A new documentary tells the tale of William Colby, the enigmatic intelligence agent and C.I.A. director, and the family he kept at a distance
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In TV and film, this seems to be a banner year for spies. From The Hour to Homeland to The Debt to (in December) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, espionage has been one of the most reliable sources for recent drama. Going back to 1932 when Garbo played Mata Hari, the subject has always been a staple for Hollywood. At last count, the James Bond 007 franchise has generated more than $1.5 billion in box office revenue.
This weekend, moviegoers will get a decidedly different—and refreshing—take on spycraft with the release of The Man Nobody Knew. Even though it's a documentary, the picture plays like some of the best spy films. It's the story of William Colby, who spent most of his life in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
In 1973, President Richard Nixon appointed Colby director of the CIA. Getting that job was the crowning achievement for a man whose life mission was fighting Nazis and communists. But two years later, it seemed to come crashing down around Colby when the Nixon administration was engulfed by the Watergate scandal and the CIA disclosed hundreds of examples of purported illegality (mind control and LSD experiments on unwitting humans, attempted assassinations, etc., now known as the "family jewels") going back to the '50s. The press and Congress charged the CIA with widespread allegations of overall corruption and massive abuse of power.
William Colby was left out on the firing line during this Washington upheaval—but he remained agile in his defense of the clandestine service. The Man Nobody Knew opens with a riveting scene of Colby facing criticism from a Congressional committee focused on the supposed immorality of targeting dictators and other tyrants for assassination. "I am against assassination," says Colby. "I think it's counter-productive and I've issued directives against it. But I confess in the dark reaches of my mind I would have very cheerfully helped carry the bomb into Hitler's bunker in 1944."
As The Man Nobody Knew reveals, whenever William Colby stepped into the breach, be it in Italy, Vietnam, or the Senate hearing room, he had a signature style: grace under pressure, steely cool, always in American trad clothes, and P-3 style eyeglasses. Colby's matte bone specs were such a part of his persona that when he died, New York Times correspondent Tim Weiner memorialized him this way: "When asked a question he did not care to answer, Colby would tilt back his head so light reflected off the lenses of his glasses, turning his eyes into blank white disks."
Colby's son, Carl, is the man behind this new picture as director/producer. In his other documentaries, Carl chronicled Bob Marley, Frank Gehry, and Franco Zeffirelli. This picture hits closest to home. "My father had just joined the CIA when I was born in Washington in 1951," he says, "and my mother had just learned this. We shipped off to Sweden two weeks later, where my father worked setting up 'stay-behind nets' in Scandinavia and the Baltic States and running covert ops into Soviet-occupied nations along the Baltic Sea."
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Making a picture that's a truthful examination of the life and work of one's father can be tough going for anyone, but it's especially difficult when your dad's expertise was keeping secrets. In the film, Carl and his mother, Barbara Colby, tell the story of a man who said little regarding his work and accomplishments, which ranged from parachuting behind enemy lines in Nazi-controlled France and Norway during World War II (Colby was a member of the "Jeds," an international contingent opposing the Nazis) to placing secret agents in communist North Vietnam in the early Sixties.
Often it was as though the Colby family was a cast of characters in a spy game. On what seemed to be casual weekend picnics, Carl's dad passed envelopes to men in gray suits. When Carl was in grade school in Rome, his father was operating undercover, trying to prevent the Soviet Union from transforming a left-leaning postwar Italy into more of its repressive regime. A few years later, Carl was growing up in Saigon. He would listen to bombs exploding nearby as the Vietcong readied for war.
In The Man Nobody Knew, moviegoers will meet a man who was called heroic only to be then labeled a war criminal and even worse by the end of his career. There's a family story here, too. During William Colby's time in Vietnam, his daughter, Catherine, dies in the U.S. from a battle with epilepsy and anorexia. Twenty years later, apparently still racked by questions of whether he did enough to help her, the former CIA chief mysteriously disappeared while on a solo canoe outing in Maryland. His body was discovered nine days later, and authorities concluded that he had either a stroke or heart attack and drowned, age 76.
The questions posed by this picture and Colby's life work are vital: What's the place of secrecy in an open society? Do the ends justify the means when the ends may include saving innocent lives and preserving freedom? The answers matter especially today, when the headlines are about drones killing an American terrorist and other issues that come with a war that's lasted more than a decade.
We spoke with Carl Colby in Beverly Hills.
