James McEachin — Actor, Author, Silver Star & Purple Heart Recipient

Beyond the Duty. James McEachin on a sunny day with trees in background
James McEachin is a Silver Star and Purple Heart recipient, veteran of the Korean War, an accomplished actor, and an award-winning author. McEachin is perhaps best known for his roles on Perry Mason, Matlock, Play Misty For Me, and his NBC series Tenafly. He enjoyed an illustrious career and eventually retired. Since retirement, McEachin has authored six novels, multiple screenplays, and his one-man play, entitled Above the Call; Beyond the Duty, which opened at DC’s Kennedy Center in 2008. The two-hour play has been seen in places as far away as Kuwait. McEachin began the year 2013 by releasing Tell Me a Tale: A Novel of the Old South as an audio book and is currently working on his film project The Purple Heart. Alabama’s Mobile Area Veteran’s Day Commission selected McEachin as their 2013 Patriot of the Year for his continued work with veterans. On November 1, 2013, the GI Film Festival awarded him the 2013 GIFF Veteran in Entertainment Award for his many patriotic appearances and performances.

Cooper: Tell me about your acting career.

James McEachin: Acting was never really that important for me. It was something I just did. I always found it kind of strange. There were roles you wanted to do and a lot of roles you were glad you didn’t do.

Cooper: How did you get into acting?

McEachin: Totally by accident. I was walkin’ down the street—

Cooper: A car accident?

McEachin: It wasn’t an accident. (laughs) I didn’t even have a car. No, I was walkin’ down the street and a guy approached me. I was going up to see a friend of mine by the name of Geordie Hormel, son of Hormel meats. He had an office on Melrose Boulevard. I was going up to see him, and this guy comes down the same side of the street and takes a look at me and he asks, “Ain’t you an actor?” I said, “No.” The guy said, “You want to be one?” I said, “No, no, out of my league.” He said, “I wrote this script, this role, this guy looks just like you. I’m going up to see the producer now we’re going to start shooting in a matter of a few weeks.” I said, “No, that’s not for me.”

He says, “Why don’t we have a lunch, and we can talk about it?” Well, the guy was a little pushy and I said, “I’ll take the lunch,” but if the guy tries something funny, I’m gonna pop him in the mouth—but I’m gonna eat first (laughs).

He was so hyped up over this movie. So I took the script, and I put it in the trunk of the car and I forgot about it. A couple of weeks later I get a call asking, “You gonna do the movie?” My wife was in the kitchen, and I said, “Hey, Hon, there’s some guy wantin’ me to be involved in a movie. Do you think I should do it?” She said, “Well, you might as well. You’ve bombed out on everything else you’ve ever done.” (laughs) I said, “OK.”

We went down to Bakersville, and we shot the picture. It’s about some guy masquerading as a Klansman,

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something silly. We had a three-week or four-week shooting schedule, but the problem was, I didn’t know you had to memorize dialogue. I didn’t know that you didn’t have to just pose and do things naturally. It took me forever to learn that. Even though I didn’t know anything about acting, I knew what bad acting was. (laughs) I think I had a patent on bad acting! It was terrible. But I survived.

top left McEachin standing in next to sandbags, top right McEachin smiling with old army buddies Bottom left: McEachin in green army uniform salutes officer while standing in front of a walker. McEAchin and purple heart imageI ended up with another movie, a little short thing with Doris Day. I had five or six lines in that film. I also found out that the pay was a hell of a lot different.

McEachin: Oh, that came years later. In acting, the whole thing is getting a job, finding a role. And obviously there weren’t many roles for blacks. Most of those guys who were getting the jobs came out of New York Repertory Theater Company—people like Roscoe Lee Browne. They were sort of snobbish and stand-offish.

Cooper: Being a black actor, in those days, was difficult?

McEachin: Difficult to get a job, yeah, and then you had to fight the many conspiracies on the set. You’re about to say something important and a lamp goes off. The white man could be a terrible son of a bitch when he wanted to be.

Cooper: You lost me there about the light going off.

