You might recognize actor Tucker Smallwood from his appearances in some of America’s best-loved, award-winning television series – including Seinfeld, The X-Files, Friends, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise – his roles in more than 30 films, or his compelling performances on and off Broadway in more than 40 theatrical productions. But this former U.S. Army infantryman is now taking on an even grander stage, advocating for fellow veterans and sharing his experiences from the Vietnam War.
Smallwood’s critically acclaimed performances have been dubbed “beautifully nuanced” and “mesmerizing,” with reviewer Tom Jacobs praising Smallwood’s domination of the stage in Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, saying: “He gives a remarkably rich portrayal of a man on a mission.” But Smallwood doesn’t just portray a man on a mission – he is one. After serving in the U.S. Army, Smallwood now advocates for veteran care, specifically post-traumatic stress disorder, and is a celebrity ambassador for Veterans in Film and Television.
In the spring of 1967, while Smallwood was directing television for Baltimore station WBAL, he was drafted into the U.S. Army. A year later, he was commissioned as a U.S. Army infantry officer and served as a TAC Officer at Fort Benning, Georgia, before attending Airborne School (also known as Jump School) and Vietnamese Language School. In 1969, he was deployed to Vietnam, where he commanded a five-man Mobile Advisory Team (MAT-36) in the Mekong Delta before being wounded in action. Recovering from his injuries at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center – a process that entailed months of hospitalization and surgeries – Smallwood managed to stay active by teaching patrolling, ambush, escape and evasion techniques at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
In 1970, Smallwood resigned his commission to pursue a New York City acting career. He mastered technical acting skills at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre – an education made possible by the GI Bill – and was mentored by the renowned acting teacher Sanford Meisner. In addition to roles in an NBC soap opera, children’s television and public affairs programming, Smallwood received an Emmy nomination for his role as host of the CBS news New York City magazine, CHANNEL 2: The People, in 1974.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Smallwood made appearances in several feature films – including The Cotton Club and Presumed Innocent – and was the spokesman for more than 1,000 radio and television spots. He later moved to Los Angeles, where he enjoyed considerable success starring in guest roles on TV sitcoms and dramas, most notably in the science fiction genre. With performances in the series Space: Above and Beyond, The X-Files and Babylon 5, and the films Contact and Deep Impact, he expanded his repertoire and solidified his television and film presence.
Vietnam Roots: Advocacy To Help His Fellow Veterans
Smallwood continues to expand his impressive résumé with personal projects and veteran advocacy. In 2004, Smallwood returned to Vietnam for the first time since leaving the war-torn region in 1969. His visit inspired the 2006 memoir Return to Eden, an anthology of essays exploring his experience during the Vietnam War. The 244-page memoir provides poignant, at times humorous, insight into the conflict’s lasting impact on Smallwood. On his personal website, he explained his desire to share such a personal account, writing: “I published Return to Eden to put a human face on the troubling condition that is PTSD. Many of our returning veterans will struggle for quality of life without available resources for counseling and treatment.”
In a speech delivered to attendees of the 2013 Operation American Patriot gala in Scottsdale, Arizona, Smallwood described his last day in combat – a trauma he seldom discussed until 40 years after the event. On September 14, 1969, Smallwood’s MAT-36 mission was compromised. The MAT-36 was ambushed, Smallwood’s throat artery was severed and other members of his five-man team received fatal wounds. “Surgeons agree I should have been unconscious or dead within 15 minutes, but because I knew headquarters would not authorize an extraction unless I called it in, I had to stay conscious because no one here spoke English,” Smallwood said. He whispered into his radio for 20 minutes before receiving a response to send an extraction unit.
“For many years afterward around the end of August or early September, I’d start having bad dreams. I’d wake up soaked in sweat, I would smell the jungle,” Smallwood said. Though he recognizes his triggers and the persistence of trauma, Smallwood frankly discusses his therapy and antidepressant use, urging veterans to seek appropriate help for their unseen wounds.
Supporting Academy Award-Nominated Portrayals Of Service
Smallwood has also served on the board of the Soldiers Project, a 501(c)(3) organization providing free, confidential psychological services to post-9/11 U.S. military veterans and their loved ones, and is a current celebrity ambassador of Veterans in Film and Television (VFT), an organization uniting current and former U.S. military members working in the film industry. VFT members have been cast in major motion pictures, including American Sniper, which was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award in 2015, and have produced and directed critically acclaimed films. This year, VFT member Hank Hughes’ short film, Day One, has been nominated for an Academy Award.
Immortalized on-screen for his compelling presence, lauded for his frank discussion of war and trauma and appreciated for his advocacy in the military and veteran communities, Smallwood and his accomplishments are nothing short of extraordinary. But Amazon user John F. Jolis, reviewing Return to Eden, perhaps said it best: “I feel safe in saying that you won’t soon forget either the book or the man.”
To keep up with Smallwood and his latest projects, follow his personal blog or visit his website.