Talking With the Son of 'The Man Nobody Knew'

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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.

Presented by

John Meroney and Sean Coons

John Meroney (@john_meroney) is completing a book, Rehearsals for a Lead Role: Ronald Reagan in The Hollywood Wars. Sean Coons (@seancoons) is a writer and musician in Redondo Beach, California.

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