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Without Fred Ropkey, James Garner's Latest Movie Might Have Been Tankless

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Other people are content to collect stamps or coins, but not Fred Ropkey. “That’s sissy stuff,” bellows the 54-year-old Indianapolis millionaire, who has combed the world’s junkyards for more macho items, including a World War II torpedo bomber and three 64,000-pound Sherman tanks, each capable of crushing a small building. Ropkey recently got to demonstrate their prowess by totaling a small foreign car on a commercial for a local Oldsmobile dealer, and in the film The Blues Brothers, he drove an M20 armored car through Chicago’s Daley Plaza. “That was the greatest ego trip of my life,” says Ropkey. But now his tanks have won the title role in James Garner’s new film, Tank. After reading the script “to make sure it did right by my tanks,” Ropkey spent two months on the set putting the “Liberty” and the “Jenny Lee” through their paces. Says the film’s producer, Irwin Yablans, “They scared the crap out of me, but they worked so well. Those tanks are a real tribute to Ropkey.”

Ropkey, who runs a graphics printing company, insists, “I’m not a crazy millionaire. I don’t associate with weirdos. And I’m not a survivalist either.” Still, his 80-acre estate, which has a private airstrip, looks like a staging ground for a revolution. The large house is guarded by a 12-ton, five-inch cannon salvaged from the battle ship Indiana and another cannon from the Revolutionary War. There are tanks, including one supposedly used by General Patton, and an armored personnel carrier that helped impose integration on Little Rock, Ark. in 1957. A 30-foot Nike missile, minus warhead, hangs from the rafters in one of two huge barns. At his office Ropkey is protected by another cannon, pointed at the visitor’s couch. All his equipment, Ropkey boasts, is “in perfect working order.”

Ropkey adds, “I don’t think of this as stuff that kills people. My primary purpose is to restore these things, which are historically significant.” He employs a full-time curator, and has turned a portion of his property into the tax-exempt Indiana Museum of Military History. Hundreds of visitors have wandered through in the last few years.

Ropkey’s first acquisition was a sword, a gift from his father when he was 8. At 16, he bought an armored scout car for $150, but it was while serving as the commander of a Marine tank platoon in Korea that he found his calling. During the illness of his wife, who died of cancer in 1972, he started buying tanks for his two sons to help restore (“It was a good way to keep them out of trouble”). Now Fred and his son Rick, both licensed pilots, will fly anywhere to check out military equipment. “Most tanks are just sitting around somewhere rusting,” says Ropkey, “and I want to preserve them.”

More people than ever will see his favorites in Tank. Ropkey hauled the Shermans to the movie’s Fort Benning, Ga. set on two flatbed trucks (on their own they get one-half mile to a gallon). He and three assistants taught Garner to drive them. The star became so comfortable, he retreated into the tank for between-take naps.

The high point of the film, according to Ropkey, is a scene in which his tank “Liberty” destroys the jail. The $100,000 brick building was authentic down to the last detail, including an autographed picture of Jimmy Carter on the wall. “I loved destroying that picture of Carter,” says Ropkey.

Ropkey will continue to rent his tanks to anyone who can pay his fee—$2,500 a day per tank, plus expenses. But he discourages people from hiring them for parties. “I want people to understand,” he says, “these aren’t toys. I don’t do this for fun.”