The Voice Of GI JOE’s Destro Was A Badass Imprisoned For Draft Resistance
You know him as the voice of Destro on the GI Joe cartoon, or maybe Devastator on Transformers, but Arthur Burghardt has a history so much more awesome, so much more inspiring and so much more badass than that. In 1971 Burghardt - born Arthur Banks but he changed his name to honor William Edward Burghardt "WEB" Du Bois - was an up-and-coming actor and playwright who was doing a one-man show called Frederick Douglass: An Evening In Memoriam, In Praise and In Glory of Our Black Nigger Father when he surrendered himself to federal authorities. His crime: draft evasion. Burghardt had attempted to register as a conscientious objector from the Vietnam War, but his draft board - not recognizing some of the philosophers he cited as influences on his moral standing - refused him. Rather than go to Vietnam and kill men who, in the words of Muhammed Ali, he had no quarrel with, Burghardt went to prison. In the days before he surrendered he performed his exhausting, two hour show many times and spent the rest of his free hours speaking to young people across New York City, talking about justice and righteous resistance.
Somehow Burghardt got slammed with the maximum sentence - five years. Many felt that it was because he was a radical black man at a time when the country felt terribly threatened by them, and Amnesty International took up his cause. While people on the outside - including famed attorney William Kunstler - rallied around Burghardt, inside he was beaten and abused, and he was transferred from prison to prison as a punishment. He began his term in Danbury, Connecticut where he put his skills to good use and organized a prison theater troupe (performing LeRoi Jones' The Toilet). His show was shut down by the authorities. He organized a prison strike; identified as a ringleader immediately Burghardt was sent to solitary for five months.
"I cannot/must not vegetate here in this static space," he wrote from prison. "Existing here in prison makes capital the fact of dying and makes death quicker, and agonisingly more imminent. They can remove hope, but we can restore it with activity."
He was transferred to Terra Haute, where two prisoners - one white, one black - got into a fight in the yard. When only the black prisoner was punished by the guards a group of 200 other black prisoners - including Burghardt - began protesting. Burghardt was maced, beaten by fifteen guards and charged with assaulting the officers. Burghardt was transferred yet again, this time to Minnesota. He was charged with assault on a guard and, in a shocking abuse of power, the courts would not allow Burghardt to be represented by his chosen counsel, Kunstler. The legal battle raged up to the Supreme Court, but Burghardt was released on a $10,000 bond before a ruling was handed down. He emerged from prison on February 15th, 1974 - just over 40 years ago - after serving over two years of his five year sentence.
A Burghardt headshot. It's tough to find new pictures of this guy!
Burghardt was included in Amnesty International's 1972 report on torture as a prisoner of conscience, work for which the group won the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize. In 1976, just two years after getting out of prison, Burghardt won an Emmy for a televised version of his Frederick Douglass show. That same year he played The Great Ahmed Kahn in Network, a role that he took with some trepidation. As a radical activist who had actually put his ass on the line for his beliefs, Burghardt knew the truth about the types that Paddy Chayefsky was skewering with the role of a revolutionary leader ready to sell out to TV. He tells Dave Itzkoff in Mad As Hell, a new book about the making of Network, that he worried he would be seen as a traitor for taking the role - but that the entirety of the script was so good, the message so strong, he had to chance it. And he played it all the way - it was his idea to have The Great Ahmed Kahn stuffing his face with Kentucky Fried Chicken.
For a generation Burghardt was not the voice of passionate resistance but the voice of GI Joe's coolest villain. He continues doing voice work to this day, including lots of video games - listen for him in World of Warcraft and God of War: Ghost of Sparta, as well as voicing Venom in the Ultimate Spider-Man game. He also earned one of the great shout outs in TV history: there's a stretch of the "Arthur Burghardt Expressway" that Kramer adopts in an episode of Seinfeld.
Here's to Arthur Burghardt, a guy who stood up for what he believed and paid the price like a true badass. Maybe Destro was right all along.