Jack Nicholson as Billy L. “Badass” Buddusky, brash U.S. Navy Signalman 1st Class
Norfolk, Virginia, to Portsmouth Naval Prison, December 1972
Film: The Last Detail
Release Date: December 12, 1973
Director: Hal Ashby
Costume Designer: Theodore R. Parvin
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
On the “birthday” of the U.S. Navy, founded October 13, 1775, check out Cracker Jack Nicholson’s uniform in The Last Detail—released 50 years ago this December.
In the spirit of today also being Friday the 13th, The Last Detail chronicles the story of unlucky Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid), a glum kleptomaniac seaman being transferred to a military prison. The profane Navy lifer Billy Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and his more even-tempered colleague Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are tasked with accompanying Larry from the Norfolk Naval Investigative Service Office headquarters (“Shit City”) up to Portsmouth Naval Prison, where Larry has been sentenced to an eight-year stretch for the attempted theft of no more than $40 from a polio charity box.
The profane Navy lifer Buddusky conspires with Mule to make the most of their “shit detail”, stretching a two-day trip out to its full allotted week so unlucky Larry can live it up along the way with burgers, beer, and broads.
“You are one lucky son of a bitch, Badass,” the master-at-arms (Clifton James) greets Buddusky. “You are one lucky son of a bitch! How come you’re so lucky, Buddusky?” Billy Buddusky has been a long-overdue character for this blog’s focus. After all, his nickname is “Badass” and we all know what the B.A. in BAMF stands for!
Jack Nicholson turned down Robert Redford’s leading role in The Sting to star as Buddusky in The Last Detail, written by his pal Robert Towne, whose screenplay had been back-burnered by Columbia Pictures in the hopes that he would tone down the profanity, though Towne insisted on its value as “this is how people talk when they’re powerless, they bitch.”
Eventually, Towne won the waiting game as the relaxed cinematic standards by the early ’70s resulted in production of The Last Detail and its record-setting 65 uses of the word “fuck”, resulting in Academy Award nominations for Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and Towne’s screenplay.
What’d He Wear?
“Well, if that don’t make me just wanna shit in your flat hat,” Buddusky comments to Mulhall after Mule makes Meadows cry. Though Buddusky refers to the older blue woolen “pancake caps”, these had been all but superseded a decade earlier by the white “Dixie cup”-style sailor caps that all three of them wear during the journey.
These round white visorless sailor caps were written into Navy regulations in 1886 and remained “a mainstay of the enlisted Sailor’s sea bag for more than 100 years,” according to Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Garas for The Sextant. Indeed, the Navy’s attempt to discontinue these white hats in 1973—the same year The Last Detail was released—was protested so vehemently that the decision was soon reversed and the Dixie cup kept its place perched atop the iconic “Cracker jack” uniform… which would also be briefly (but unsuccessfully) phased out later that decade.
Officially designated the “Hat, White (E-1 to E-6),” it earned its moniker in reference to its resemblance to the disposable paper cups made by the Dixie Cup Corporation. Article 3501.27 of the current U.S. Navy regulations dictate that these must be “made of white cotton twill with rounded crown and full-stitched brim” and worn “squarely on the head with the lower front edge approximately 1-1/2 inch above the eyebrows and not crushed, bent, or rolled,” though especially the latter rule seems most frequently broken as sailors individualize their caps by molding them into different shapes.
Buddusky spends most of The Last Detail wearing the enlisted Blue Dress uniform, nicknamed the “Crackerjack” in reference to the sailor depicted as the Cracker Jack snack brand mascot from World War I onward. The uniform itself dates to considerably earlier, originating with the U.S. Navy’s first regulations for enlisted uniforms in 1841. The uniform slightly evolved over the decades to follow, with variations in the headgear, stars and stripes, rating badges, and trouser buttons, but the essence of the iconic Crackerjack dress blues has remained the same for nearly 200 years of American naval history.
Nancy: I can see what it’s done for you… must be the uniform.
Buddusky: They are cute, aren’t they? You know what I like about it? One of my favorite things about this uniform is the way that it makes your dick look.
The Crackerjack dress blues are anchored (so to speak) by a two-piece sailor suit made of dark blue 100% wool serge, as currently dictated by Navy uniform regulations. According to the Heritage Auctions listing for the screen-worn costume, Jack Nicholson actually wore a standard Navy-issue Crackerjack uniform in The Last Detail.
The top half is a pullover jumper, designated “Jumper, Blue Dress (E1-E6)” by article 3501.32. A subtly pointed yoke extends over the chest in the front and back, layered behind the V-neck opening by a “tar-flap” collar framed by three rows of white stripes and adorned with two white stars—one at each corner of the squared, nine-inch long back of the collar.