This movie spans four decades of William Colby's life. He gets a little grayer, but as for his general appearance, 1975 doesn't seem much different than 1945. The fascinating thing is that he looks the same even with this cultural and generational tumult underway all around him.
My father was unflappable. A man called Stan Tempko, who went to law school with him and was best man at his wedding, said, "You could be talking to William Colby about the weather and somebody could be sawing off Colby's right arm but Colby would just keep talking to you. He wouldn't flinch."
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That attitude comes through in some of the photographs of him.
He was an extraordinary person who worked hard at appearing ordinary. He wanted to be out-of-focus. Opaque. Almost intentionally erasing himself. He'd be the last person you'd remember from the reception. Whenever he went to the hot new restaurant, he never got the attention of the maitre d'. He liked that. Nevertheless, one always got the sense that around my dad, you were in the midst of people who play in the world. His favorite phrase was March toward the sound of the guns. In other words, get into the action of your times.
He wore the same P-3 style glasses most of his life.
That's right. And whenever he was at his most challenged, such as when he's being grilled by Congress or interviewed by CBS News after being fired as CIA director—we have all this footage in the film—take a close look. He's wearing his Jedburgh paratroop tie. It's as if he's stepping into the fray once again.
Who were his heroes?
He loved the Greeks—not the Romans, or the Egyptians. The Greeks.
What was life like for him after he left the CIA?
He never wanted an AARP card, or the senior discount. I remember calling to inform him that one of his Princeton roommates was found wandering under a bridge in Middlebury, Vermont, with advanced Alzheimer's. "Oh, that will never happen to me," he said. "Really?," I asked. "Nope. One day you'll hear that I was walking along a goat path on a Greek island and I fell into the sea." I said, again, "Really?" And he replied, "Yep. That's it."
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One of the things he did was write a memoir, Honorable Men, published in 1978.
I remember he announced that he wanted time apart from us to write a book. I thought, God, he's lying. A man doesn't need "time apart" from his family to write. Even Balzac only wrote 12 to 14 hours a day. Then you put down the pen and have a drink and a meal. I was angry because I also thought, 'Is he lying about anything else? Are we important? Who were we to him—just a cover?'
How long after that did he tell your mom he wanted a divorce?
A few years. But to go back to the book for a second—when he told me he was calling his book Honorable Men, I said, "That's from Julius Caesar, correct?" He said, "Yeah." I told him that I thought Shakespeare intended the phrase "honorable men" ironically—not literally. "What do you mean?" he asked. But I didn't say anything else, and just let it go. Look, I don't want to paint a picture of a simple-minded person. I think he saw himself as a warrior. And in our family, raised Catholic, our heroes were warriors, saints, and martyrs.
What qualities in them did your dad most admire?
That they were holy men and women with pronounced vision, almost zealotry. At the same time, they were people of action. Warriors. Richard the Lionhearted, Joan of Arc, and St. George the Dragon Slayer—all were in his pantheon. One ran a crusade, the other went up against England at the age of what, seventeen? And as a woman. That's astonishing. And the other one, St. George, was completely shrouded in legend. But my dad also had a realistic, cold, almost harsh view of the world—and that came from his time in the OSS.
He joined in 1943, when he was about 23.
That's right. He would parachute into France and Norway. Maybe because of something he did with the resistance he saw the Nazis get their reprisals. They would bring villagers out and execute them—men, women, and children. Once I remember telling him that I'd been to Germany and traveled through Homburg. I asked how he liked Germany, what cities appealed to him. He said, "I try not to go to Germany anymore."
Did your father ever talk about novels, plays, or movies that he enjoyed?
He basically worked all the time, so he didn't particularly read novels. Still, it was very strange, even when he was quite young, he would always be telling me that he had stopped in Madrid and visited with Graham Greene. Or when he was in Hong Kong, James Clavell would come out to the airport to talk to him.
Did he go to the movies?
Yes, and there were mainly three characters he talked about. The first was Lawrence of Arabia. That character basically takes on another identity. He erases—almost sheds the skin of being this English clubman, an English soldier, and becomes this Bedouin incarnation, leading troops against the Turks, and succeeding. Dad also loved Commander Shears as played by William Holden in Bridge on the River Kwai. He's the American can-do guy who looks to the Brits like they have theories but the American is just going to do what needs to be done. I saw a Cablegram from my dad's OSS days. The resistance in Norway needed help, and they were debating whom to send. The message was: "Send Colby, damn it. He'll get the job done." The other movie he loved is The Third Man, starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten.
And which of those characters did he look to?
