Executive Producer Jon Cassar talks The Kennedys

The acclaimed TV miniseries The Kennedys, starring Greg Kinnear as JFK, Katie Holmes as Jacqueline Kennedy and Barry Pepper as Robert Kennedy, has been cited for its authenticity and the quality of production. 

But its greatest assets are the outstanding performances by the actors playing these iconic historical figures.
While the series isn’t the first dramatic interpretation of the so-called “Camelot” period, it is the first to go inside the White House and see how the first family lived, based on available information.   

Executive producer Jon Cassar (“24”) chose to focus on the leading political struggles faced by JFK, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the civil rights struggle, and the alleged mob connection; and also on the Kennedys as a family and as individuals. 

He began with the controversial figure Joe Kennedy, the father of John and Bobby, who held both the film and financial worlds in his fist in the early part of the last century.  He never let go.  Joe passed his need to succeed on to his sons and in many ways, ambition held them together. 

JFK and RFK created a remarkable political climate of progress and change in their time, and both died violently in office.  Their legacy lives on today in so many ways, from politics to philanthropy to style and lifestyle.  It is a remarkable story of achievement, idealism, scandal and tragedy.

The Kennedys was shot in Toronto, partly because there are two standing Oval Office sets, architecturally the city passes for both Boston and Washington and of course, because of Ontario film tax breaks.  The series is up for ten Emmy awards, which will be broadcast on Sept. 18th. 

The DVD goes on sale Sept. 20th and will include a documentary called The Kennedys: From Story to Film that takes viewers behind the scenes and one on one with the cast and crew. 

Monsters and Critics spoke with Cassar from his latest location in Australia.

M&C: What made Joe Kenney so ambitious? 

Cassar: What makes any ambitious?  One of the interesting things was his ambition was for himself before the sons.  He set himself up to be the president, but never was and with that caveat, he instilled that drive in his sons.

M&C: So Jack and Bobby had no choice?

Cassar: Everything was thrust on them.  I’m sure there was a choice but he drove them into politics.  John and Bobby didn’t have choice, and they kept the Kennedys going as political forces for many years.  Everyone knows so much about them and there is so much to know, you have to try to give them justice in eight hours.  I loved the beginning. 

No one ever dealt with Joe, mostly Jack and Jacquie were the focus.  No one ever said he was the agent of the whole thing. 

He had influence over Hollywood and took over Wall Street, he was quite the entrepreneur.  He knew what was shaking in the world and at that stage of his life, well; it’s an entire miniseries in itself.

M&C: The Kennedys is being compared to The Godfather.  Do you think that’s appropriate?

Cassar: We actually used The Godfather as a template and kicked it around as an idea.  It’s the same kind of thing, the world these people lived and the way everyone sees them. We see what happens behind closed doors in ways we would never have seen them. It wasn’t a mob family, and we get behind the curtains and humanize them a little. 

The Camelot myth was fine but we see it as more of a family, a husband, wife, brothers, and sons.  I like that whole world that made them who they were.  You don’t identify them with the mob but you might identify them with their father.

M&C: Casting was crucial – you wanted similar looks but actors sensitive to the “feel” of the Kennedys and their significance during the time you show.

Cassar: When you do this, the first thing you do is whether you’re going for actors who embodied the look.  With hair and makeup, and research, you look in the mirror and see that Greg Kinnear is a dead ringer for JFK.  And his performance is so strong.  Everyone really embodied who they played. 

M&C: The Marilyn Monroe connection has intrigued historians and fans forever.  How important was it? 

Cassar: We tied just one episode to that.  It was more difficult, so there are highlights of that relationship as much as people would support it.   We really didn’t get into it; we went with what we knew.  Facts.  We portrayed Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday to the President but it didn’t make the final cut.   It will be on the DVD! 

M&C: The History Channel spent millions on the series and then refused to air it.  Were you surprised?

Cassar: When we did The Kennedys, nowhere in our wildest imagination did we think they wouldn’t air it. They were making changes, and we made those changes, we never took liberties, and it was always historically grey.  We were smart enough to know it. 

During the Oscars, The King’s Speech was scrutinized for not telling the truth.  That’s going to happen. You can’t make a story about a family like that without controversy. 

I am naïve I guess. I thought, it was a good story and I had no idea, I didn’t even hear through the grapevine what the Kennedy family thought of it. We were incredibly sensitive to the drug use and extramarital affairs, and stayed true to what was in history. 

Caroline Kennedy has decided to expose all the affairs her mother had in the White House!  [Caroline has approved the release in September / this month of eight hours of recorded interviews of her mother by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. which allegedly contain “explosive information”].

M&C: Was it worth the anxiety?

Cassar: As a director, this was a fascinating highlight of my career.  I felt blessed; I loved every minute of it.

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