Tom Sizemore: A Look Back at his ‘Military’ Career
Tom Sizemore (1961 – 2023) was an underrated and often magnetic actor who worked with the world’s best directors, not to mention fellow stars such as Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks and Robert Downey Jnr. Many of his films were war movies, so what better way for us to pay tribute than by looking back at some action-packed epics…
Over the course of his career, Tom Sizemore played various military and naval roles, often tackling these characters with dedication and love for the business of acting. He made some of the best war movies of the late twentieth century and made the characters his own. Here we look at some his best. RIP Tom.
- Flight of the Intruder (1991)
- Wyatt Earp (1994)
- Black Hawk Down (2001)
- Company of Heroes (2013)
- USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016)
- Pearl Harbor (2001)
- Born On The Fourth of July (1989)
- Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Flight of the Intruder (1991)
Sizemore had a few flicks under his belt when he took one of his first prominent big screen roles in this Vietnam War drama. The pedigree of the production was top flight, you might say. Director John Milius was also the writer behind Apocalypse Now. Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe and Rosanna Arquette starred.Sizemore played the role of Bob Walkawitz, aka “Boxman”.
Based on the novel by Stephen Coonts, the story concerned pilots of the Grumman A-6 Intruder strike plane, which took to the skies during the conflict. Coonts himself flew this very aircraft, and the book was published by the US Naval Institute, who’d launched Tom Clancy’s career with The Hunt For Red October in 1984. The Institute paid tribute to Sizemore on Twitter on hearing the sad news.
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The film wasn’t a critical or commercial success, however it helped put Sizemore on the map. Plus the public were reminded of his role years later in 2019, when his screen-used helmet was put up for auction. The item had an estimate of close to $800, though doesn’t appear to have been sold. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting part of war movie history.
Wyatt Earp (1994)
Kevin Costner’s other Western epic (as in not Dances With Wolves) was a war movie? Well, sort of. There was the legendary Gunfight at the OK Corral, that’s kind of a war. Plus, the American Civil War certainly looms large in the narrative. But it’s Sizemore’s role of Bat Masterson which merits inclusion on our rundown.
Masterson was a real life figure who led a colourful life, including taking the job of Dodge City Sheriff. One of his prominent jobs was as a scout for the US Army, where he took part in the Plains Indian Wars. During the latter half of the 19th century, the Great Plains saw bloodshed as the Cheyenne, Kiowa and other tribes battled against settlers looking to hunt buffalo and deprive Native Americans of their most important natural resource.
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This was done deliberately to force the hand of tribes who didn’t want to be subjugated. The Kansas Historical Society grimly notes that hunters “slaughtered millions of buffalo for their hides and meat between 1865 and 1880.” Masterson survived the conflicts here, and eventually met his end in 1921, in the relatively harmless profession of a journalist in New York. He’d last wielded a firearm back in 1881.
You don’t typically see Tom Sizemore in a historical role, so to watch him playing a character with a rich past who’d seen his fair share of conflict was a treat. Sizemore worked with Wyatt Earp director Kasdan again on Dreamcatcher (2003), an adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, acknowledged as one of his last high profile movies.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
One film in which Sizemore was definitely up to his neck in conflict was Black Hawk Down. The context of the Somali Civil War provided the material for the screenplay, set in the early 1990s and based on the book by Mark Bowden. The director was the acclaimed visual stylist Ridley Scott, another renowned talent who Sizemore was lucky enough to work with.
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As for the actor’s character, he played Lieutenant Colonel Danny McKnight. McKnight commanded the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, and took part in the Battle of Mogadishu. The events of this battle are behind the title of the film. The fighting led to two US Black Hawk helicopters suffering a deadly attack, hence “Black Hawk Down”.
Harvard notes that “the military operation to rescue the downed servicemen led to the death of 18 American troops”, not to mention a Pakistani and Malaysian soldier, plus many Somali fighters and civilians. Sizemore wasn’t one for simply learning his lines and showing up. 020 Magazine mentions how the star consulted directly with McKnight when creating his performance.
Company of Heroes (2013)
A later war movie role was offered to Sizemore, in the shape of this hit video game adaptation. It was a home entertainment release, but allowed the actor an opportunity to be a leading man. He played Dean Ransom, who along with fellow soldiers is caught up in an action-oriented adventure.
“It was tough, man, the first couple of days,” Sizemore told Movieweb. “I haven’t done anything that physical probably since I ran from the police in 2006,” he joked. Other cast members included Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers) and Das Boot star Jürgen Prochnow.
