I have interviewed countless celebrities and filmmakers in my career: George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey, Robert Downey Jr., Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese … the list is long and distinguished.
But I have asked to have my picture taken with only one luminary: Louis Zamperini.
The subject of the best-selling Laura Hillenbrand book and the upcoming Angelina Jolie movie “Unbroken,” Zamperini died Wednesday at age 97 from pneumonia. Befitting his incomparable fortitude, Zamperini fought the disease — which can kill people his age in hours — for 40 days before succumbing.
At every step in his life, Zamperini triumphed over adversity, usually with distinction.
A potential juvenile delinquent, he moved from running from the police in Torrance to running for his country at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
When his World War II plane went down in 1943, he not only survived the crash — only three of the B-24’s crew of 11 escaped the fuselage — but also managed to stay alive for 47 days in a life raft with hardly any provisions. He, Russell Phillips and Francis McNamara (who perished on the raft) killed birds with their bare hands, sipped rainwater and savored shark liver to survive.
But that was hardly the sternest test for Zamperini. When he and Phillips finally reached land, they were promptly captured by the Japanese. And over the course of more than two years, Zamperini was tortured by his captors, principally by the merciless Mutsushiro Watanabe, a Japanese camp commandant known to his prisoners as “The Bird.”
When he was finally liberated, Zamperini was haunted by The Bird, and he became an alcoholic. A visit to a Billy Graham crusade turned his life around, and Zamperini forgave his torturers and became a distinguished humanitarian, working with at-risk youth.
In May, Zamperini was named the 2015 Rose Parade Grand Marshal. The Tournament of Roses is suggesting they won’t replace him, and they shouldn’t: An empty car with his name on the side would be the most fitting tribute.
When I met with Zamperini this spring, in what was apparently his final interview, his health was starting to fail, but his mind was razor-sharp: He recalled the name of the doctor who treated him upon his return from Japan in 1945, told me what kind of candy bar he ate as his first non-prisoner of war food (a Snickers bar) and remembered the news outlet for his initial post-war interview, Time magazine.
He also spoke of his time on the raft, his meeting The Bird, and how his story was nearly turned into a movie a half-century ago, with Tony Curtis penciled in to star.
Scattered across Zamperini’s desk in his Hollywood Hills home were letters from fans of Hillenbrand’s book, many of them young people inspired to change for the better after reading “Unbroken.” “They tell me how much the book has changed their lives,” Zamperini said, and it sounded as if that meant more to him than anything he had ever done.
The movie version is set to be released on Christmas. Before he died, Zamperini saw a little of what Jolie had filmed. “It did, of course, take me back,” he said.
Jolie clearly loved Zamperini and said she felt a huge burden to serve his story well. "It is a loss impossible to describe. We are all so grateful for how enriched our lives are for having known him,” she said in a statement after his death. “We will miss him terribly.”
So will a lot of people. Including me.
This story has been updated.