I was devastated and very proud to portray the man responsible for the fact that it was standing there."
Roberts plays Jan Scruggs, the former Army infantryman who led the effort to build a memorial to his fellow veterans in hopes of healing the nation's wounds. Working with Scruggs were Robert Doubek and John Wheeler.
The memorial, 493 feet of black granite set into the ground in a giant V, polished to a mirror-like finish and inscribed with 58,156 names, was designed by Maya Ying Lin, a New York architect who was a 21-year-old Yale architectural student when her dramatic vision was selected from among 1,421 entries. It attracts up to 20,000 visitors a day, making it the most-visited memorial in Washington.
The two-hour movie, a special GE Theater presentation based on a book by Scruggs and Joel L. Swerdlow, will be televised May 29. It also stars Glynnis O'Connor, Marshall Colt, Scott Paulin, Lee Purcell, Laurence Luckinbill, Linden Chiles, Brock Peters and Gloria Carlin. Lionel Chetwynd wrote the screenplay, and Michael Pressman directed.
Roberts said that when he started the film he looked into Scruggs' military record and talked to people who knew him.
"I held off meeting him until I was halfway through the picture," he said. "He is an incredibly decent man. My belief is he pursued the Vietnam Memorial for all the right reasons. I admire him and I'm proud to portray him.
"He had no illusions of grandeur. One of my favorite lines from the film is, 'This is not a monument, it's a memorial.' It's not a memorial to the war in Vietnam. It's a memorial to the 50,000 young men who died there."
Roberts said he sees Scruggs, who is now attending law school, as "a living definition of the American dream come true."
"He wanted to get something done, and he pursued it. It got done and it will live forever. It's wonderful for everyone in this country to pursue his own vision. It's worth it, I think."
This is a rare television appearance for Roberts, who was nominated for an Oscar for his role in "Runaway Train." He was also in such movies as "Star 80," "The Pope of Greenwich Village," "Raggedy Man," "Nobody's Fool" and the upcoming "Blood Red." He made his TV debut in the soap opera "Another World" and has been in several PBS dramas.
"I don't go by the media," he said. "What attracts me is the script. I liked this and I came running. Limiting myself to one medium is like limiting myself to redheads. I took this part because of the script, because of my friendship with three Vietnam veterans and because people my age were too young to be for or against the war. Now that I'm an adult I think it's about time we said, 'Welcome home, guys.' "
His upcoming movie, "Blood Red," is a Western due out in July. It also stars Burt Young, Dennis Hopper and Giancarlo Giannini, who plays Roberts' father.
"It's loosely based on the time the railroad came to the Napa Valley," he said. "It came to this particular vineyard and the Italian immigrant who owned it wouldn't sell a right of way. He died suspiciously. I, as his son, take to the hills. He holds up the railroad so long they go around the Napa Valley. It saved the Napa Valley for wine-growing."
This fall he plans to star in a movie called "Centrifuge," based on a novel by J. C. Pollock.