Wednesday, February 17, 2010

He was our nation's first cult president, an impossible combination of leading-man looks, political savvy, and boundless personal charm. Not surprisingly, he was the first living President of the United States to be the subject of a major motion picture.

The inside story of the making of that picture, PT 109--America's first marriage of presidential politics and Hollywood film-making--illustrates the principle that in Washington as in Tinseltown, it's all about the Art of the Spin.

The meteoric political rise of John Fitzgerald "Jack" Kennedy--the protagonist of our tale--in fact began with a shamefaced debacle aboard patrol-torpedo boat 109 in the South Pacific during World War II. Kennedy was a 26-year-old Navy lieutenant in charge of the fast-moving, 80-foot PT boat, one of over 600 such vessels defending the South Pacific. In the moonless midnight blackness of August 1, 1943, Kennedy's 109 was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Two of 12 crew members drowned; Kennedy led the survivors to safety, swimming island to island until help arrived.

The incident left Jack Kennedy deeply ashamed. He should have been: In the entire history of World War II, the 109 was the only PT boat ever rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. There were even whispers of a possible court-martial on grounds of dereliction of duty.

Enter Joseph P. Kennedy, Jack's dad.

Joe was one of the richest blokes in America and a pioneer in the Art of the Spin--former bootlegger, stock manipulator, and Hollywood producer. It was Joe's dream to put a son in the White House, and to that end he
unleashed a juggernaut of publicity designed to sell his oldest surviving son to the American public.

Joe persuaded Pulitzer-winning author John Hersey, a Kennedy-confidant (his wife was Jack's ex-steady) to write an article for the New Yorker focusing on his son's efforts to lead the stranded PT-crew to safety. The resulting article portrayed Jack as the Dashing Naval Hero, Leader of Men.

When Jack ran for Congress in 1947--his first-ever campaign--the elder Kennedy circulated 150,000 copies of Hersey's story to Massachusetts voters. The returning WWII hero was elected with ease. Four years later, Jack was elected to the Senate. And in 1960..well, you know the rest.

The search for JFK

Joe Kennedy's behind-the-scenes machinations may have succeeded in putting a son in the Oval Office, but the elder Kennedy wasn't done spinning the PT 109 legend just yet.

In 1961, Joe successfully pitched the idea for a feature film based on his son's WWII-exploits to pal Jack Warner of Warner Brothers Studios. Joe handled contract negotiations himself, receiving approval over both script and selection of the actor to portray JFK.

Warner Brothers immediately began testing dozens of actors for the part of young Kennedy, including Peter Fonda, Roger Smith, Chad Everett--even Edd "Kookie" Byrnes (of 77 Sunset Strip fame) was considered. JFK himself favored Warren Beatty--who turned down the part.

Hollywood buzzed with conjecture: Which lucky leading man would snare the part of young Kennedy? Cliff Robertson would later recall his shock at being summoned to the Warners lot for a screen test. In his wildest dreams, he told a reporter, he never put himself in the mix.

No wonder: Robertson was 37-years-old and possessed none of the Kennedy charisma. Nonetheless, two days after testing he received a phone call from a friend in New York. "There's a picture of you and President Kennedy on the front page of the New York Times," the actor was told. "You've got the part."

Unbeknown to Robertson, Warner Brothers had shipped each of the actors' tests to Paul Fischer, White House projectionist, who played them for Kennedy and his brother-in-law Peter Lawford. Kennedy selected Robertson.

Within weeks, Robertson received an invitation to 600 Pennsylvania Avenue. During their 45-minute confab, JFK made two requests. First, he asked the actor to switch the part in his hair from left to right. Then he told Robertson to forget the Boston accent, to play the part, in JFK's words, "non-regional," fearful that any actor attempting his veddy proper Hah-vahd inflection risked sounding ridiculous. To drive home the point, Kennedy actually performed a brief impersonation of a bad nightclub comic impersonating him--"Ahhsk not what yo-ah country can do for you." Robertson apparently got the message. As a parting gift, JFK gave Robertson a PT 109 tie clasp.

Next, Team Kennedy turned its attention to selecting a director. Warner's original choice, Raoul Walsh, was a once-great director whose 1928 film Regeneration had starred Gloria Swanson, Joe Kennedy's long-time mistress. But Walsh hadn't made a decent picture in years--decades, actually.