He could recite the dialogue from the scene at the top of the Ferris wheel. It was actually kind of chilling. Joseph Cotten plays a character called Holly Martins, and he's confronting Orson Welles, who is Harry Lime, for trafficking in adulterated penicillin. Children are dying in hospitals in Vienna. "Don't be melodramatic," Harry Lime tells him. "Look down there. Tell me—would you really feel any pity if one of these dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you £20,000 for every dot that stopped, would you really tell me to keep my money—or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?"
And your dad would recite this scene?
He loved it. Including the most famous part where Harry Lime gives his speech—"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock."
But Harry Lime is a racketeer.
That's what I said to him—"Harry Lime is immoral." But dad would just shrug, as if to say,That's life. You see, I think dad lived in the Harry Lime world, not the Holly Martins world.
What were William Colby's thoughts about spy movies?
James Bond amused him. He would say, "There are very few James Bonds because James Bond is English." He would explain that the men and women out doing the undercover work are usually the nationality of the nation they're spying on. The spies in Syria and Damascus probably aren't Americans from Boise, Idaho—they're most likely native Syrians who lived in London for a while, speak several languages, and are embedded in the Assad government. They're your spies.
William Colby has a unique vantage point on politics. Were there any politicians whom he respected?
My dad was a creation of Franklin Roosevelt. He bought FDR hook, line, and sinker. He was a bit ambivalent about Dwight Eisenhower, but he truly latched on to John F. Kennedy. I remember listening to Kennedy's inaugural address on my transistor radio with dad. When he heard those lines—"We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and success of liberty"—it was as if he was getting his marching orders. He turned and walked out of the room. He was going to go and do his job.
How did your father regard Nixon, who appointed him director of CIA?
He obeyed the President, and respected authority. Just before Nixon resigned, I remarked to him, "This president is a liar. He deserves to be thrown out." Dad replied, "Watch what you say. You don't call your president a liar." Even though he probably knew more than anyone that Nixon had been lying, it was very difficult for him to accept that the President—the ultimate authority, the one who's signing these findings authorizing CIA actions—was dishonest.
Did he talk about Ronald Reagan?
He thought Reagan was a kind of buffoon. That was Beltway thinking, though. Dad didn't have a lot of domestic political horse sense. For instance, he thought that Michael Dukakis would ride right over George Bush in the 1988 election.
Among CIA hands, the agency timeline is divided into "before the fall" and "after the fall"—the "fall" being the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster. The agency trained Cuban exiles to try to remove Fidel Castro. However, Castro's army overwhelmed them when they landed on the beach. What did your dad say about the operation?
He regarded it as a fiasco. He probably saw it from the point of view of Richard Bissell, who was chief of clandestine service. Bissell's position was, President Kennedy launched this operation and said he would support it with air cover—but didn't. He sent guys down there who were practically defenseless, and they were slaughtered. For my dad, that was an omen of how fickle the White House could be.
That experience had to be pretty shattering for anyone at the CIA.
He saw a similar thing in Italy during the '50s. Frank Wisner, dad's boss, assured the Hungarians that the U.S. would support them with guns and money in Budapest if the Soviets invaded. But then President Eisenhower said, Absolutely not. The Russians will just crush them. When the Russians did crush them, Wisner saw it with his own eyes. He watched the people he had promised to support get executed. Then he went to Rome and debriefed the American station, including my father. After that, Frank Wisner returned to the United States and shot himself in the head with a shotgun.
Hollywood often portrays anti-communists as hysterical. But your picture shows that Soviet communism was for real.
There was a pitched battle between the Soviets and Americans over the future of Western Europe. As Zbigniew Brzezinski says in the film, "This was a time of really serious political contest over the future."
That perspective is missing from many depictions of the Cold War.
Well, when you meet an Italian communist, it all seems like, "If I can have my pasta and prosciutto and drive my Lancia and live in Tuscany and have free travel, then communism seems sort of good." But the Soviets were pouring much more money into Europe than we were. Plus, they had tanks.
What would your dad think of The Man Nobody Knew?
That I treated him fairly. I'm not here to lionize or celebrate him. He wouldn't want that, anyway. He'd want a close examination.
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You're fairly critical of the Phoenix program, a counter-insurgency effort that he used in Vietnam.
We show the nasty edge. But it's the same thing that Generals David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster are doing in Afghanistan and Anbar Province.
The film shows your dad pioneering that in Vietnam in 1967.
