Russell Jack Dann and the ‘Nightbreaker’ film

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 13, 1999

&uot;It’s quite an honor to have a book written about you, but to have a movie made about you is absolutely mind-boggling,&uot; Russell Jack Dann of Albert Lea commented back in 1988.

Friday, August 13, 1999

&uot;It’s quite an honor to have a book written about you, but to have a movie made about you is absolutely mind-boggling,&uot; Russell Jack Dann of Albert Lea commented back in 1988.

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Dann, who grew up in Nashua, Iowa, was one of 170 volunteers from the 82nd Airborne Division who were part of Task Force Big Bang assigned to Operation Plumbbob in southern Nevada in the summer of 1957. This unit participated in two controversial atomic bomb tests called Smoky and Galileo.

As a result of these and other nuclear explosions on the ground and in the atmosphere, Dann and other former military personnel have experienced lingering medical problems. In January 1978, the former U.S. Army corporal testified before a Congressional committee in Washington, D.C., about his participation in the Nevada nuclear tests.

One of the reporters listening to Dann’s testimony was Howard L. Rosenberg, who later did more research and wrote the book &uot;Atomic Soldiers,&uot; published in 1980. This book is partly based on Dann’s life up to this date.

Rosenberg’s book then became the basis for a television script by Thomas S. Cook. This veteran film and television writer has been involved with many productions, including a television movie based on the &uot;Son of Sam&uot; killings in New York City, and the 1979 film called &uot;The China Syndrome&uot; which had a strong radiation danger theme.

Cook, who Dann describes as &uot;a heck of a nice guy,&uot; spent a week in Albert Lea about 1981 gathering material for the script he called &uot;Nightbreaker.&uot; After several revisions and a search for a sponsor, the script was approved for production in 1988. One of the people reportedly backing the &uot;Nightbreaker&uot; film was Ted Turner, owner of WTBS-TV, the Turner Broadcasting System, Cable News Network, and the then new Turner Network Television (TNT) cable channel.

&uot;I never asked for anything from the book or the movie. All I ever wanted is to be paid as a consultant and for my expenses when they made the film,&uot; Dann said back in 1988. His official title for the film was &uot;military era consultant&uot; regarding equipment, uniforms and soldier life in the late 1950s.

Dann and his wife Marge went to Las Vegas, Nev., in October 1988 and watched the filming of several scenes in the rear portion of the Vegas Club which had been leased by the film company.

The filming then shifted to a dry lake bed near Jean, Nev., located southwest of Las Vegas near the California state line. Here, a crew and cast of about 150 people simulated the effects of a military nuclear test with several wind machines and fires on the set. (The actual blast scenes used in &uot;Nightbreaker&uot; are taken from Atomic Energy Commission film footage made at the Nevada test sites in the I950s.)

During his visit to Las Vegas Dann met with actor Joe Pantoliand who played the part of Sgt. Jack Russell in the film. This character was based on Dann’s experiences during and after the Nevada nuclear tests.

Two of the stars featured in &uot;Nightbreaker&uot; were Martin Sheen and Emilio Estavez. This father and son team both portrayed the rather unusual role of Dr. Alex Brown for scenes that shifted or flash backed from the present to the era of the Nevada tests about 30 years earlier.

This film, by the way, was made with absolutely no cooperation from the Department of Defense or the Atomic Energy Commission.

The finished film was first telecast on cable in March 1989 and has been a part of the TNT schedule for the past decade. &uot;Nightbreaker&uot; can also be rented at Video Update in Albert Lea.

A copy of the film sent to me by TNT of Atlanta, Ga. in early 1989 was donated to the Freeborn County Historical Society.

Before closing off this column, I’d like to stress one point. Russell Jack Dann was involved in the making of &uot;Nightbreaker,&uot; but did not actually appear in the television film.

We’ll conclude this series of columns saluting Albert Lea’s atomic soldier next week with information about his activities with several veteran’s organizations and a local towing service.