Sniper Charles Whitman in movies, books and song


This story originally was published on July 29, 1996.

Thirty years later, Charles Whitman is a notch on a timeline of violence. Pain and loss quietly take the back seat to curiosity and even tastelessness as Whitman bubbles up in pop culture. Here are some examples:

WHITMAN IN MOVIES

The made-for-TV movie, "THE DEADLY--TOWER" (1975), turns up on late-night cable from time to time; it also was released once on video under the name "Sniper." Kurt Russell played Whitman (and had only about five lines in the whole movie, not including grunts and voice-overs of Whitman's typewritten au revoirs). Ned Beatty played Allen Crum, the University Co-op employee who was up on the Tower with the cops to do the dirty work. (Speaking of the Tower, it was played by a reasonable look-alike -- the Louisiana state Capitol in Baton Rouge. UT regents nixed all requests from the film's producers to use the Austin campus for filming.)

"FULL METAL JACKET" (1987): Stanley Kubrick's look at Vietnam begins in Marine boot camp, where Sgt. Hartman (Lee Ermey, perhaps moviedom's scariest drill instructor) primes his recruits on the art of sharpshooting: "Do any of you people know who Charles Whitman was? None of you (expletives) know. Private Cowboy?"

"Sir! He was that guy who shot all those people from that tower! Sir!"

"That's affirmative. Charles Whitman killed 12 people at the University of Texas from a distance of 400 yards. ... (Whitman and Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald) showed what one motivated Marine and his rifle can do."

"PARENTHOOD" (1989): In a dream sequence in director Ron Howard's comedy, worried dad Steve Martin imagines that his emotionally disturbed 8-year-old son will overcome his problems and graduate from college with top honors. The fantasy goes wrong as a sorority girl points to the sky and screams, "Someone's shooting from the top of the bell tower!" Bullets fly and people scatter, and Martin steps up and shouts "Why?" to his son the sniper.

"You made me play second base!" the Belltower Boy screams.

"SLACKER" (1991): In Richard Linklater's meandering montage of a day in the life of laid-back Austin, a retired academic (played by real-life UT philosophy professor Louis Mackey) strolls across the 40 Acres and explains to a young burglar the finer points of mayhem.

"Now Charles Whitman, " the old anarchist says, pointing to the Tower, "there was a man. This town's always had its share of crazies. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

"NATURAL BORN KILLERS" (1994): As Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis go on a superviolent murder spree across the American West in Oliver Stone's "serial killer satire," tabloid TV journalist Robert Downey Jr. follows them with breathless live reports. His show, "American Maniacs, " opens with homages to Charles Manson, the Hillside Strangler and Charles Whitman.

WHITMAN IN BOOKS

No one stepped up to write the "Helter Skelter" equivalent of this era's "first mass public safety crisis." (At least two are in the works; one, by Gary Lavergne, a historian and writer living in Austin, will be published next year.)

Mary Frances Gabor Lamport, who was touring the Tower that day with her family and was shot (along with her two sons and sister-in-law) wrote of the incident in "THE IMPOSSIBLE TREE, " (1972, Vantage Press; out of print) focusing on her "epic of faith, courage and solitude." As Mary lies bleeding in the Tower stairwell, she reminds her son (also wounded) not to take the Lord's name in vain. The "impossible tree" is her metaphor for climbing to recovery.

WHITMAN IN SONG

Pop musicians of all flavors have acknowledged Whitman's place in maniac history -- especially punk and metal rockers, who always enjoy a spree. (Recent example: "Sniper in the Sky/Charles Whitman, " by a band called Macabre.) Harry Chapin sang about it in his song "Sniper." Most remembered is Kinky Friedman's "The Ballad of Charles Whitman": He was sitting up there with his .36 Magnum/ Laughing wildly as he bagged 'em/ Who are we to say the boy's insane?

WHITMAN ON THE WEB

Designed in 1994 by Gregory Combs, a UT computer systems employee, the "Charles Whitman Fan Club" features a recap of what happened, with a clickable map of who was shot on what parts of campus and various ruminations on Whitman and the incident. Curious Web browsers also have a chance to leave their comments. "Although it seems like I might be ... mocking the tragedy, " Combs wrote when he launched his site, "I swear to the university as my employer and my place of education (that) it wasn't meant for that."

WHITMAN WEAR

Found -- one Whitman "Be True to Your School--" T-shirt at XO, 1716 S. Congress Ave. (half-price!) featuring the "All-American" sniper and the Tower.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Featured

FAA missed chance to ground balloon pilot before deadly Lockhart crash
FAA missed chance to ground balloon pilot before deadly Lockhart crash

Alfred “Skip” Nichols, the chief pilot and owner of the Heart of Texas Balloon Rides, shouldn’t have been flying on the morning of July 30, 2016, when he crashed and died along with 15 passengers. Two years earlier, the Federal Aviation Administration had learned of his lengthy criminal record of alcohol-related driving offenses...
Why so many Texas teachers accused of improprieties are never charged
Why so many Texas teachers accused of improprieties are never charged

Hundreds of Texas primary and secondary teachers lost or surrendered their teaching licenses since 2010 after being investigated for improper relationships with a student. More than half were never criminally charged. In all of those cases, information about the alleged misconduct isn’t easily accessible from the Texas Education Agency and in...
Austin crime lab bucked DNA standard for years, yet got passing grades
Austin crime lab bucked DNA standard for years, yet got passing grades

In 2010, an influential national organization of scientists devoted to ensuring that forensic labs employ only the latest and best methods of analyzing DNA evidence published a new set of guidelines. In essence, the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods concluded that analysts should use the quality of genetic samples, rather than the quantity...
Victim tries to buy gun sniper used
Victim tries to buy gun sniper used

An Austin man who was shot by Charles Whitman 23 years ago and another man who talked to the sniper on the morning of the massacre are trying to buy two guns from the "Whitman Collection" being offered for sale by a Dallas-area gun dealer. Morris Hohmann was an ambulance attendant for Hyltin-Manor Funeral Chapel when he was struck by a 6mm...
Killer of UT Tower sniper leaving law enforcement
Killer of UT Tower sniper leaving law enforcement

The law enforcement officer who climbed to the top of the University of Texas Tower and killed sniper Charles Whitman has reconciled himself to being remembered primarily for his actions on Aug. 1, 1966. Ramiro "Ray" Martinez, 54, said he would prefer to be recalled as a man who did any job that had to be done, then moved on to the next job...
More Stories