John Savage never went to war like his father and grandfather did, but much of his career could be interpreted as military service. His latest film, “The Last Full Measure,” now streaming on demand, pays homage to Vietnam War veterans, a callback of sorts to his appearance in the Oscar-winning film “The Deer Hunter.” In between, the 70-year-old actor has tackled numerous roles revolving around social issues. Savage looked back at his career in a recent phone conversation from his home in Los Angeles.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Savage plays Steven Pushkov, who struggles to deal with the loss of his marriage and his legs after returning from Vietnam.
“My dad lost his whole squad during World War II. He would talk about it every once a while, but he shared very little. His dad served in the First World War and ended up drinking a lot. Vietnam was the first war that really played out on TV and that included following people once they got home. ‘Deer Hunter’ went a little bit further. The first cut of that movie was five hours long. It was a tricky situation, but it ended up meaning a lot to a lot of different people.”
The film, an adaptation of the hit musical, was largely seen through the eyes of Savage’s character, a naive Oklahoman who befriends a group of anti-establishment New Yorkers while waiting for his draft-board appointment.
“When that show first opened on Broadway, I walked out of it several times. I thought hippies were fools. But I was willing to look at things from their perspective. I was very much like that character. I learned that it was time to welcome a little more change and not be angry about it. I think people today would enjoy the music. Those are powerful songs.”
Inside Moves (1980)
Savage plays a depressed barfly, disabled after a failed suicide attempt. His outlook changes when he befriends a talented basketball player (David Morse) in this powerful sleeper, directed by Richard Donner with a script co-written by Barry Levinson.
“Donner had just done ‘Superman’ and he could have done the sequel. Instead he did this little movie. David and I grew as people on that film. The great thing about the script is it didn’t yell out its message. It quietly got across the message about the power of friendship.”
James Woods would earn an Oscar nomination for playing a fearless photojournalist who finds himself in over his head while covering political turmoil in El Salvador. Savage plays a colleague who is killed in action.
“We were about to shoot a scene in which an airplane starts shooting up a street, and who was cracking jokes right next to me? None other than James, one of my best buddies. I told him to leave me alone. He was offended and walked off the set. After a while, I went to go get him. He must have been two or three miles away. When I reached him, he turned around and said, ‘What took you so long?’ ”
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Savage only appears in one scene during Spike Lee’s masterpiece, but he plays a major role in ratcheting up the racial tension in the Brooklyn neighborhood that will eventually erupt in rioting.
“I only spent two hours on the set, but that film is close to my heart. I had family that lived in that area. Watching Spike get great performances from all those great actors was an honor.”
SEAL Team (2020)
Savage appeared in a three-episode arc last season as the estranged father of a Navy SEAL who is forced to come home after being sidelined for misconduct.
“It’s a little part in a TV series, but it was great to be able to do it. His son is adapting the best he can, taking a breath, rolling up his socks and dealing with serious issues. But sometimes you need help. Stick your hand out and people will help you.”