The cuffs match the collar with their triple white striping that encircles most of the wrist, aside from the two-button closure. The only pocket is a set-in jetted pocket over the left breast, horizontally positioned between the service awards and the chest yoke.
Rating badges and service stripes are worn on the left sleeve—ratings on the forearm and service stripes diagonally below the elbow. As a Signalman 1st Class, Buddusky is an E-6—the highest enlisted grade below the Chief Petty Officer (CPO) grades. The navy-blue wool serge rank insignia badge follows the E-6 pattern with three red chevrons positioned below a white-embroidered eagle and the crossed semaphore flags indicative of his Signalman rating. Established in the early 1920s for visual communication specialists, the Signalman job field was ultimately discontinued in 2003.
Like the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, the Navy assigns a service stripe for each four-year period of duty (as informed by article 4231), so the trio of 3/8″-wide red stripes on Buddusky’s forearm indicate that he has served in the Navy for at least twelve years.
One of the longest-lasting traditions of Navy dress is the black silk neckerchief that sailors have been authorized to wear since at least 1817, though they had been an unofficial—and very practical—part of a sailor’s kit for long before then. Article 3501.38 of the current regs dictates that ratings E-6 and under wear a black 36-inch square of either silk or synthetic fabric—folded diagonally, rolled continuously, and tied with a large square knot over the jumper’s V-neck opening.
Buddusky wears two rows of service awards, all presented in the correct order of precedence. Across the top row, he wears the Navy Unit Commendation, Navy Good Conduct Medal, and National Defense Service Medal. Across the bottom row, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal (with a bronze service star), and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal (with a 1960s device).
Marine O.D.: Sailor looks like he’s lost something.
Marine: Probably has trouble finding it with those thirteen buttons.
Buddusky: If I was a Marine, I wouldn’t have to fuck with no thirteen buttons, I’d just take my hat off.
The matching dark-blue wool serge trousers of the Navy’s enlisted service uniform are famous throughout the military and beyond for their 13-button “broadfall” front flap and wide bell-bottoms.
This flap had been added in 1864 during the Civil War with a simpler seven-button arrangement, though the expansion of the flap in 1894 resulted in six additional buttons. An erroneous yet enduring rumor states that the number was chosen to honor the original 13 colonies, though the most credible explanation is merely that this was merely the smartest number for the sake of symmetry. Though article 3501.92 of the current regs maintain the tradition of these thirteen black plastic anchor-motif buttons, the Navy reduced their functionality by sewing the flap into place and adding a simple zip-fly in 2012—reducing the classic thirteen buttons to decorative iconography.
The trousers have a lace-up rear waistband closure, comprised of seven sets of eyelets on a V-shaped gusset, as well as a set-in back-right pocket. The legs flare out to the famous bell-bottoms, which are apocryphally said to have been designed as makeshift life-preservers but were more likely just to differentiate sailors’ trousers in the era before the Navy regulated their uniforms. “These tailors unknowingly provided a great service with this design, which mariners claim was invented to keep the trousers’ legs dry after they were rolled up above the knees during shipboard duties,” wrote Joe Bartlett for All Hands in 1992.
Black shoes and socks are prescribed with the crackerjack uniform, specifically “plain toed, oxford style… low quarter, lace shoe, made of smooth leather or synthetic leather,” according to article 3501.54, while article 3501.78 reminds Navy personnel that socks are to match the shoe color and be “made of undecorated, plain, or ribbed knitted fabric.”
Buddusky generally follows the code with his black leather split-toe 5-eyelet derby shoes, appropriately worn with plain black socks.
The three sailors layer for the winter weather in their dark navy pea coats, the heavy, hip-length double-breasted outerwear made popular by mariners after centuries at sea. Inspired by their popularity among the Dutch and English navies, the U.S. Navy had adopted the pea coat early in the 19th century, named either for the Dutch pije cloth that characterized their coats or the Anglicized derivative, “pilot cloth”.
However the nomenclature originated, the silhouette of these time-and-weather-tested coats has remained generally unchanged for centuries: distinguished by a short, close fit said to have protected “reefers” who often had to face harsh water and winds while climbing their ships’ rigging. A double-breasted front offered fuller coverage than the alternative, and this was eventually standardized by the U.S. Navy with eight large black plastic buttons detailed with anchors—arranged in two columns of four buttons each. The top row of buttons is positioned higher than the rest, allowing for the convertible collar to be buttoned over the neck and chest during inclement weather. (Navy regs describe the enlisted pea coat in article 3501.41.)
The shell fabric is a dark navy-blue shade of hardy, dense melton wool. While some commercial variants add flapped pockets, classic Navy pea coats only have slanted set-in hand pockets on the outside. Echoing his service jumper worn under it, Buddusky’s pea coat appropriately features his Signalman 1st Class rank insignia rating badge affixed to his upper left sleeve.
