Catching Up With . . . John Sacret Young
Limning Characters in Modern America -- For Screen and Page
by Brooke C. Stoddard '69
John Young's grandfather immigrated to America from England, moved to Nebraska and was successful in the utilities industry. He married a Mayflower descendent, had ten children, and was able to send his sons to Princeton. His grandson John, growing up in New Jersey and Massachusetts (summers at his grandmother's house near Plymouth) felt the pressure of a Princeton heritage. John’s father said to him in essence, “I don’t care where you go to college as long as it’s Princeton.”
John entered with the Class of ’68, playing freshman football, hockey and lacrosse. But "I was also full of rebellion against my father’s instruction. Let's say some of my behavior was awry -- during sophomore year Princeton and I took leave of one another." Such behavior ran in the family -- his father did not graduate in four years; neither did John's brothers. Decades later, John’s son Jake broke family tradition by finishing on schedule -- with Honors.
John drove across the country and worked in Seattle at Boeing, then returned to take courses at Drew University east of Newark. "Here I was impressed with young professors working really hard, often without previous advantage, striving to raise themselves up. The students as well.” It was both exciting and sobering. This break for me was actually enormously helpful. I returned in the fall with the Class of 1969."
He thought he would major in English. His idea for a thesis was to study the Anglo-Irish writer Joyce Cary. The department turned him down, claiming theses were not permitted on living authors; Cary had been dead for a decade. John turned to the Religion Department. It offered a “Religion-Literature” bridge. Working with Princeton's Writer-in-Residence, Brock Brower, he was granted the opportunity to write a novel as a thesis, accompanied by an essay analyzing the novel’s religious aspects. The setting for the book was the 1968 Presidential campaign, the contest between Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, and two women whose relationship broke down divisively amidst the rivalry. "I spent a ton of time researching in my carrel in Firestone Library. Looking back, it taught me invaluable lessons, how to research and how to work, and the first beginnings of how to write.” In gratitude, he gave a room when Firestone was revitalized.
For two summers, John worked at Princeton's Blairstown Summer Camp, his second year as Associate Director. It was very rough and tumble then. Beyond any Outward Bound experience. The campers came from New York, Newark, Jersey City, and Philadelphia poor, tough neighborhoods. When they arrived the first order of business was a weapons search. "I saw diversity I had not seen. I saw brutality and danger I had never seen. Equally moments of extraordinary comradeship. It was eye-opening, even life-changing. Those summers were instrumental in shaping my view of the world.” While he was there a counselor died and a camper drowned; another camper nearly died and had to be revived: mouth to mouth in the back of a station wagon on the way to the hospital. “For the drowned boy, I had to dive into Bass Lake in attempt to locate and save him. At some point, fear and dread met any life-saving in the depths of the pitch black water.”
The summer of our graduation, with some friends, John made a 16mm black-and-white film with an old Bolex camera in Plymouth. “Probably not very good, probably didn't make sense, but we had great fun. I went West and showed it to USC and was admitted into their film school. I didn’t want to take money from my parents, refused to, and I had to scratch out a living. I was offered a chance to write a script—if for pennies—and I left. I kept writing, and probably justifiably failing.” He took brief jobs, often research, including an intended series based on John O’Hara stories, and a television producer’s idea to do one on Cro-Magnon Man, (yes, John laughs about it, too).
He labored over a novel that took a year to write and seven years to get published. Called The Weather Tomorrow, it finally came out via Random House in 1982, and received outstanding reviews in Los Angeles, where it was set, and in The New Yorker, Newsweek, and The Washington Post.
Before it, and while writing it, he says, “I kept flunking draft physicals, but I couldn’t help wonder about what was happening in the country, how I might best learn about America. Somehow volunteer for Vietnam? Or avoid Vietnam by becoming a Los Angeles policeman? I felt I had to do something to be part of that tumultuous time.”
The police looked upon John understandably askance – he was Ivy League, had long hair, and wore glasses. They were leery of having anything to do with him. He never became a cop. But the experience ultimately led through coincidence and serendipity to work as a researcher for a television series, Police Story, created by L. A. cop, Joseph Wambaugh. John's job was to hang out with cops, listen to their stories and report which ones might become scripts. "There were some great guys, superb officers, more than a few Vietnam vets, and a few considerably troubled: one turned felon himself, a hit man, and another nicknamed "Clean Gene" became corrupt and killed himself. Some were great story tellers." The pay was poor but the opportunity was rich. John was given the chance to write three scripts the year Police Story won the Emmy for best drama series. Each of his episodes, most unusually, were reviewed by Variety.
He had wanted to write feature films, but saw that few scripts got made. His opportunity was in television. He was offered a chance to write a mini-series based on Philip Caputo's Vietnam memoir, A Rumor of War about the loss of innocence of a group of combat marines. John's script won the Writers Guild of America Award. For public television, John adapted a short story that turned into something more significant. Paramount released it as a feature film. Testament was about a suburban family in the aftermath of a nuclear war; it won a Christopher Award and Jane Alexander a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
The two projects brought John to the attention of ABC's Brandon Stoddard [no relation to this profiler], then head of the network. Stoddard had overseen Roots, among other mini-series, and commissioned John to write something that interested them both: trace an American family’s saga from World War II through Vietnam. It was a big idea, several years' work, that never happened. The bloom fell off the mini-series rose. Big ones—12, 14, even 20 hours—ended.