He believed in going into a horrific situation and carving out a piece of turf that can be controlled. Robert McFarlane, the former National Security Advisor, says in the movie, "It was the kind of simple yet novel ideas that your father put into place and it came down to making life better in a given village so that you engendered trust and ultimately gained intelligence from a much more welcoming community. At the same time, when you found somebody that the villagers identified as a bad guy, kill him—quick."
One of the most memorable characters in your film is Sen. Frank Church, who chaired the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities—the so-called Church Committee—in 1975. He alleged all sorts of misdeeds by CIA, and called your father to the witness stand. Tell us about Frank Church.
Frank Church was an ambitious Senator from Idaho. He was sanctimonious, wrapped himself in the banner of the law, and was basically running for president. Remember, the Vietnam War was winding down. It cost us so much in blood and treasure—and politicians such as Church hadn't had a say in the great decisions about it. When the war started crumbling, politicians like him were caught up with a vengeance. Plus, they all felt the CIA had been lying to them for decades. William Colby became the whipping boy.
What were those days like for your family?
Well, I graduated from Georgetown in 1972, so I kind of lived in-and-out of the house. I saw my father every other day. He'd come home from those hearings and try to relax.
"Relax"? After being grilled by a throng of hostile Congressmen and Senators practically once a week?
Well, he seemed to be very accepting. My dad believed in the ultimate reasonableness of the American people, and he regarded this as a big firestorm set off by flares inside the Beltway.
Former Congressman Ron Dellums from California is shown as one of your dad's main antagonists in the U.S. House. Dellums wasn't your average liberal Democrat critic of national security. He was a leftist activist who proudly celebrated the Black Panthers. How did William Colby take to being questioned by the likes of him?
He would say, "That was kind of hot today. I don't know how much was accomplished, but we're making progress." I once said to him, "You're kidding. You've testified dozens of times this year. Why would you go back for more punishment?" Dad thought the American people could absorb the revelations he was making in context. I told him that to people such as Dellums, his testimonies were like kerosene on the fire. Eventually, the fire became consuming. He couldn't regulate the oxygen in the room anymore.
It seems to have reached the point in those hearings where your dad simply couldn't defend himself.
That's right. The attacks became almost personal. And he was weak. He didn't have the support of Gerald Ford, who by then was president. In researching this part of the film, I interviewed former CIA director Robert Gates. He told me about the contrast between my dad's testimony and when he was summoned before Congress in the Eighties during the Iran-Contra scandal. Gates said that my dad had no support at the White House whereas when Gates was deputy director of CIA he had a strong president, Ronald Reagan, covering his back.
The prevailing wisdom is that the Congressional hearings on the CIA revealed the Agency to be corrupt.
Well, the proof positive that the CIA isn't full of avarice is that in my father's last will and testament his list of assets was modest. I was given a check for $600. That was basically my one-fourth share of his assets at the time. He also left me a first edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the book by T.E. Lawrence. Dad purchased it on the Strand in London, and he could practically recite it from memory. He also left a little pewter minuteman statue to my son—his grandson.
But the hearings portrayed the CIA as guilty of great wrongdoing, and general incompetence in its missions.
Well, remember that during the time of those hearings we'd basically lost Vietnam. There were thousands of Cuban soldiers in Angola. Latin America was crumbling from Soviet involvement. Third World countries were embracing communist insurgency as this sort of national liberation movement. There were even Americans who called the Vietcong a national liberation movement. The world was in flames and frankly my father may have been an unwise choice as director of CIA. He was a professional intelligence officer and, as Don Rumsfeld says in the movie, probably didn't have the social and political skills necessary to navigate through Congress.
New York Times correspondent Tim Weiner is interviewed in your film. In 2007, he wrote a book, Legacy of Ashes, the basic theme of which is that the CIA has been a waste. He asserts that it's never been successful. How do you deal with those criticisms?
I argued with Tim before and after interviewing him. I said that the CIA was successful in Italy, and I also mentioned Indonesia. Tim said that Indonesia is a hotbed of Muslim radicalism. I said, "Muslim radicalism? It's the largest Muslim country in the world—and they're making Nikes!" Indonesia is one of the CIA's success stories, and so are countless other places.
When you completed Georgetown University, did you have aspirations to follow in your father's footsteps?
My father basically headed all of his children in the opposite direction. Strange as it seems, the CIA does have quite a bit of generational history, but it's mainly on the analyst side of the game. To be in operations, you must be a blank slate. If I'm Carl Colby arriving in Budapest or Angola, well, that may not be the best name to traffic under. Plus, there's a dedication and discipline that wasn't particularly my strong suit at the time.
