No President has had more versions of aspects of his life played out in film and television more than John F. Kennedy.
The JFK character has appeared in a supporting role in any number of television biopics about others, from Sinatra to LBJ, as well as by actors sitting in an open limousine waving to crowds in recreations of his assassination (most prominently JFK in 1991). He has also been portrayed in three mini-series about his wife Jacqueline Bouvier’s life as well as a thinly-veiled fictional account of her second marriage to Aristotle Onassis.
Kennedy has also been the lead in four television movies and one feature film, played by numerous actors, including James Franciscus who depicted him twice. His parents, brothers, alleged mistresses, first congressional race, presidency, and assassination have all been covered, the two of highest quality content being those focused on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
A short list of just the primary dramatic productions with him as the star or co-star character include: The Missiles of October, 1974 (William Devane); Johnny We Hardly Knew ‘Ye, 1977 (Paul Rudd); Greek Tycoon, 1978 (James Franciscus); Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, 1981 (James Franciscus); Kennedy, 1983 (Martin Sheen); The Kennedys of Massachusetts, 1990 (Steven Weber); A Woman Named Jackie, 1991 (Stephen Collins); JFK, Reckless Youth, 1993 (Patrick Dempsey); Thirteen Days, 2000 (Bruce Greenwood); Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, 2000, (Tim Matheson); Women of Camelot, 2001 (Daniel Hugh Kelly).
Who started the Kennedy Drama genre? None other than President Kennedy himself. Days after his 1961 Inauguration, Warner Brothers bought the rights to journalist and historian Bob Donovan’s PT 109, a best-seller which shaped the incidents of JFK’s heroism as a Navy Lieutenant into a compelling narrative.
His wartime naval record was a vital part of both Kennedy’s personal identity and the pubic persona he crafted from it, the PT-109 being a primary point he used in making the case he be elected to Congress for the first time in 1948. In his presidential campaign, he gave out a limited number of tie-clips in the shape of the PT-109 to his closest and most trusted aides.
During his Inaugural Parade there was even a large float from Massachusetts which recreated the PT-109. Soon enough there were even plastic model kits for 60s kids to craft their own PT-109’s.
It only made sense that he should assume a highly engaged role in the film project as it was evolving in Hollywood through 1961 and 1962. While he ran some issues past his father who’d once headed of his own studio before the older man had a December 1961 stroke rendering him speechless, Kennedy really did play the role of a producer in dramatizing his life, knowing a feature film could not just help his 1964 re-election campaign but solidify his legend. Despite the fact that he was not the book author, he asked for and received final approval rights on everything from the poster, script, director and the actor who would play him. After screening Raoul Walsh’s directorial work Marines Let’s Go, for example, he rejected him and chose another director.
He reviewed screen tests of actors that Warner Brothers suggested might play him. He rejected Jeffrey Hunter who, despite being fresh in the public mind for his role in 1961’s King of Kings would surely open Kennedy to attack for wanting to be played by the same man who was just Jesus.
So self-conscious of his pubic persona that he refused to be photographed wearing unflattering hats (most famously when presented with a 10-gallon cowboy hat at a Dallas breakfast just hours before his death), Kennedy could hardly permit himself to be played by Edd Byrnes, despite the millions of new, young voters the TV teen idol might draw. A pop culture sensation with his role on the weekly detective show 77 Sunset Strip, his character “Kookie” was a nightclub valet associated with his greasy-kid-stuff ducktail hairdo and omnipresent comb which he constantly fixed. The novelty song he recorded about it with Connie Stevens, “Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb” may have hit number 4 on Billboard’s “Hot 100” list but it was hardly presidential. Whether Kennedy even seriously reviewed the Byrnes screen test is unlikely.
Like his father, President Kennedy knew a wide range of entertainment industry executives and stars. One of them, Henry Fonda, had been among his strongest supporters in the 1960 election and had even done the voice-over for a documentary presentation on the PT-109 story. It’s unclear whether it was some type of Hollywood-Washington quid pro quo, but a third actor to get a screen test to play the young President Kennedy was the actor’s son, Peter Fonda. Once he learned that, if cast in the role, he would be required to learn the uniquely Boston dialect of the Kennedys and then impersonate it on screen, however, Peter Fonda immediately rejected the potential job before anyone rejected him.