McEachin: You’re the black guy, in a close-up doing some heavy acting, boom! a light or something like that, goes out, and you’ve got to do it all over again.

Cooper: Oh, they’re just screwin’ with you?

McEachin: Yeah.

Cooper: Tenafly was on NBC?

McEachin: Originally NBC pulled the plug after one year, and it went into syndication. We got some terrific reviews on it.

You know, they wanted to show it before Cosby, they wanted to show a family of situation, a black guy with his wife, the whole nine yards. But the people really liked him, but the network sabotaged the numbers.

Cooper: What does “Tenafly” mean?

McEachin: That was the name of a city, they just liked the name and they asked me what I thought about it, and I said fine. So my name was Tenafly.

Cooper: How did you get involved in supporting the veterans?

McEachin: One day a lawyer friend of mine, his wife used to work for the Department of Defense, she said to him, “Do you know of any Korean war veterans who can make a speech for us?” He said, “Yeah, my good friend McEachin.” They called and I said, “Well, yeah, I’ll do it.” And they were all the more pleased I was a Korean war veteran, with a Purple Heart, Gold Star and I had a television series.

And one speech went over very, very well, and years later David Huddleston and I did a thing called Reveille. It was a little short film for the Internet, and we had over six million hits.

Cooper: Nice! Can we talk about post-traumatic stress disorder—when did you realize you had PTSD?

McEachin: I think when it first manifested itself was at an incident about a couple years after I got out of the service. It was at a policeman’s ball, and I just really lost it. Writhing on the floor. You’re hearing explosions and all of that stuff, ‘cause I didn’t really believe in battle fatigue or any of that stuff.

Cooper: That’s what they called it back then, battle fatigue?

McEachin: Yes. So I really didn’t believe in it. And I think the image came from General Patton, who went into the hospital, yelling “Get out of that bed and get back on the front lines!” That kind of made sense, because it was less manly, it seemed okay to me. That is before understanding battle fatigue or PTSD. But I went to the department, and obviously I had a gun on me, but you’re a cop with a mental problem. Not nice, right?

James McEachin Tenafly, James Gardner, Larry Hagman, Leonard NimoySo I had to go to the hospital to be diagnosed, and I was found to be all right, according to them, and I’ve had no problem since then.

Cooper: Being wounded caused the PTSD?

McEachin: Oh, there’s no question about it. There was all the explosions and hearing from the loss of Lieutenant Schenk, which lasted from that day to this day. But I think it started to—I don’t want to say intensify, but this thought or this holding onto the memory of that incident kind of went away a little bit after the girl found the medal some 50 years later and then—it bothers me, or it crosses my mind, but it doesn’t bother me, that the guys that saved you and the whole nine yards. But I had always felt that he never received his—Lieutenant Schenk I’m talkin’ about—never received anything for what he did, and the same thing with the blond-haired boy, you know. They never got anything, any sort of just rewards for having saved a life.

Cooper: And that life was your life?

McEachin: Yeah.

Cooper: You got shot several times?

McEachin: I was shot and shrapnel landed on this side of my body.

Cooper: On the left side?

McEachin: Yeah. And I remember in the hospital when I woke up, on my bed stand there was this piece of metal. I gather the doctor must have given it to me as a souvenir. And wouldn’t you know, some son of a bitch stole. It was something I really wanted.

The other wound was here, which is a two- or three-inch scar. That was enough to slow me down that morning when we were trying to make our way back to our company lines. What had happened was that we went out on a patrol to rescue a fellow GI who was pinned against the wall.

Cooper: Someone who was pinned?

McEachin: Yeah. They had him splayed against the hill—you could see with binoculars. Naturally we didn’t have any binoculars because we were the grunts. But the officers could see. Our company CO made up his mind that we were gonna go and rescue that boy, ‘cause nobody’s gonna go and take one of our guys pin him up against a hill, the day before we had gone and mounted an attack against them. This time it was us against them and not them against us.