JFK's Press Secretary Pierre Salinger was skeptical, and asked Warner to send Walsh's most recent picture--the hokey Let's Go Marines--to the White House for screening. On the afternoon of Feb. 23, 1962, JFK took a seat in the projection room alongside Salinger. Ten minutes into the film, JFK had seen enough. He leaned over and whispered in Salinger's ear. Salinger stood, waved his arms, and shouted to Fischer to stop the film.

According to witnesses, Kennedy then turned to Salinger and said, "Tell Jack Warner to go f*ck himself."

Kennedy ultimately agreed to the selection of Lewis Milestone, who was replaced mere weeks into the film by Les Martinson (see David Whorf interview).

Florida shipyards from Panama City to Miami began converting Air Force rescue vessels into PT boats, which had long since become obsolete. In waters east of Panama City, one fleet of faux-PTs--suspected of being a Cuban flotilla--was stopped and searched by the US Coast Guard.

Island scenes were shot at Munson Island off Key West, and at Little Palm Island, an ultra-private, exclusive retreat half-way between Marathon and Key West. There was no electricity on Little Palm, so Joe Kennedy persuaded the state of Florida to install 3.5 miles of utility poles for the shoot.

The film, budgeted at $5 million, was completed in 11 weeks.

The view from Camelot

The President and First Lady screened PT 109 for the first time on Jan. 29, 1963, in the White House projection room. The next day JFK watched it again along with 35 White House staff members. According to Fischer's records, brothers Ted and Bobby watched the film on May 20, 1963; two days later the president's children, John-John, 3, and Caroline, 6, were shown the film as well.

The movie premiered on July 3, 1963, at the posh Beverly Hills Hilton, the first major motion picture premiere not held in a theater. This was, after all, a $100-a-ticket, black-tie gala to raise money for the Joseph P.Kennedy Child Care Center in Santa Monica. JFK did not attend. In his stead: Mother Rose Kennedy, sisters Pat Lawford (and husband Peter) and Eunice Shriver (and husband Sargent). "Biggest cheer of the evening," reported Newsweek, "came not during the picture but at a preceding dinner when 100 waiters marched in bearing ice-cream cakes topped with gunmetal-gray plastic models of PT 109."

The film opened to less than sterling reviews. The New York Times called Robertson's performance "pious, pompous, and self-righteously smug," and dismissed the story as "synthetic and without the feel of truth." Newsweek's review, entitled "Jack the Skipper," offered: "Robertson doesn't look, act, or talk like (Kennedy)--still, one must believe as with Santa Claus."

PT 109 was only a moderate box office draw. It was, after all, a novelty: The first film ever made about a living president--and an enormously popular one, at that. The film abruptly ended its run in November of 1963; Warner Brothers yanked the film following Kennedy's assassination on November 22.

"I had hoped (PT 109) would be something of a classic," the late George Stevens (a Kennedy family-friend and director of Giant, Shane, and A Place in the Sun, among others) told reporters in 1974. "But it was not a very exceptional one." The Kennedys liked the film a great deal, Stevens recalled, and that was important in the end.

Ultimately, it was Jack Kennedy--the master ironist--who cut through the fog of myth and publicity created by his father, Spinmeister Joe.

Once, when asked how he managed to become a naval hero, JFK replied: "It was easy. They sunk my boat."

--Ken Brooks , Cult Movies magazine, Issue 41

* *
PT 109 cast and crew...

Les Martinson (director)
Specialized in low budget, B-productions, from The Atomic Kid (1954, starring Mickey Rooney), to the campy Batman (1966). Eventually moved to TV, where his many directorial credits include Rescue From Gilligan's Island (1978).

Bryan Foy (producer)
Secured a place in film history by directing Warner's first talkie, Lights of New York (1928). Thereafter became known as "Keeper of the B's" for turning out scores of low-budget films. In 1953, as head of Warners' "B" division, Foy produced House of Wax, one of the most successful and popular 3-D flicks of all-time.

Cliff Robertson (JFK)
Son of a wealthy California rancher. Served in Merchant Marines during WWII, arriving in the Solomon Islands in August 1943--about the time Kennedy's PT sank. Appeared in Season One, Episode One of TV's Outer Limits, as well as two Twilight Zones. Directed opening and closing sequences of PT 109. Won the Oscar in 1968 for portrayal of a mentally-challenged adult-turned-genius in Charly. Over 40 films to his credit;appeared most recently in Spiderman (2002).