Reportedly made on a low budget, Company of Heroes was a minor contribution to the genre of movies made from games, and received less than enthusiastic reviews. Sizemore revealed that he’d consulted the research he did for Saving Private Ryan when preparing for the role. More on that movie later.
USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016)
The sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the Philippine Sea in 1945 formed one of the most harrowing chapters of World War II for American servicemen. Many survived the Japanese attack.
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However, those left to float in the water found themselves at the mercy of the elements, not to mention killer sharks. The story was immortalized as a chilling remembrance by the character Quint in Jaws, yet – aside from a 1991 TV movie – a major motion picture hadn’t been made of the tragedy itself.
Sizemore played Chief Petty Officer McWhorter, billed just below star Nicolas Cage, who took the role of Captain McVay. Like Quint, Sizemore was given his own monologue. Directed by Mario Van Peebles, the movie failed to live up to expectations. A review for Roger Ebert’s website reads the film is “not exactly unwatchable, but it’s also completely not worthy of watching.”
Still, this was another high profile role for Sizemore and the movie’s status as a dramatization of seismic historical events makes it a notable one on his filmography.
Pearl Harbor (2001)
The beginning of the 21st century was a bumper time for Tom Sizemore at war. During the same period he filmed both Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbor. They were big budget spectacles showing the theatre of war, yet the latter film probably had the edge. Directed by Michael Bay (Transformers), it brought audiences the shattering moments when the US decided it was time to throw its full weight behind fighting Hitler and his allies.
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Sizemore was cast in the pivotal role of Earl Cistern, head mechanic at Wheeler Airfield in Hawaii. “A whole bunch of the explosions are real and you have to run like hell,” the actor said during a press conversation detailed by the Washington Post. “But, that is why they call it acting.”
Starring Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale among others, the movie made money at the box office. Like Black Hawk Down, the production was criticized for inaccuracies. It was, however, a huge movie and it’s a testament to Sizemore’s talent that he was given such a prominent role.
Born On The Fourth of July (1989)
One war movie depicting significant events which did garner positive reviews was Oliver Stone’s powerful biopic about Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. Tom Cruise played the title role, and the screenplay was based on Kovic’s autobiography. Sizemore got what’s described as his big break through the film.
He played a small but important role as a disabled vet. As covered by RogerEbert.com in their tribute, Stone saw that the actor was “practicing a stunt in his wheelchair ten nights a week” and realized he was truly dedicated to his craft. Apparently Sizemore wanted to perform the stunt himself without the use of a double.
When the director was making the infamous Natural Born Killers, released in 1994, he brought Sizemore in to play one of the main parts, Detective Scagnetti. He often portrayed authority figures with a dark edge, and of course soldiers. A few years on, he’d accept what was undoubtedly his most famous war movie role…
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Steven Spielberg defined the Hollywood blockbuster, directing a range of epic movies with diverse and frequently powerful subject matter. While he’s still very much working today, Saving Private Ryan remains one of his all time best-remembered films.
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For Tom Sizemore, it was surely a dream come true. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was reportedly one of his favourite movies. He even went on to contribute to the screenplay, writing some of his own material as second in command Mike Horvath.
Sizemore’s name was up there with A Lister Tom Hanks. In their tribute, Military.com writes how he is “the one actor besides Hanks who had some gravitas and looked like a real version of the character he played.” This wasn’t a coincidence. Spielberg was keen to cast people who matched the images he saw in photos of the conflict.
It wasn’t a smooth running production. When Spielberg learned that Sizemore was a drug user, he insisted that he take a test on a daily basis, as mentioned by IMDB. The star was told that if he failed then his part “would be recast and re-shot with someone else, even if it was at the end of production.” Everything rode on the results for Sizemore, who to his credit made it through and crafted a truly memorable performance.
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To give you an idea of how in demand Sizemore was, he also wanted to appear in another World War II drama, The Thin Red Line. This would have seen him working with another celebrated director, Terrence Malick. He needed to choose between working for Malick or signing up with Spielberg. Talk about a tough decision! In an interview with Bobbie Wygant, Sizemore described Saving Private Ryan as the greatest acting experience of his life.
He went on to make other war pictures, though none scaled the heights of Spielberg and writer Robert Rodat’s emotionally draining story of comradeship and the human cost of mass conflict. In his early days, Sizemore played a serviceman on TV for the series China Beach. He also appeared in the likes of Seal Team 8: Behind Enemy Lines, which needless to say isn’t a key part of our look back at his output.
Sleep well Tom. The world salutes you.