Tourism is big money for Beaufort County.
It has generated more than a billion dollars. It is the top job creator in the county. And it’s transformed the county into one of the top tourist destinations in the state.
Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Blakely Williams can attribute a significant amount of that to just one name: Pat Conroy.
“He has been a tremendous ambassador for Beaufort County for years, and the impact he has had on our community is immeasurable,” she said Saturday as many were just learning of Conroy’s death the previous night.
‘He had an amazing microphone’
Williams said she frequently sees visitors walk into the chamber office who were touched by Conroy’s work, either through the written word or big-screen adaptations of his novels “The Prince of Tides” or “The Great Santini.”
“It has touched the lives of so many people,” she said. “He had an amazing microphone through his words and books. And that microphone has been heard around the world, nationally and internationally.”
The power of that microphone led to the chamber, in 2014, creating its annual Pat Conroy Palmetto Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made a significant impact on the Beaufort community and Lowcountry region.
Streisand pays tribute
Conroy’s microphone brought Barbra Streisand to Beaufort in 1991.
Streisand, who directed the Oscar-nominated “The Prince of Tides,” paid tribute to Conroy Saturday on her Facebook page.
“First, I fell in love with Pat Conroy’s book, ‘The Prince of Tides,’ and then I fell in love with him. He was generous and kind, humble and loving … such a joy to work with. I was so honored that he entrusted his beautiful book to me.
“Pat’s natural language was poetry. … He wrote sentences that are like an incantation. He observed every nuance of human behavior and dug deep down to the truth … presenting it in all its glorious and stubborn complexity.
“I am so sad today. I lost a dear friend, and the world has lost a great writer.”
Barbra Streisand’s post — with a photo of the two from 25 years ago — garnered more than 28,000 likes, 1,400 comments and 2,400 shares within a day.
Beaufort as a movie town
Before Streisand, Nick Nolte and the Academy Awards, Conroy’s microphone was much smaller in the late 1970s.
That’s when Ron Tucker recalls Hollywood coming to town to film “The Great Santini,” the film adaptation of Conroy’s semi-autobiographical novel.
“They thought it was a beautiful location,” said the president of the Beaufort International Film Festival and founder of the Beaufort Film Society. “I think the town was very accepting of that. They were proud that moviemakers were coming to Beaufort wanting to make a film.”
Robert Duvall, at the time, wasn’t as well known an actor, he said. But the success of the movie led to more.
“It just became a classic movie, especially in the military community,” he said. “Over time, when the second movie came, we said, ‘Whoa, this might be something here.’ “The Big Chill” was shot in 1983, and a series of movies followed after that.”
Cast and crew would fill up local hotels, eat at local restaurants and shop at local stores.
“I don’t think people ever took it for granted,” he said. “I don’t think the town got a big head over it. It’s a film-friendly town.”
Tucker said Conroy’s vivid ability to capture Beaufort in his writing is what caught Hollywood’s attention. And once they saw it for themselves, they couldn’t get enough.
From Oscar winners to summer blockbusters
In the years that followed, Hollywood became a frequent guest in the Lowcountry. Following “The Prince of Tides,” nearly every year of the 1990s produced a Beaufort-filmed box office attraction.
Beaufort-filmed movies of the 1990s “The Prince of Tides” (1991): Barbra Streisand, Nick Nolte “A Perfect World” (1993): Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood “The War” (1994): Kevin Coster, Elijah Wood “Forrest Gump” (1994): Tom Hanks, Robin Wright “The Jungle Book” (1994): Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes “Something to Talk About” (1995): Julia Roberts, Dennis Quaid “Die Hard: With a Vengeance” (1995): Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson “White Squall” (1996): Jeff Bridges “Last Dance” (1996): Sharon Stone, Randy Quaid “Gone Fishin’ ” (1997): Joe Pesci, Danny Glover “G.I. Jane” (1997): Demi Moore, Viggo Mortensen “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (1998): Will Smith, Matt Damon “Forces of Nature” (1999): Sandra Bullock, Ben Affleck
A bearded Tom Hanks, flanked by interviewers, famously ran across Woods Memorial Bridge as part of “Forrest Gump.” Bruce Willis came to town for the summer action blockbuster “Die Hard: With a Vengeance.” Robert Duvall returned to his “Great Santini” film city as part of the Julia Roberts and Dennis Quaid film “Something to Talk About.” Demi Moore was “G.I. Jane” and Will Smith was the mystical caddie in “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”
And while the new millennium has brought a lull, as nearby states like Georgia and Florida offer Hollywood attractive incentive packages, county officials are optimistic that more film projects are on their way.
‘He put Beaufort on the map’
Tucker maintains those later films might not have happened without Conroy’s work as an ambassador for his longtime home.
“He put Beaufort on the map,” he said of Conroy. “In a larger sense, it probably wasn’t until ‘The Prince of Tides,’ when that movie was done and Barbra Streisand came here and saw what he was writing about and saw firsthand. … The publicity that came with that movie, it put Beaufort again on the big screen. People saw more of Beaufort. They saw the salt marshes.”
And they came to visit. And even if Conroy wasn’t the main reason for their travels, he said, they still had to see the inspiration for his work.
“When you write a book and you become a No. 1 best-seller on the New York Times Bestseller list, people that read those books and know that it’s not a fictional place want to know more about it,” he said. “Beaufort started with ‘The Great Santini.’ Had it not been for that one, I’m not sure Beaufort would have been discovered.
“It all started with Pat Conroy. He’s an icon.”