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Navy hero wades through waves created by De Niro
Festival's Men of Honor based on
exploits of one-legged soldier


Friday, September 15, 2000

TORONTO -- Several hundred people huddled under umbrellas across the road from Roy Thomson Hall last night, held back by a cordon of police. They were soaked to the proverbial bone, but this didn't dampen their enthusiasm as they chanted: "Robert! Robert! Robert!"

A black stretch limousine pulled up and the shouts became more frantic -- but it wasn't Mr. De Niro. Instead, a large, handsome black man emerged with a barely discernible limp. It was Carl Brashear, and last night's gala Toronto film festival premiere, the big-budget Hollywood feature Men of Honor, was about his life.

Mr. Brashear, 69, was the first African-American deep-sea diver in the U.S. Navy and a decorated war hero. Strolling along the red carpet, he easily passed for a movie star in both looks and comportment.

"God cast me to play the role of a deep-sea diver," said Mr. Brashear, looking very imposing indeed in a black tuxedo. He jokingly shook his prosthetic left leg (he lost the real one in an accident while recovering a sunken nuclear bomb) at the crowd, and handled the TV interviews like a regular on Entertainment Tonight.

Another limo pulled up, and the chants of "Robert" arose anew. A door opened and the crowd cheered -- but it was not Mr. De Niro. It was Cuba Gooding Jr., the Oscar winner (for Jerry Maguire)who plays Mr. Brashear in Men of Honor. People were pretty happy with that. So, evidently, was Mr. Gooding who kissed babies, shook hands and signed autographs like a campaigning politician.

Mr. Gooding tossed off his tux to reveal a chic black vest, which in turn highlighted his chicly enormous biceps. Mr. Gooding evidently enjoyed playing a diver, and gleefully hammed it up on the red carpet. "Seriously," he said between poses, "if you were claustrophobic, you wouldn't have made it in this part. When you're putting on that diving suit, you've really got to learn how to relax."

The assembled fans went mad when yet another stretch limo pulled up. Then they went madder, almost bursting through the line of police and causing some momentary chaos on Simcoe Street. Yes, it was Robert, who plays the racially insensitive but ultimately warm-hearted naval officer in Men of Honor.

Mr. De Niro stepped from the limo, looking deeply worried, cast a quick glance at the scene around him, and bolted into the hall without saying a word.

"We love you," a woman shouted as he disappeared.

A similar crush had been evident a few hours earlier at the Four Seasons Hotel where the cast of Men of Honor assembled for the now obligatory question-and-answer session with media.

For 20 years, various Hollywood studios had toyed with making a film about the life of Mr. Brashear but it only became a reality five years ago when Bill Cosby put his shoulder to the wheel. Mr. Brashear told reporters the movie just scratches the surface of his 33-year military career, but he thinks it's accurate in its essentials.

Though he endured racism for years, he waxed philosophical about the obstacles: "I always told younger men to open your door and go through it. Don't wait for someone to open it for you." His obsession was to "be the best."

Mr. De Niro, dressed in black shirt and jacket, was the target of many questions, and was more loquacious than at his appearance later at Thomson Hall. He often seemed bemused by the predictability of the questions and the obviousness of his own answers. Why did he take certain parts? "Because the writing is good." Was it hard to play a racist? "Well, it was unsavoury in a sense and uncomfortable for me to say some of those lines but that was the character and this is the way some people are."

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