Mark Ebenhoch is not your typical former U.S. Marine. He's an HIV-positive man who's become a voice for equality for gay people, at first behind the scenes, but now front and center when the opportunity arises.
But the Big Pine Key resident is also a Hollywood veteran who's worked with Oliver Stone, Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Cuba Gooding Jr. and others as a technical military film advisor. He also advised the crew and played himself in “Platoon,” the 1986 Vietnam War movie that gave rise to the careers of Sheen, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Depp and Willem Defoe.
These days, Ebenhoch is known as the media conduit for Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, Key West bartenders who were among the Florida couples who sued to get Florida's same-sex-marriage ban overturned. Since then he has focused his energy on equality. For example, this year he addressed Naval Air Station Key West personnel on equality and tolerance.
As for Hollywood, the wild and “winning” Sheen came out a few weeks ago saying he's been HIV-positive for four years, that he knows about.
“When I knew him, he was much younger and in the wild-oat years, growing up and growing older,” Ebenhoch said. “Today I hope he realizes some of us, well, I don't know what I'd say to him. I'm hoping that he has gotten older and wiser and he's realized that what he was doing wasn't so cool later in life.”
Ebenhoch, 56, allowed the world to know he was similarly sexually reckless when younger in a 1996 New York Times Sunday Magazine cover piece titled “Flirting with Suicide,” about the dawn of the HIV crisis. He was among several people profiled after answering a questionnaire on AOL and it served as his public coming-out as gay.
At the time, he said, his commanders and colleagues knew he was gay but had no problem with it. Still, “That was when my military career was coming to an end. I didn't expect it to be a cover story,” the former gunnery sergeant said. “That was the death knell for my career in Hollywood. It's funny but Hollywood can be homophobic.”
That said, how does a Marine get tapped for Hollywood? Ebenhoch, in the Marines from 1982 until 2000 (there was a brief stint in 1977), says it actually wasn't that difficult. It started with Dale Dye, a retired Marine who founded the Los Angeles-based Warriors Inc., a movie consulting firm.
“Dale Dye had watched movies growing up all through his time in the military,” he said. “Dale's first movie, 'Invaders From Mars' [in 1986], he contacted us and said can you contact one of your units for some work. It was my work ethic that Dale saw that he wanted to me to continue. Not everyone can walk up and say I'm a military advisor.”
“In the '80s and '90s we built a model. The model was to immerse the actors in the military. We weren't allowed phones and beers and sleeping in hotels. We were in jungles just like the military. It was part of the contract; if you didn't like it, you wouldn't do it.”
“A lot of people have done that before me,” Dye said. “But I thought there was a hole in that contribution that advisors made, the proper ribbons, the clothing. There was something desperately lacking. They didn't understand how we speak, how we are with each other. Because frankly the military experience is the antithesis of Hollywood. Hollywood is, ‘My lines, how do I look.’
“To make [the actors] live as soldiers, to reinforce it.... how we become interdependent, I thought that was lacking, there was a way to improve it. What folks would see is the real military mindset.”
For “Platoon,” the improvement came during two weeks in the jungles of the Philippines.
“Director “Oliver Stone trusted me. As a former soldier, he said, 'I think you're right,'” Dye said. “I had all the actors. They lived rough, exactly how we lived in Vietnam. No phones, we made them live in the holes they dug. What happened is they morphed into real soldiers. They couldn't help but reflect those things now that they were out of training. They just knew how to behave as soldiers. It's full immersion.”
Most of Ebenhoch's work , including “Dead Presidents” in 1995, was during his active and reserve duty.
“Public Affairs said I would be able to take leave,” Ebenhoch said. “All my commanders were aware of it; they liked the fact of the publicity. I was given a lot of leeway by my command. There were a couple of films I couldn't do because we were deployed oversees in the early 1990s. We had Desert Storm. I was in Okinawa, State Department security. That was one thing they wouldn't let me walk away from.”
Come around “Born on the Fourth of July” in 1989, for which he was a tech advisor with Dye, “we had as much power as the director did. We worked for the producer so the director had to work with us. How to film specific shots, how to do things. We had to approve wardrobe. If it wasn't correct, we told them go back. We worked on set design, script, the correct vernacular used for the time and period. We did tons of research before we did the movies.
“When we did ['The Beast of War' in 1988], special effects, this is the correct tracer to use, this is the wrong color. So all facets of film-making, they had to approve it through us or it didn't get done.”
For “Platoon,” he said, “when we first hired on, Oliver Stone wanted to meet the assistant advisors Dale wanted. Everyone met. He said, 'Can I use these guys as characters in the film?' We could play 19-year-olds. My character was PFC John Adams. After about three or four weeks of filming, he wanted to use my real name. It was not a run-of-the-mill generic American name. Mine was extremely difficult and he liked it.
“You can see me throughout the film. My claim to fame in that film is my award-winning belch during the poker game,” Ebenhoch said. “It was an accident during an overnight shoot. We reshot that scene many times. I was drinking soda, they eventually brought in real beer, which helped.”
He says it wasn't all serious on the set. For 1995's “Outbreak,” about a spreading virus starring Dustin Hoffman and Morgan Freeman, “We were filming around the well in an African village [actually Hawaii], the set designers created this well. Cuba [Gooding Jr.] thought the size of the well was only as deep as he could see, 18 inches.” It was 15 feet across and deep.
“We're kind of in a break in the middle of setups. He thought he could walk on water like Jesus. Being Hollywood, it would be only a few inches deep. As he stepped across the water, he was completely submerged in water. The look on his face was, Oh [crap]. We laughed hysterically for half an hour. Then we had to come back. He was wireless in his suit. He ruined the sound equipment for that day. His eyes opened when he realized … this is not 18 inches deep. He's a good trooper.”
Now Ebenhoch's focus is on equality for gay people. “William and Aaron, one person I met here knew I had a background in Hollywood. When Aaron's case went wide open, someone said to him why don't you get with Mark, he has connections. That's when Aaron asked me, I told him sure, I had nothing else to do. Plus it was a good cause.”
Huntsman said they found a connection in a movie “Beach Babes and Beyond,” a terrible, campy movie in which Huntsman had a role when he lived in Southern California.
“I had the best tan, they put me up in the A group,” Huntsman said.