We wanted to save the boy, so Lieutenant Schenk, who was one of the officers in the company, assigned this—called for volunteers to go out that night at 0800 to rescue the guy.

Cooper: 0800, is that nighttime?

McEachin: 2000 hours, thank you for catching me. In fact, I think I made the same mistake in the screenplay.

Cooper: You made the same mistake when you went out in the morning?

McEachin: (laughs) I’m gonna look at this, too, to see if I made that mistake, ‘cause that’s a critical mistake. So we went out, following this path, finding our way to get over to the hill. Well, now, as you look back, you know that we were walking into an ambush, smack dab into one, and I was point guard, point meaning that you were the first guy and the lieutenant is behind you because he’s reconnoitering the area, so to speak. And the next thing you know, all hell broke loose. I don’t want to go through that whole thing again.

I don’t know how long I was out, whether it was an hour, whether it was 10 minutes. But I know that I found myself on my knees in this creek, and that water goin’ drip (pause) drip (pause) drip. I’m tryin’ to come to my senses, and what the hell is that. I’m moving my hand up my jacket, and there’s a little hole—

Cooper: In the jacket?

McEachin: —And I know I’m hit because I know that’s blood and it kind of had that smell to it. And then this side started hurting, and then as I tried to move, these legs, I don’t know if I’m stuck in the mud or what, but there was a damn wound here. And God, I’m in trouble. It’s amazing how God just steps in, and there is a God, I know that, I talked to him. “Let me get out of this, sir.” So I—oh, wow, that was a hard day. But I knew I had to get out of that water.

I remember being on my knees, and that’s why the water was drip, drip—

Cooper: You heard the dripping from your blood.

James McEachin, Clint EastwoodMcEachin: Yeah. So I crawled out of the water, and it’s beginning to feel numb. At first it was kind of warm, and then you gotta move. You gotta get outta here. And then I heard Chinese voices kind of fading away in the distance. I was kind of familiar with the language, I didn’t know it, but I was familiar with it. As I got about maybe 10, 15 yards, I heard a voice saying, “Who goes there?”

I said, “I’m an American soldier.” From out of the brush, in total darkness, I think he asked me what outfit was I with, and I said, “I’m with Kane company,” a couple of other questions, and then he came over to me. It was pitch black out there, remember, and then he started to help me. And then we talked, and he tried to push me out of the water and I’m like, “Ow, don’t do that!” I remember those voices going, “Am I too loud? We can’t be talkin’ too loud.”

This was the most patient, the most kind, peace-inducing person that you’d ever want to meet; I’d never known anyone that wonderful. He was struggling like a son of a gun to get me out. He had no question about me being saved. Then finally he tried to placate me some more, and we got out some distance away from the creek and then he could really see how messed up I was. His attitude was, “I’ll get you out of here.”

Cooper: You had a piece of metal in you?

McEachin: Yeah, so he couldn’t lift me up on this side, and then he’d get around and try to do it on this side here and then he’d start dragging. You name it, he tried it. What he really wanted to do is the old way where you used to put the guy piggyback on your back. He couldn’t do that, either, because now I can’t really move this hand to do anything to help him. And then the more he would—the more footsteps that he would take, the more this would hurt. And don’t forget, this side was numb. This leg, now I’m thinking seriously, they’re gonna have to cut my leg off. Oh, God!

But somehow he made it. He was scuffling and carrying on.

Cooper: And you call him the blond guy?

McEachin: The blond-haired boy, yeah.

Cooper: You never got his name?

McEachin: Never got to know his name. Didn’t know what outfit he was from. Guy kind of looks a little like you, you know what I’m sayin’?

Cooper: I wanted to say hi again, how’ve you been?

McEachin: (laughs) And then one time I was goin’ shoot the guy, I was gonna kill him.

Cooper: It wasn’t me. Because he left you?

McEachin: I thought he was gonna leave me. One time he set me down maybe after an hour or a couple of hours, I had no idea of time. It’s very brushy, but only the vegetation was on this side, and I crawled out on the other side. Boom! Some goddamn big 16mm gun. I can see the guy pacing back and forth. He’s coming over here to look, ‘cause I don’t think he knew how he got there.

