Inside “The Kennedys”: Camelot and Controversy

In art, as in history, “The Kennedys” always manage to endure.

The controversial eight-hour television miniseries about America’s most fascinating political dynasty – which stars Greg Kinnear as President John F. Kennedy, Katie Holmes as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Barry Pepper as Robert Kennedy and Tom Wilkinson as family patriarch Joe Kennedy – finally premieres on ReelzChannel April 3 after a checkered road to the airwaves.

Originally produced and set to air on the History Channel, it was ultimately deemed “not fit” for the channel’s brand, presumably due to its dramatic depictions of JFK’s turbulent presidency and the family’s sometimes murky history, including various aspects that remain hotly debated topics as far as accuracy – JFK’s extramarital dalliances with bed partners such as Marilyn Monroe, election fixing and dealings with mafia capo Sam Giancana, JFK and Jackie’s use of prescription drugs to cope with physical pain and intense schedules.

Kinnear, however, has only one regret -  that they couldn’t include even more.

“I felt like the scripts that Steve Kronish wrote took great pains to try to honestly as best we could condense 20 years of history into eight hours,” Kinnear tells PopcornBiz. “It's impossible. It's an impossible task. There's so much left out of this show. The hardest part is having to leave stuff on the sidelines. But you have to choose the key points, and for me I thought dealing with the administrative stuff while he was in the White House – the Bay of Pigs, Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War, all of that – was really exciting, really interesting, and to work out of the Oval Office and do that was pretty fun.”

Co-star Pepper says the cast and crew were up to the challenges of capturing the Kennedys, despite the many obstacles. “It's very, very difficult to have an authoritative point of view on the private life of an American president,” Pepper tells PopcornBiz, “because someone's going to be disappointed no matter how the cards fall. And so it was a real fine line that we had to try to walk. And really it just was to try to be authentic to the truth. But the originators of the series were fascinated with the concept of how do these real people like you and I live their every day lives and everyday struggles and yet make these incredibly massive presidential decisions that affect the world? And they did.”

Director Jon Cassar, best known for helming the action series "24," is adamant that "The Kennedys" is not taking wild liberties.

“I think it's interesting that people think they know everything about the Kennedys,” Cassar tells PopcornBiz. “What was interesting to me is that the stories that were in the script I didn't know, and they all existed. They were all stories that were told in many history books, so that was cool for me. But really why I got involved was the story was just so good. In the hands of [writers] Kronish and Joel Surnow, they just crafted this beautiful story with this family that went through, obviously, a tragic circumstance in front of the whole world. It was just such an amazing story that I couldn't resist it. It was just like doing Shakespeare.”

“I don't understand why it was dropped,” Reelz chairman-CEO Stanley Hubbard explains. “I don't understand what's wrong with it. I don't understand why somebody else didn't get there before I did.”

Hubbard said he heard about the high quality of the miniseries from a colleague who’d seen it and began pursuing the broadcast rights, landing them within nine days of his initial inquiry. “The deal was contingent on seeing all eight episodes, because I wanted to make sure it's not an abomination of history, it's not Kennedy bashing, and it's not crappy TV,” he says. “It passed all those tests with flying colors. I think this is one of the best things to hit television in years."

Cassar says he was surprised when History Channel nixed its plans for the miniseries, “but I keep telling everybody it was like, 'Did you lose sleep over it?' And, 'Were you worried?' We kind of weren't in a way…If someone had told me that the History Channel was going to shelve it and no one was ever going to see it, I'd have a problem with that. I would have lost sleep over that, because people put a lot of hard work into this and it would have been a shame if that happened. But we kind of knew what we had. And so I think we had that confidence that people were going to eventually see it, and want to see it.”

“When you're dealing with the actors I had, they just come to play,” says Cassar. “They come to put out the absolute best every single day on every single scene. They came with books in their hands. We were constantly putting every little bit of detail we could to make it real, and every one of them did that. So it was just one of those things that was such a group effort of everyone wanting the same thing: to make it as realistic as we could.”

As for Pepper, the brouhaha over the series was barely a blip on his personal radar.

"[The controversy] doesn't really interest me, because I knew that the series would rise. I knew it would be impossible for this powerful portrayal to not rise.”

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