Sam Bottoms, the actor best know for his role as Lance the Surfer in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, died on December 16 at his home in Los Angeles. The 53-year-old who got his start in movies at age 15 playing Billy, the slow-witted boy in the great 1971 film The Last Picture Show, suffered from brain cancer.
Bottoms was in his early twenties when he went to the Philippines to play surfer Lance Johnson in Apocalypse. Like the rest of the cast, he spent more than a year on the set of that notoriously over-budget and behind-schedule movie, which finally came out in 1979 to critical and popular acclaim.
Bottoms was at his wide-eyed best in the unforgettable scene with the insane Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) as Kilgore orders Lance to try out the wild surf during a napalm-fueled helicopter assault on a seaside village. That’s the one where Kilgore dresses down a young trooper who questions his order to Lance and other First Cav soldier/surfers to hit the waves in a VC-infested area.
“It’s pretty hairy in there,” the trooper says. “It’s Charlie’s point.”
To which Kilgore shouts: “Charlie don’t surf!”
Coppola had nothing but praise for Bottoms. “He was a handsome, tall young man and very sweet-natured and seemed to be right for that part,” Coppola told The Los Angeles Times. “He, Larry Fishburne and Fred Forrest were like a young family almost to me [during filming], and they went through thick and thin uncomplainingly. We all admired them. Sam was an especially likable, beautiful young man. He was quiet and undemanding and always anxious to help and had a nice smile.”
Bottoms went on to do scores of roles in TV shows and movie–including Coppola’s Vietnam War home front film Gardens of Stone (1987) in which he played an Army lieutenant.