Within your family, was your dad's work discussed?
We loved international affairs, and debated everything at the kitchen table. But from early on, the CIA was viewed as a kind of priesthood.
What would William Colby think of the way the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden?
Probably that it was like bombing Adolf Hitler's bunker and actually killing him.
Do you think your dad would be surprised that we've been at war for more than a decade?
He saw these conflicts as long and protracted. It's like the Wild West where Kit Carson has an alliance with a Pawnee and the Pawnee has somewhat of an alliance with the Apaches—but we're actually after the Comanche bad guy. We're allying with one tribe against the other.
What would have been your dad's response to 9/11?
He would have wanted to get into Afghanistan and infiltrate the Taliban much earlier than we did. It didn't take John Walker Lindh and Anwar al-Awlaki, who are Americans, very long to fly over to Pakistan, grow a beard, get a turban, begin spouting anti-American slogans, and infiltrate themselves into the inner councils of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. My dad would say, Don't you think we could send a few people over there to do that same thing, but this time they'd be working for our side? Detroit and parts of California are full of Arab-Americans.
You interviewed a who's who of Washington for this film. Did being William Colby's son give you special access?
It got me in the door with my dad's friends. Others, such as William Webster, Donald Rumsfeld, Seymour Hersh—they've seen me around. But being Colby's son with them is just a curiosity.
How did you persuade Rumseld to participate?
To start with, I read his book. My dad went to Princeton, and so did Rumseld. So I had that going, too. Then I wrote him a long email explaining that I wanted to know if his experience as Secretary of Defense during Vietnam with 500,000 troops over there colored what he did in Iraq when he was again Secretary of Defense. That premise was interesting to him.
Bob Woodward was also one of your interviewees. What's it like turning the tables on him?
Bob almost interviewed me. He said, "This is very interesting, Carl. You're going to find out things about your father, perhaps, that you never knew." I told Bob some personal anecdotal things about my dad, but then he would spin it back to me. So in a sense, it's a dialogue.
Your dad abruptly divorced your mom when he was 63. In the movie, when your mom is recounting those days, she says she told your dad, "We're Catholics. We don't believe in divorce." What's her view of him now?
Her identity is still wrapped up in him. One time she said to me, "I should have probably married that guy from Columbus, Ohio, instead. We'd be living in Columbus. He'd be devoted to me. We'd go to the dances and play golf. We'd have a family and my husband would love and adore me." I told her, "But then you wouldn't have had Saigon, or Rome." Understand that living in exotic places didn't really matter to her. But she did want to be allied with a man who had a mission.
So what kind of father was William Colby?
He wasn't the Great Santini. He never challenged me to a basketball game so he could show me he was better than I was. In fact, dad didn't play team sports. He played individual sports. Or, frankly, just physical fitness, and that was for his benefit. He always looked directly at me, but I suspect he was thinking about Angola or something else. It's like my mom, siblings, and I were there as convenient window dressing. I loved him, but I always wondered whether he really loved us back.
In the film, you say there was never a word of affection from him.
Dad had his own kind of code. He was Kit Carson and we lived on the prairie in northeastern New Mexico territories. He'd go on a mission with his Indian scouts to find a Comanche warrior. I was at home with my mother, and here comes the Pawnee raid.
So living in the Colby house was always like being near the battle.
Well, dad was very good at making war. He understood it. He wanted guns to be going off. He wanted to be in an environment where there was a threat and it could be met. That's an unusual mindset, but you can find it among special command Marines. I even found it among the Los Angeles Police Department.
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Wait. Los Angeles cops remind you of your dad?
Some do. I was making a film about the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program and I was invited to go with some officers. "There's a little problem in Pomona and we're going to roust some people out." I was like, Whoa! It's a proactive police force. I ran into someone on the force in the parking lot of the L.A.P.D.'s Parker Center headquarters. He was putting on his Kevlar and had two or three automatic weapons. I'll never forget when he told me, "You know, we only have about six to seven thousand officers on the entire force. But there are 13 million people living in the Southland." I used to meet L.A.P.D. officers all the time who worked for my dad in Vietnam. A couple of them came up to me because I was in the O.J. trial.
The O.J. Simpson murder trial?
What were you doing in the O.J. Simpson murder case?
I lived next door to his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson.
So you were a witness?