While carrying out his Shore Patrol duties, Buddusky pulls on a black woolen felt brassard with “SP” emblazoned in yellow block letters. To avoid conflicting with his rank insignia on his left sleeve, Shore Patrol brassards are worn on the right arm. SPs were often also issued white lace-up leggings, which Buddusky and Mulhall are evidently excused from wearing.
The security-oriented nature of Shore Patrol also means Buddusky is armed (for better or worse), so he buckles on a wide white webbed gun belt that closes through a brass clip-style buckle and has brass adjusters. Stamped “U.S.”, a flapped black leather holster for his .45-caliber M1911A1 pistol hangs from a white rectangular two-eyelet flap that loops over the right side of the belt. (I’ve seen several contemporary examples of Vietnam-era Shore Patrol gun belt rigs, often with holsters made by the now-defunct company Bucheimer.)
Buddusky wears the standard white cotton undershirt and undershorts, with the crew-neck top of his short-sleeved T-shirt visible under the V-neck opening of his jumper.
While getting beer-drunk with Mulhall and Meadows in their hotel room, Buddusky spends most of the scene wearing little more than his mid-thigh white cotton undershorts, which have a long rise with his name “BUDDUSKY W.L.” stamped on the right side of the waistband. The shorts have lace-up sides and a front yoke that curves down just below the four-button fly.
At the start of The Last Detail, we meet Buddusky as he’s ironically napping in his “dungarees” working uniform of a blue chambray shirt and dark blue denim bell-bottoms, which he appoints with his same white “Dixie cup” cap, pea coat, and black derby shoes.
On his left wrist, Buddusky wears a stainless steel watch with a round silver dial on a steel bracelet.
The nature of Buddusky and Mulhall’s assignment results in the master-at-arms issuing each of them an M1911A1 service pistol and a single accompanying magazine, loaded with seven rounds of .45 ACP ammunition.
Not a full day goes by until Buddusky draws his M1911A1 on a bigoted bartender, memorably screaming:
I am the motherfucking Shore Patrol, motherfucker! I am the motherfucking Shore Patrol! Now give this man a beer.
Designed by John M. Browning in the early 20th century and first produced by Colt, the original M1911 was adopted by the U.S. Army in March 1911, followed two years later by the Marine Corps and Navy. Improvements to the design were standardized in the 1920s as the M1911A1, including the latter’s arched mainspring housing and shorter trigger. The M1911A1 reigned as the American armed forces’ venerated service pistol through much of the 20th century until it was generally replaced by the Beretta M9 in the 1980s, though some 1911 variants remain in use among special services.
What to imbibe, or… Give this man a beer!
“Everybody’s old enough for a beer,” Buddusky explains as he and a reluctant Mulhall bring the underage Meadows to a Washington, D.C. watering hole. The bartender is even more reluctant to serve Meadows, so—to fulfill Buddusky’s wish to fill Meadows with a bellyful of beer—the trio obtains a couple of Schlitz six-packs that they drink from under the flickering florescence of a parking garage. “Best goddamn drink in the world, isn’t it?” Buddusky comments.
They take the Schlitz back to their cheap motel room, supplementing it with “grenade”-style bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Just because we see Buddusky drinking PBR doesn’t mean he sides with Frank Booth in the beer debates, as he later defends Heineken as “the finest beer in the world, kid. President Kennedy used to drink it!”
- White cotton twill “Dixie cup” cap
- Navy wool serge U.S. Navy uniform pullover jumper with triple white-taped V-neck “sailor collar” (with squared back flap detailed with two white stars) and 2-button cuffs (trimmed with triple white tape)
- Signalman 1st Class rate badge (white crow, white semaphore flags , three red chevrons) on upper left sleeve
- Three red service stripes on forearm of left sleeve
- Black silk neckerchief
- White cotton crew-neck short-sleeve undershirt
- Navy wool serge U.S. Navy uniform trousers with 13-button “broadfall” front flap, set-in back-right pocket, laced back gusset, and flared plain-hemmed bell-bottoms
- Black leather split-toe 5-eyelet derby shoes
- Black socks
- White cotton boxer shorts with 4-button fly
- Dark navy melton wool double-breasted pea coat with convertible collar, 8×4-button front, and slanted hand pockets
- White cotton canvas 2¼”-wide gun belt with three rows of grommets and brass clip-buckle
- Stainless steel wristwatch with round silver dial on stainless bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Well kid, there’s more things in this life than you can possibly imagine. I knew a whore once in Wilmington. She had a glass eye… used to take it out and wink people off for a dollar.