JFK portrayals brought challenge for screen actors
A wide range of actors have played President John F. Kennedy in the movies and on TV, starting even before his assassination 50 years ago. Some memorable portrayals:
• Cliff Robertson, “PT 109,” 1963.
Released while Kennedy was still in office, the film starred Robertson depicting Kennedy as a Navy lieutenant in command of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 during World War II. JFK selected Robertson after viewing his screen test; first lady Jackie Kennedy’s choice for the role was Warren Beatty. “It’s a whopping adventure story of courage and action,” said Robertson in the trailer.
• Brett Stimely, “Watchman,” 2009; “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” 2011; “Kill the Dictator,” 2013; “Parkland,” 2013.
Stimely, who has played Kennedy more than anyone, recalled meeting JFK’s niece and sister-in-law, Rory and Ethel Kennedy at the 2012 Sundance HBO party for their documentary “Ethel.” He said, “Ethel thanked me for doing a great job portraying Jack. I was nervous at first — playing the ‘most important man in the world’ has its responsibilities. But hearing that made it all worthwhile.”
• Bruce Greenwood, “Thirteen Days,” 2000.
Playing Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis, Greenwood said he wanted to reflect what might have been JFK’s state of mind “and the moment of clarity he had that (Soviet leader Nikita) Khrushchev was as human and terrified of the potential consequences as was Kennedy.” Paraphrasing William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” the actor said, “yet things did not fall apart/ the center held / anarchy and chaos / undone in an hour of reflection / that we are one / and each other’s keeper.”
• James Marsden, “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” 2013.
Marsden prepared for the role by listening to podcasts of JFK’s speeches, and yet getting the Kennedy accent right was “virtually impossible,” the actor told Conan O’Brien. “It was a daunting thing stepping into those shoes,” he said. After 11 weeks in theaters, the film had made more than $138 million worldwide.
• William Devane, “The Missiles of October” (ABC movie), 1974.
Devane bore a striking resemblance to the president in the television docudrama, which chronicled the Kennedy administration’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis. It was loosely based on Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s book “Thirteen Days.” The first TV movie about the Kennedys after JFK’s assassination was watched by more than 25.4 million viewers when it first aired.
• James Franciscus, “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy” (ABC movie), 1981.
Known for his roles in television series such as “Mr. Novak” and “Longstreet,” Franciscus starred as JFK in this TV movie focusing on the life of the first lady, who was played by “Charlie’s Angels” star Jaclyn Smith. Airing the same year as the final season of “Charlie’s Angels,” the movie drew nearly 45 million viewers.
• Martin Sheen, “Kennedy” (NBC miniseries), 1983.
Before playing fictional President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet on “The West Wing,” Sheen starred in the five-hour miniseries chronicling JFK’s presidency. It aired just two days before the 20th anniversary of the president’s assassination. Kelsey Grammar also appeared in the miniseries, which had 18.5 million viewers across three airings.
• Stephen Collins, “A Woman Named Jackie” (NBC miniseries), 1991.
While recreating Kennedy’s inaugural address for this Emmy-winning miniseries, Collins recalled seeing a man around 70 who had stopped to watch the filming. “He took off his hat and stared in my direction as if he were seeing a ghost,” said Collins. “He stayed still, like a soldier at attention, until I finished. It seemed to be as meaningful for him as it was for me. Connecting with my impromptu audience of one was the most satisfying moment of the shoot.”
• Patrick Dempsey, “J.F.K.: Reckless Youth” (ABC movie), 1993.
Before saving lives as Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepard on “Grey’s Anatomy,” Dempsey wooed 10.8 million viewers as young Kennedy. The movie looked at JFK’s childhood years, his young adulthood and his nomination for Congress.
• William Peterson, “The Rat Pack” (HBO movie), 1998.
A dashing Peterson embodied JFK in the film focusing on the famous entertainers’ circle, offering a glimpse into JFK and Frank Sinatra’s wavering friendship. Ray Liotta starred as Sinatra, Joe Mantegna as Dean Martin, Don Cheadle as Sammy Davis, Jr., Angus Macfadyen as Peter Lawford and Bobby Slayton as Joey Bishop.
• Tim Matheson, “Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis” (CBS miniseries), 2000.
Playing JFK in the two-part miniseries, which attracted 10 million viewers, was an honor, said Matheson, but also a challenge to find the real person beneath the glamour. “So it was trying to find those human moments beneath all of the monumental things that he said and did. He was movie star-like, and Jackie was sophisticated and educated. They represented a new page in American history.”
• Greg Kinnear, “The Kennedys” (Reelz miniseries), 2011.
When the four-time Emmy-winning “The Kennedys” made its world premiere on REELZ, it brought in record viewership for the cable network, reaching 17.5 million viewers in its first month. Katie Holmes played Jackie Kennedy.
• Rob Lowe, “Killing Kennedy” (National Geographic Channel miniseries), aired Nov. 10, 2013.
While researching JFK for the role, Lowe, a father of two, said he was moved by a recording of Kennedy giving dictation when he’s interrupted by John, Jr. “Their conversation together was priceless,” said Lowe.