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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:


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.


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.


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?


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."


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.

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