November 28, 1983 12:00 PM

The black convertible limousine glides through the streets of downtown Dallas, where office workers lean out of windows to cheer. The President flashes his radiant grin; the First Lady, dressed in a pink suit and pillbox hat, smiles under the sunny November skies. Suddenly, there are gunshots….

This dramatization of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is the wrenching conclusion of Kennedy, a three-part NBC miniseries that debuted on Sunday and continues through Tuesday, the 20th anniversary of the tragedy in Dallas. In 1963 the TV coverage of JFK’s death and funeral provided a rite of passage for the American people, making the unbelievable believable and etching the event into the national consciousness. Now TV chronicles that time with a $13 million docudrama, which will be a delayed replay for those who lived through the events—and a vivid first impression of the man and his era for the 73 million Americans born since Kennedy’s death.

The final scene was filmed last summer on closed streets in Richmond, Va., with more than 1,000 locals as extras. Jackie’s pink suit, one of four identical ones ordered by the network, was dyed three times to match the color of the actual Chanel outfit, and a vintage 1961 Lincoln Continental was substituted for JFK’s limousine, now in Michigan’s Ford museum.

The scene was painfully real for Martin Sheen and Blair Brown, who played the Presidential couple. As he prepared for the moment when Kennedy would be shot, Sheen reacted with an ominous foreknowledge of what would happen. “I felt terribly lonely,” says Sheen. “I smiled at Blair beside me in that pink suit, and I waved at the extras lining the streets. But I knew that I was being led to the slaughter.”

On television, the viewer sees the shooting through Mrs. Kennedy’s eyes. Blair Brown, whose high-cheekboned beauty makes her a Jackie look-alike, also reacted in character. “Assassination is such a clean word for what happened,” says Brown. “I realized that this was a woman witnessing the public execution of her husband.”

Kennedy begins on a happier note—the 1960 election—and chronicles the 1,000 days of Camelot, from the Cuban missile crisis to civil rights demonstrations. Filmed in Cape Cod, Palm Beach, Washington, New York and Richmond, Kennedy features John (Missing) Shea as Robert F. Kennedy, E.G. Marshall as patriarch Joseph Kennedy and Geraldine Fitzgerald as Rose Kennedy.

The crucial part, of course, belongs to Sheen, who is in almost every scene. “This is the most intimidating role I’ve ever played,” says the intense actor, best known for his performance in Apocalypse Now. A Kennedy admirer who worked doing public appearances for Robert F. Kennedy’s senatorial campaign in 1964 and who once went sailing with Sen. Ted Kennedy, Sheen, 43, played RFK in the 1974 miniseries The Missiles of October. But he shied away from playing JFK, whom he never met. “At 5’8½”, I have nothing in common physically with JFK, who was 6’1″. Besides, I thought, ‘How can anybody do him justice?’ ” Sheen turned the part down four times before deciding “to do it, with no looking back.”

In preparation for the role, Sheen visited both the Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson libraries, studying JFK’s speeches and press conferences and adapting the President’s much mimicked accent. “He had a distinctive way of stressing syllables, like calling Laos ‘Lay-os,’ ” says Sheen. From his reading, Sheen added a line in the script emphasizing Robert Kennedy’s role in solving the Cuban missile crisis. “Bobby thought of the fate of all his children, and he urged a blockade rather than bombing,” Sheen says.

A few of Sheen’s pals say that the actor is so single-minded about his work that he is absentminded about everyday concerns. “He’ll say that he is going fishing and be gone for days,” says Joe Lowry, who plays David Powers, JFK’s assistant appointments secretary.

The cast (which gave Sheen a rug with a Presidential seal on it for his birthday) praised his lack of ego over five months of filming. “A lot of actors would do star turns with a role like Kennedy,” says Brown. “But Martin worked to make others look good.”

There was no spotlight for Sheen as a child in Dayton, Ohio, where he was the seventh of 10 children raised by his widowed father, Francisco Estevez, an inspector for National Cash Register Co. who was of Spanish descent. (Martin’s mother was Irish, and Sheen—born Ramon Estevez—took his stage name from Bishop Fulton Sheen.) A priest at Ramon’s parish noticed the light in the eyes of the teenager, who grew up with one arm three inches shorter than the other. “As a middle child in that big family with no mother, Ray had an ‘I’ll show you’ attitude,” says Father Alfred Drapp. Drapp staked Sheen to a trip to New York in 1959.

