If nothing else, American troops in Kosovo are realistic about how low-profile their peace-keeping role is back home.
That helps explain why the big guns weren’t rolled out Wednesday when Hollywood officials announced a series of USO trips to the war-ravaged area for the year-end holiday season.
Instead of the current crop of movie superstars, most of those recruited to entertain soldiers in the Balkans at Thanksgiving and Christmas are actors from television shows that the troops know and love.
But that’s perfect, according to Johnny Grant, who traveled last week to Kosovo to poll 19- and 20-year-old GIs about celebrities they would like to visit them at military bases there and in nearby Macedonia and Bosnia.
“They know they won’t get a Tom Hanks or a Tom Cruise. But they know the casts of these shows. They’ve grown up with them,” said Grant, who has been designated Hollywood’s honorary mayor and long has been active in USO overseas tours.
Actors Danica McKellar, David Carradine, Garrett Morris, James B. Sikking, Robert Loggia and Tracy Scoggins were introduced to reporters in Hollywood as the first group headed overseas for three-day visits with troops.
McKellar performed in “The Wonder Years.” Carradine and Morris are best-known for their roles in “Kung Fu” and “Saturday Night Live,” respectively. Sikking was a regular on “Hill Street Blues,” Loggia is known for “Mancuso FBI” and Scoggins for “Babylon 5.”
USO officials said more than a dozen actors will participate in three-day “handshake tours” of military bases, signing autographs and having their pictures taken as they mingle with more than 13,000 U.S. soldiers who are part of the multinational force in the Balkans. Although their travel expenses will be covered, the actors will volunteer their time.
The visits are reminiscent of trips made by Hollywood celebrities during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, according to USO spokeswoman Patrice Messer.
Grant, himself a former broadcast personality who participated in 50 USO trips to Korea and Vietnam, said he was invited by military leaders for a four-day visit last week to Kosovo and Macedonia. There, he said, he informally polled GIs about celebrities they would like to see.
“I’m not saying they don’t love movie stars. They do, but the troops let me know that they’re not setting themselves up for disappointment by expecting the $20-million-a-picture superstars,” Grant said.
With the e-mail and television news that were not available to previous generations of soldiers, those in the Balkans now are able to easily keep up with the home front. So they are aware “that the people back home don’t seem to understand their mission in Kosovo and Macedonia,” Grant said.
Hollywood has changed over the years too.
Rounding up actors for USO tours was simple in the past, Grant said. “In the old studio system, you just called somebody and said go. It’s not that way anymore.”
In fact, a private talent-booking firm called the Celebrity Source lined up the actors named Wednesday for the USO trips. Others who have agreed to go include Richard Karn of “Home Improvement,” Craig T. Nelson of “Coach,” Edward James Olmos of “Selena,” George Takei of “Star Trek,” Gena Lee Nolin of “Baywatch,” and Tiffani-Amber Thiessen of “Beverly Hills 90210.”
Comedians Fred Travalena and Paula Poundstone have also signed on, according to Rita Tateel, president of the booking agency.
Officials said 96-year-old comedian Bob Hope, a legendary USO participant, topped the GIs’ list of celebrities they’d like to see. Other favorites included country singer Shania Twain, basketball great Michael Jordan, singer Sheryl Crow and comedians Jeff Foxworthy and Chris Rock.
Hope is ailing. But Grant said officials hope to invite the other five.
“I’ll be on the phone to Shania Twain and Michael Jordan. I may not get through to them, but I’ll try,” he said.