In consolation Stoddard asked John to develop a series. It led to China Beach, centering on the experience of American women in Vietnam during the war. For John, here was a chance to explore what he had wondered about, America during that conflicted time. With it came a deeper personal reason: John’s cousin, Doug, had dropped out of college, joined the Marines, and was killed in December 1969. The show allowed exploration of women's roles — liberation and limitations, empowerment and sacrifice –- the nurse volunteers had far more authority in the war than they ever had, before or after, in hospitals States-side. China Beach won Emmys, a Golden Globe, Writer’s Guild, and Humanitas Award, and made a star of lead actress Dana Delany, whom John dated for several years.
John, and his co-creator, Vietnam vet Bill Broyles, hewed close to those who had served. It drew John back to the invaluable, urgent, role of research. The China Beach episodes were rooted in actual stories. Before each season, John brought several dozen veterans to California for a weekend retreat with actors, writers, producers, and directors, the better to help them understand what the vets had gone through. The series traced the war from the fall of 1967 through 1968, into 1969, and then in its final season – unprecedented then -- leapt forward and back in time, bringing the cast of characters home and into the 1990s, exploring the difficult returning adjustment to “ordinary” life. One episode centered on actual vets sharing their experiences; it won a Peabody Award.
John confesses: "China Beach changed me. For the first six months I did not have a day off. We worked incredibly long hours, and the show had a wonderful stable of talented people. We really gave ourselves over to the stories, which were by turns heart-wrenching, tragic, funny and really about America and Americans and who we are and how we react to crises."
“When China Beach ended in 1992 I was exhausted," John says. "In a way it was like coming home from the war myself. I had a hard time finding something to be as passionate about. I still couldn’t stop turning over and over emotions about my cousin's death. When his father, my uncle died, I made some notes in a journal, and couldn’t stop.” It became a memoir, his book Remains: Non-Viewable about Doug and their growing up, their rebellions, their large and varied family, Doug's death and their reactions to it. “How it formed me. Even how it made me a writer.” The memoir received outstanding reviews, and became a Los Angeles Times bestseller.
Almost against John's will, he became involved in another mini-series about another conflict. It led to Thanks of a Grateful Nation, about Desert Storm veterans, and what became known as Gulf War Syndrome. It revealed a sobering truth: no matter how short, or sweet, or victorious “a war" seems there are consequences. Like China Beach it explored veterans’ scars both visible and invisible, scars connected to American technology. "We sold weapons to the enemy that wounded and killed and made our soldiers sick, and then denied it, and denied the health impact," John says. The show jump-started national attention to how many tens of thousands were ill.
Other projects rose and fell. At times John felt, like many in Hollywood, that "he made a living writing what never saw the light of day." Almost. There was an inventive, short-lived series about Virtual Reality. There was an equally short-lived series with Larry Hagman that took John to live in New Orleans. There was a film about the aftershocks of a police mortally shooting the black husband of a white woman. There were scripts dredging up the crimes and evidence of the 1960s' Boston Strangler. There was a feature film, Romero, about assassinated Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero; it starred Raul Julia, won high praise, and is currently enjoying renewed life upon Romero’s recent canonization by Pope Francis.
When Aaron Sorkin left West Wing, John ended up helping to produce and write. “It was an honor," he says, and has high compliments for many of the participants. He singles out John Spencer, who also grew up in New Jersey, Allison Janney, and Martin Sheen. John left after two years to do a film in New Zealand. Later, back in Los Angeles, the phone rang: "The President is on the line," John was told. It was Sheen commanding John to come for the final night of shooting of the final episode in the series.
Through these years, John was in and out of Emmy, Writers Guild of America (WGA), Directors Guild (DGA), People’s Choice, and Golden Globe Award ceremonies owing to nominations or wins. He perhaps most cherishes a recent accolade, The Kieser Award, named after Rev. Ellwood Kieser, who founded the Humanitas Prize for television and film writers. The award is a lifetime achievement honor. Accepting it, John said, “We must search and seize the deepest, sometimes darkest, sometimes singularly precious knuckles of human truths, beyond facts, real or alternative, by pen, by camera, by whisper, by shout, regardless of Red or Blue or Black or White and bring them into the Light. Never never never never more than Now.”
In 2016, John published Pieces of Glass: An Artoire, a reflection on the impact of the visual arts on his writing, especially Modernism and American art. He had taught a semester at Princeton in 2001, given paintings to the Art Museum, but returned to lecture on the book's subject in 2017. A companion volume is next, Pieces of Tinsel. It's an appreciation of those he met and admired along his journey, including a number of titans of film – among them John Ford, Elia Kazan, John Huston, Sam Peckinpah, and as well actors Harrison Ford, Warren Beatty and Robert Redford.
They were story-tellers, as is he, and as he says, “We humans are all story-tellers. It dates back to living in caves, gathered around the fire, and painting on the walls. It's what makes us unique."