Sheen swept up backstage at the experimental Living Theatre with fellow struggling actor Al Pacino before getting a break—a part as the son in The Subject Was Roses, a Broadway play that won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize. Sheen was on the set of The Defenders, rehearsing a scene as a guest star with E.G. Marshall, when Kennedy was shot. “We wept openly, holding each other, after the news came that he was dead,” Sheen remembers. In recent years, despite a busy film career, Sheen has made a niche for himself in quality TV movies and miniseries, from The Execution of Private Slovik to Blind Ambition.

While he was still unknown in New York, Sheen met and married an art student, Janet Tempelton. “The minute I met Janet, I knew that she was a serious person who didn’t have time to be messing around with her life,” Sheen says of his wife, to whom he has been married for 22 years. The couple live with their four children in a ranch-style Malibu house with a swimming pool. Older sons Emilio, 21, and Ramon, 20, are actors who use their father’s real last name. There is also a younger son, Charlie, 18, and daughter Renee, 16, who is still in high school.

Sheen is active in the local Catholic church, Our Lady of Malibu, having returned to the faith after suffering a heart attack during the fevered filming of Apocalypse Now in the Philippines in 1976. Sheen recalls, “I was alone in my cabin at night when the attack came. My feet seemed to be 40 feet from my head.” After crawling for help, Sheen was helicoptered to Manila and given the last rites on the way. “I was so fragmented at the time that I simply splattered apart,” he says. “I decided to change my life.” On the set of Kennedy, Sheen relaxed by doing yoga in his trailer.

Those who knew Jacqueline Kennedy as the glamorous First Lady with the little-girl voice may be surprised by Blair Brown’s characterization of Jackie as a woman with a mind of her own. “She had that shy voice when she was nervous in public appearances, but privately, she was spontaneous and very witty,” says Brown, 34, who interviewed some of Jackie’s associates at Doubleday publishers, where Mrs. Onassis is now an editor, and read numerous books and articles about her. (She did not try to interview Jackie herself, explaining, “It would have been even harder to play her if I had met her.”)

To make herself look more the part, Blair used bouffant wigs of varying lengths, and shading was added to her eyes. “I came to know her face better than my own,” says Brown. “I tried to avoid mirrors because it was eerie to see myself.” Brown believes that Jackie has suffered a bad press. “She was never credited with her accomplishment in turning the White House into a museum that paid for itself. People couldn’t believe that a woman so beautiful could be so intelligent.”

The only child of an ex-CIA agent, Brown comes from the same upper-class background as Jackie. At the time of the assassination, Blair was in the class of 1964 at the exclusive Madeira School (where Jean Harris was later the headmistress). “Many of the girls in school had some connection to the Kennedys,” says Brown. “We were all crying in our dorms that day.”

A graduate of Pine Manor Junior College in Boston and the National Theater School in Canada, Brown spent five years playing classical roles in Canadian regional theater before winning recognition in New York in Joseph Papp’s 1976 production of The Threepenny Opera. She then did guest shots on several TV series before being cast in the 1976 NBC miniseries Captains and the Kings, a fictional saga of an Irish-American family not unlike the Kennedys. Her co-star was actor Richard (Interiors) Jordan, 45. “I guess you could say it was love at first sight,” says Brown, who was convincing as Jordan’s lifelong flame. The couple—who have lived together in a New York loft and a Malibu house since 1977—are the parents of a 16-month-old baby, Robert. So far they are not talking marriage but, Blair says, “We plan to go the distance.” When he was not shooting the forthcoming movie Dune, Jordan joined Blair and baby on the Kennedy set.

Not surprisingly, no member of the immediate Kennedy family showed up during the filming. And none has commented on the drama, which hints at JFK’s extramarital affairs. English scriptwriter Reg (The Bell) Gadney did not seek to interview the Kennedys, choosing instead to rely on written accounts and newsreel footage.

Even without turning the late President into a saint, the message of Kennedy is that JFK was an extraordinary man. “Making the docudrama was a bittersweet experience,” says Martin Sheen. “Kennedy was brilliant, compassionate and full of life. When he was killed, it was like darkness at noon.”

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