Cooper: Oh, he was lost?

McEachin: Yeah. He’s lost. But he was also looking for the easiest way—so he would stay there and think it over.

Cooper: But in your mind he’s leaving you?

McEachin: I’m thinking that this guy here—

Cooper: Would you want to shoot him for leaving?

McEachin: Yeah, yeah! (laughs) And I had a grenade, which was surely faulty thinking, because there was no way I could lob a grenade that far. I couldn’t raise this arm that high.

Cooper: But it was also faulty thinking to kill somebody who’s already helped you.

McEachin: I was gonna shoot him, I really was. In fact, I address that in the screenplay.

Cooper: But you never got to tell him anything like, ‘thank you’?

McEachin: We talked. We had a running dialogue going.

Cooper: Good.

McEachin: Yeah. I exaggerate what we talked about in the screenplay because I couldn’t remember all of the dialogue, but I remember his attitude.

Cooper: Did you mention the part that you thought he was leaving and you were thinking about shooting him, or was that kept to yourself?

McEachin: Oh, no, I told him.

Cooper: You did?

McEachin: I said, “I was gonna shoot you,” and he said something like, “If you’re gonna do it, you’d better do it in a hurry, because I think the Chinese are on our tail again.” He was that kind of a guy.

Cooper: Nice. (laughs)

McEachin: I really was gonna blast—and I come back to that same thought at the end of that segment wherein we finally made it back to our lines, I think it was late afternoon, I’m not sure.

Cooper: 0800?

McEachin: (laughs) I said, “You know I was gonna shoot you?” I reminded him of that. But I also said, “Hey,” as he put me down and started to go back here and the litter bearers tried to help out, so I said, “Hey,” as he walked away, “I never did get your name!” And he said, “That’s OK, I never got yours. Let’s just say that we’re brothers under the skin, because names have a way of ruining things,”and I said, “Isn’t that strange?” So as he fades away, the camera comes back on me and I say, “And you were gonna shoot that guy! How in the hell could you be so dumb that you were gonna shoot the son of God?”

Cooper: Did you see anyone, a psychologist or a psychiatrist?

McEachin: Only after that episode at the policeman’s ball where something triggered me and Johnson, who was the police sergeant, said, “Get his gun! Get his gun!” Which is the same gun I used all last night in the piece, because I have my off-duty pistol.

Cooper: You had mentioned you were a police officer, and you were there when a young person was killed.

McEachin: We got a call, a B&E call, breaking and entering. Carlton, it was his post, so he was first to respond to the call. He started chasing the guy and he was running and I got there in my car, I was in 103. I started running and chasing, too. Carlton hit the guy with one of his bullets, and I tackled him.

Cooper: He was running, after he was shot?

McEachin: Yeah, he was still running. The next thing I know, all the other patrol cars came, and that college student is dead. I didn’t shoot him, as I say in the play, but I was there, and that is not a comfortable feeling. This was in the city. I don’t know how it turned out, because when I left, I washed my hands of the whole entire thing. Now, your next question is, did I leave because of that? No. That was a part of it. I left because of the fact that the injuries from drinking all that filthy water when I was in the creek, I got tuberculosis and that lasted for a long time. I came out here to be cured and heal. And the episode of that night just kind of latched onto it, fused itself into it.

The thing about it is, nobody ever said, “Were you really a cop? Did you really participate in the shooting?” Nobody’s ever questioned me on that.

Cooper: Did you have any therapy?

McEachin: They want to double-check you to make sure you’re doing alright, but not any sort of treatment. I do know that I started doing the play, and I really think that the one-man play called Above the Call; Beyond the Duty, helped me, and I touch briefly on that episode, and that occurrence.

Cooper: The episode in Korea?

McEachin: Yeah, where I got wounded. You can’t tell a play if you don’t tell the story of his life, unless you tell that pivotal moment.

Cooper: His life being your life?

McEachin: Yes.

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