“Unbroken,” the blockbuster biopic directed by Angelina Jolie about the incredible life of Olympic athlete and World War II hero Louis Zamperini opens on Christmas. We got glimpse into the real Zamperini from two of the people who knew him best – his children.
Having a celebrated war hero for a father is an unusual experience. Having one who is also an Olympic athlete is another. And when a major motion picture is made on his life’s story, brought to the screen by none other than Angelina Jolie, that’s when things start getting strange.
Cynthia Zamperini-Garris and Luke Zamperini took to the marketing trail of Unbroken with a bit of melancholy. After all, their father, the already-notable but soon-to-be world famous Louis Zamperini, died earlier this year at the age of 97. “The experience of talking about him to press the last few days has been quite helpful with our grieving process,” son Luke told me during a brief chat in a corner suite at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in New York.
More than anything, the siblings delighted in speaking about their remarkable father. Not that it was pulling teeth to learn a few things about them, too. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
A Great Movie, But Hard To Watch
Louis Zamperini did his share of suffering. A plane crash, 47 days adrift in an open boat, abused in a hidden Japanese prison and then a POW camp. At the camp, he was singled out by the cruel commander, possibly because of his notoriety as an Olympic runner.
“The POW camp was tough to sit through,” Luke confessed, even though he knew it was just a movie. “I sat there saying ‘I just don’t know if I can watch my dad get beat up anymore.’”
Cynthia’s take on the grueling sequences in the lifeboat were a little different. “You get to see my father coming up with solutions. He loved challenges. He loved to set goals. I’m not saying he had a great time on that raft, though!”
The (very handsome) 24-year-old British actor Jack O’Connell is extraordinary in the role of Louis Zamperini in Unbroken. When he needs to keep his comrades’ spirits up (and attention focused) he regales them with tales of his mother’s masterful Italian cooking, especially her gnocchi. So, were Mama Zamperini’s light potato dumplings really that good?
“The best thing you’ve ever eaten,” Luke quickly fired back.
“They served gnocchi at an event for the film last night. My husband has had it two nights in a row at the hotel,” Cynthia joked. And while Universal Pictures surely hired a fine caterer, nothing quite compares to her memory. “Her gnocchi was light as a pillow. To my father’s dying day, that was his favorite dish on earth. That and his mother’s cookies; she made the best Italian shortbread cookies.
“Oh my God, the butter cookies!” Cynthia’s younger brother interrupted. “Amazing. The biscotti. But she called them dog biscuits.”
“We waited and waited all year for those Christmas cookies,” Cynthia said with a smile.
War and the Movies
As someone who suffered through the war firsthand, you might think Louis Zamperini wouldn’t much care for Hollywood’s version – particularly films from the early days that edited out so much of the harsher aspects. But that wasn’t the case.
“He loved them,” Cynthia recalled. “He loved war movies, and he loved cowboy movies. Because he was an old cowboy, too. That was his favorite job ever, was riding the fences — repairing fences on a ranch when he was a young man.”
But Luke remembers it a little different. “Well, there was the one time we took him to go see Memphis Belle. We thought, ‘Ah, this is great, flyboys and bombers.”‘ And he was infuriated because the characters were all crybabies. He goes, ‘We weren’t crybabies. We were tough as nails!’”
This jogged Cynthia’s memory a bit about the mid-80s show “Amazing Stories.” “There was one hour-long episode called The Mission that Steven Spielberg directed,” Cynthia recalled. “And of course, Dad watched it, and it infuriated him and all of his buddies because it had them leaving their posts to try to help the guy who was stuck in the turret underneath. And Dad was saying, ‘We would never leave our posts. Never. We would never sit there weeping over a comrade we were going to lose, and leave our posts!'”
Even though dad was an Olympic runner, neither child ended up doing much with sports. Unless you count ballet, which certainly is an athletic achievement.
Cynthia’s success as a dancer was no joke. “I was an extra whenever major ballet companies would come to town, and I had a one-year stint with the San Francisco Ballet and various regional ballets. And Rudolf Nureyev bowed to me on stage!”
Louis helped young Cynthia train, offering advice on her practicing and putting her on a high-protein diet. “He had steaks and glasses of milk waiting for his little athlete.”
Luke plays a lot of golf, but joked this may not be much of an athletic achievement. In his younger years he played guitar with some rock bands, and recalls his father discussing tips for stamina during performances.
For those who remember their classic rock, Luke did a stint with the band Sparks. He wasn’t on any of their albums (they had a mild hit with the song “Big Boy” in 1976) but Cynthia was quick to boast that Luke played with the band in the movie “Rollercoaster.”
“It was a George Segal movie from 1977. In Sensurround! A disaster movie.” She continued, practically socking her brother on the arm.
“Yeah, I don’t own a copy of it,” Luke said through laughter.