I testified for the prosecution saying that O.J. had been lingering near her condominium threatening her. During the trial, some kooky people came around, saying things and shouting at me. One afternoon this Impala pulls up and a guy gets out. I could immediately see that he was put-together, and obviously carrying some kind of weapon. He said, "I heard there'd been a little trouble here. I used to work for your dad. If there's anything you ever want, you call." He gave me his card and just got back in his car and gunned it. I was like, Jesus Christ! Who is he?
The William Colby Alumni Club.
Yes. And when my dad died in 1996, we had his memorial at National Cathedral. Several people came up to my family and said, "You don't know me, and you'll never see me again. But I worked with your dad." Mom even got a letter from a man who informed her that he was once on a military fire support base and dad flew in on a helicopter. He sent the helicopter home and went into the fire base, had dinner with the guys, and then took the perimeter watch, midnight to 4 a.m., with a weapon, while the other guys slept. That's truly the way he wanted it. He wouldn't think of giving a big pep talk and leaving. I used to think, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger—they didn't spend any time like that on any fire bases.
How does this film fit in with all your other documentaries?
It's personal. It began as a film about my dad's career—his war-fighting and counter-insurgency and what relevance he has today. But then I interviewed my mother and everything changed. I realized it could be psychologically powerful if I examined the family and dad's role with us. That was exciting.
William Colby certainly lived a fascinating life, but beyond his historical significance, why is this film relevant in today's world?
Because the ferocity with which covert actions are being launched hasn't been this great since the early '60s when Kennedy was president. Is this moral? Are they necessary? I think we need to answer those questions, and this movie might spark that conversation.
What's your family's reaction to The Man Nobody Knew?
My mother is kind of my touchstone, so I was anxious to see what she thought. She saw her life passing before her eyes when she watched it. At the end she said, "I've always loved you, Carl. But I love you even more now." Growing up, I always thought that the mother ran the show in other families, but that my father was running ours. But I came to understand that mom kept dad to a high moral standard. She kept us children to that standard as well.
Earlier you mentioned your dad's memoir, Honorable Men, published in 1978. In your judgment, is that book a good account of him?
It's solid. When he inscribed my copy, he wrote: "To Carl, a great son, with a great future story to tell." This movie is probably that story. It's almost as if he had a premonition.
After he divorced your mom, he remarried. How did that impact your relationship?
One time I saw him walking down Lexington Avenue in New York with his new wife. I have to admit, I crossed the street and avoided them. I just didn't want to be a part of it. It was as if he completely jettisoned my mother—and us. That we were used goods. It made me think, "He doesn't need us anymore—he's not on a mission." Dad reverted to being the 29-year-old labor lawyer he once was. Frankly, he became kind of ordinary. I wasn't interested in the new Bill Colby. I loved the old Bill Colby—the dad who taught me to sacrifice.
Your father's disappearance on his canoe shocked Washington. In the film, you say that he phoned you shortly before his departure. Tell us about that conversation.
That was in 1996. He called, and I remember that he rambled.
Was that manner unusual?
Yes. I was concerned because he was always pretty clipped—he wasn't a big phone conversationalist. I thought that he might be ill, or suffering from memory loss. Maybe he was reaching out to me and my sister and the world he'd thrown away. It reminded me of the Roman slave boy whispering to the conquering emperor in the moment of his greatest triumph, Sic transit gloria—all glory passes.
What did he talk about?
He asked if he'd done enough for Catherine, my sister, while she was ill and he was in Vietnam. In the old days, he wouldn't broach these kinds of topics. He'd say, "That's your department, friend"—as if I am some expert on emotional currents and he gets a pass. I said, "None of us did enough for her. She died from neglect."
We see glimpses of Catherine Colby through the film. What was his reaction when she died?
We never really talked about it. It happened, there was a funeral, and that was it. It was like Catherine was forgotten. I thought it was an odd treatment, almost as if she was a necessary casualty. But, again, that's living in Harry Lime's world. And it takes its toll.
Did your dad's politics change?
He got more liberal. I've always wondered why he started supporting the nuclear freeze. Look, George Schulz, William Perry, and Henry Kissinger are all now proponents of unilateral nuclear disarmament. I think that's because they've had power and can see how treacherous the world is.
Of all your father's missions, which are you proudest?
Probably what he did in Norway. Also, during the first Gulf War, when my dad was 71, he and some of his friends were informed that there were Americans caught in Kuwait City. He went to the White House and told President Bush, "You're going to see me and some of my guys operating in Kuwait. Just leave us alone, okay?" Dad then went in and rescued a bunch of people. He was always part of the action.