King Maker 

Jim Parker's legacy illuminates the silver screen.

Globetrotting special forces sergeant Jim Parker taught George Clooney how to move and act like a real soldier for his role in Three Kings.
  • Globetrotting special forces sergeant Jim Parker taught George Clooney how to move and act like a real soldier for his role in Three Kings.
Enjoying a Guinness and a break from covering the carnage in Yugoslavia, writer Terry Sheridan leans forward to set the record straight. The subject is his late friend and colleague Jim Parker, the colorful soldier and former Plain Dealer columnist who provided the creative spark behind the movie Three Kings.

"Parker wasn't a major, he was a sergeant," says an exasperated Sheridan, an unpretentious man who puts a premium on getting the facts straight. "Parker didn't even like to hang around or drink with majors."

Such details don't cloud the legend and influence of Parker, who, as Sheridan acknowledges, was "clearly an inspiration to some of this."

"This" is the critically acclaimed story of four U.S. soldiers in the closing days of the Gulf War. Three Kings, which stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube, follows the AWOL soldiers as they trek across Iraq on a maverick mission to find Kuwaiti gold stolen by the Iraqis. Along the way, they get pulled into an uprising of insurgent Iraqis against Saddam Hussein's troops and ultimately try to deliver the rebels to safety.

But the roots of the story go back 30 years to the war in Vietnam, where Parker was awarded two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart after serving as a scout. Before he died, Parker told writer/director David O. Russell a story from his stint in Vietnam, when he and five other soldiers tried to steal a six-ton gold Buddha. Their effort was unsuccessful, with the statue breaking free from a truck and falling into the Perfume River.

Talking with Parker's friends and relatives, it's clear the story has grown over the years. As always, specific details are tough to nail down. But the tale was intriguing enough to provide the kernel for the central story in Three Kings.

"It started with Parker trying to cop the Buddha in Vietnam," Sheridan says over the din of a downtown tavern. "At the same time, [Russell] heard a story about the gold in Kuwait. He wanted to make a political statement about how the soldiers felt, about the disenchantment in Vietnam and the Gulf. What were we doing there, what were we putting our asses on the line for?"

Such contradictions seem a perfect fit for Parker, a larger-than-life figure who died last December at his home in Columbia Township after an eight-month bout with esophageal cancer. He was born in New Mexico in 1946 to an itinerant ironworker father who hauled his family across the country. Parker lived in 43 states and attended more than 20 high schools before graduating in Gary, Indiana. He then enlisted in the army and was sent to Vietnam.

When he got back from overseas, Parker began a career in journalism. He moved to Cleveland in 1979 to work as an investigative reporter and, later, a columnist at The Plain Dealer, but continued to serve as a Green Beret reservist. After leaving the paper in 1989, he served as a sergeant in the Gulf War. He also went to Bosnia to help protect his wife, Plain Dealer foreign affairs correspondent Elizabeth Sullivan, while she covered the war there.

That wide range of experience led Russell to hire Parker as a consultant on Three Kings. King Davis, Parker's commander in the Gulf War, also worked as a consultant on the movie. He says the two veterans enjoyed helping train the actors to walk, talk, and look like real soldiers.

"Parker and I had fun working with the actors," says Davis, who is now the police chief in Sierra Madre, California. "Parker and I worked on the script ahead of time, helping them make it more realistic."

Davis and Parker served in the Gulf with the 450th Civil Affairs company assigned to the 82nd Airborne, helping coordinate relief efforts with the civilians -- both Iraqi and Kuwaiti -- that U.S. combat forces came across. Davis stresses that, while the movie is not directly based on Parker or the 450th, their experiences are reflected in the film. "An awful lot of the stuff in the movie is stuff that Parker and I and our soldiers did," he says.

For example, in Three Kings, Clooney, Wahlberg, and Cube free a handful of Iraqi civilians who were imprisoned and tortured by Hussein's troops. During the Gulf War, Parker, Davis, and Co. freed some Kuwaitis who were imprisoned and mistreated by the Iraqis. They even comandeered some Iraqi trucks and delivered the Kuwaitis back to their country.

"That sounds easy, but the problem was we were in Iraqi trucks going all the way across the battlefield," Davis says with a chuckle.

Parker, who was awarded a Bronze Star for his actions in the Gulf, worked directly with Clooney to help make his character more realistic. Some viewers have noticed elements of Parker in Clooney's character, Captain Archie Gates. Clooney himself says in a press release for the film that Parker's experiences and stories were "the driving force behind the character I played."

Unfortunately, Parker never got a chance to see what a fantastic job Clooney did. He died in the midst of filming Three Kings in Arizona, and the film is dedicated to him.

But Parker's brother, Sergeant Major Stan Parker, and Sullivan were both at the world premiere of the film and gave it high praise. Stan Parker serves with the U.S. Special Operations command in Florida and rates the film among the most realistic war movies he's ever seen, comparing it favorably with Saving Private Ryan.

As for Jim Parker, his absence is still keenly felt by friends.

"He was a real character, a real old salt. I miss him greatly," says Davis, who recalls first meeting Parker when the 450th was preparing to go to Iraq. "He said, "I understand you need a sergeant.' I said, "I sure do.' He says, "Well, I want to go with you.' And we put that unit together, and the rest is history."

And, at least in a small way, cinematic history, too.

Mike Tobin can be reached at mtobin@clevescene.com.

More by Mike Tobin


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