Had the First Lady had her way, the lead would have been played by Warren Beatty, who later revealed that she thought him best to play her husband after seeing his role in Splendor in the Grass.
Beatty, however, refused to do as Jack Warner suggested and spend time around Kennedy to get a sense of him. He was not offered the part.
Although working on a Paramount movie at the time, Cliff Robertson received a call from the White House telling him to report to Warner Brothers where a screen test had already been scheduled for him. “When I heard it had been arranged, I knew it was by somebody big,” he recalled. Three days later he got the part, and the President invited him to visit at the White House.
During their meeting, Kennedy made clear that he’d arranged with Jack Warner that royalties from the film would go to the families of those lost on the PT-109. The President also explained to the actor what had been his other insistent condition. “One was that it be historically accurate, because Hollywood is not known for its accuracy; they have a tendency to exaggerate,” Robertson later recalled.
As the script was written, and then vetted by the President, it soon proved that Washington also has that tendency.
Despite his insistence on it being “historically accurate” Kennedy approved the final shooting script – and at least four inaccuracies.
The film depicts a search party being sent out from the naval base when its learned the PT-109 had been smashed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. In truth, it was assumed at base that the attack and sinking had surely killed all men on board, and a memorial service was even held.
Only two men were lost and Kennedy led the others to swim to a nearby remote island among the Solomon Island chain. After several days there they met two native men, Biuki Gasa and Eroni Kumana. The two men had been sent to search for the American sailors by Australian coastwatcher Arthur Reginald Evans. The script, however, was altered to heighten audience suspense over how the sailors would escape without raising suspicion of Japanese forces in the waters around the island. It posed the natives as coming across Kennedy and his men purely as a matter of fate.
A third bit of fiction was typical of the era’s subtle racism. In the movie, one of Kennedy’s men comes up with the idea of making contact with base by carving a message in a coconut and brandishes a knife to do so. In truth, it was the native Gasa who thought of this, and sent Eroni to fetch one.
Finally, to ensure the protagonist’s victory over adversity at the end, Kennedy and his crew are shown just after their rescue on another PT-109 rescuing Marines who were being ambushed by the Japanese. Factually that didn’t occur so quickly after the rescue but after an interim, and not on a PT-109 but a PT-59 which Kennedy later commanded.
While he suggested neither these nor any changes, the fact-fudging left the film less “historically accurate” than Kennedy insisted he wanted it. Released in January 1963, PT-109 was the only portrayal of himself that JFK lived to see.
Surviving the trauma of her husband’s November 1963 assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis lived on for another 31 years. Knowing that as a President and First Lady, her image and that of JFK were public domain, she once told a colleague she didn’t bother suing for libel; otherwise she’d spend her life in court. She died before three more were made (four now, with The Kennedys), including mini-series using her as lead character, Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis in 2000 and Women of Camelot, the following year and shown in a brief scene about her paternal aunt and cousin in Grey Gardens (2006). She’s been played by actresses including Jacqueline Bissett, Jacklyn Smith, Roma Downey, Jill Hennessy, Joanne Whalley, Jean Tripplehorn and now Katie Holmes.
(And truth be told, this author soon contributes to that list with his screenplay Jackie On the Job about her publishing career and political events from 1975 to 1981, adapted from his book, As We Remember Her: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis In the Words of Her Friends and Family).
Never reacting publicly to any of the dramatizations, when one of her friends let it casually slip that he’d gone to the movies the night before and seen The Greek Tycoon, she soothed the man’s sudden mortification when it hit him who he was telling this to.
“Oh, don’t worry,” the former First Lady purred, “I heard I was awful in it.”
- Oh La Jackie O: “Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag and Angela Davis” (heloise8.wordpress.com)
- JFK Film Planned For 50th Anniversary of Assassination (m.deadline.com)
- A President’s Residence Saved: The Kennedy Family Compound with Rare Photos of their Real Life There (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Fabcon: Jackie O (fabsugar.com)
- Jack and Jackie Kennedy Home Movies & Pictures of their Presidential Easters (carlanthonyonline.com)