ALSO FEATURING: Ty Hardin (Ensign Leonard Thom)
Born Oscar Whipple Hungerford. Played football at Texas A&M under legendary coach Bear Bryant. Made film debut in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). Starred in TV western Bronco (1958-1962). Roles dwindled; moved to Spain and opened chain of laundromats while appearing in spaghetti-westerns. Expelled from Spain following drug bust; returned to US and lived as survivalist in Arizona before becoming a traveling evangelist.




INTERVIEW: David Whorf, PT 109 cast member...

David Whorf was a 28-year-old up-and-coming actor when he won the role of Seaman First-class Raymond Albert in PT 109. Whorf is the son of Richard Whorf, whose Hollywood directorial credits include Til the Clouds Roll By, a musical bio of Jerome Kern starring Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra (1946), and Champagne for Caesar, a wonderful, much-overlooked spoof of TV quiz shows, starring Ronald Coleman and Celeste Holm (1950). Recently, I talked with David Whorf about his role in PT 109 and his career as both actor and assistant director.

KB: How did you become involved with PT 109?
 DW: Warner Brothers had a number of second-generation kids working on the film. Supreme Court Justice William Douglas' son William, Jr. played Gerald Zinser, one of the PT-crew members, and Bob Hope's son Tony worked in production. I was at an age where I was just right for the part of Raymond Albert. Still, I auditioned just like any other actor.

KB: What do you remember about the filming?
 DW: We were out on the water in these air-sea rescue boats converted to look like PT's. A number of times during the shoot we saw Cubans floating from Cuba to Florida in the middle of the ocean--on inner tubes, boxes, anything that could float. They would try to give themselves up to us. We kept saying: "No, no--we're just making a movie. We're not the real Navy!" We shot on location at Munson Key. Warner Brothers arrived months in advance and built a large set that covered the island so that various sides of it could pass for different islands. As soon as we finished shooting, the Cuban Missile Crisis happened, so the locations we had used just days before were suddenly filled with rocket launchers and such.

KB: Leslie Martinson wasn't the original director, was he? 
DW: No. Lewis Milestone was the original director. In fact, most of the actors signed on because of Milestone. The man was a true titan of the industry--he'd won an Academy Award with All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the all-time great films, and we all felt dearly towards him. But he was an older man and from time to time he'd take a snooze in his chair--never during a scene, mind you. But Byran Foy, the producer, didn't think he was up to the task. It was a shame because Milestone was all class. But Foy had him replaced. 

When Martinson came aboard it was a stacked deck against him--as it would have been for anyone at that point, because we all felt loyalty to Milestone. Martinson was a trip. There's a scene near the end of the movie where Kennedy returns to the island aboard a boat to rescue his men. He shoots his rifle as a signal and we all come tumbling out of the jungle and swim towards the boat. Martinson was up on the boat with a loudspeaker, trying to create a mood, screaming: "You are the children of Isreal! You are being delivered, you children of Isreal!" We looked at each other and rolled our eyes--it was hard to keep from cracking up. We were like, "Why doesn't he just shut up and let us do the scene?"

KB: Did anyone from the White House attend the shooting? 
DW: I never saw any official White House people. But we met the actual surviving crew members, all of whom came to Florida and spent time on the set. President Kennedy never came down--that disappointed me.

KB: The credits read: "Under the personal supervision of Jack Warner." Did Warner ever visit the set? 
DW: No. He may have had an influence in the making of the film, but those shannanigans happen a million miles from the actors on the set.

KB: Perhaps the most powerful performances in the film involve your character, Raymond Albert.
DW: My scenes kind of evolved. The writers said, "We're looking for something we don't have yet"--they wanted some raw emotion, I guess. But they didn't have much freedom with the characters, except for the one I played. I was lucky in one respect: The character I was portraying--Raymond Albert--did not survive the war, so they had some freedom to be creative with him.

The scene on the island, where I smash the lantern in a fit of rage, was not that difficult to prepare for. But the apology scene (in which Albert apologizes to JFK, post-rescue, for angrily doubting him)...well, they wanted me to cry. Try though I might, I wasn't able to get a tear out. So I opted instead for shame, embarrassment, and anger at myself. I worked on those emotions--and I'd have to say it seemed to come across effectively.

It was tough to prepare for that scene. That day I tried to keep away from the idle chit-chat of the rest of the cast and concentrated on getting into a dark mood, working myself into a real downer trip--down, down, down. Then, when it was time to shoot, the trick was to avoid letting all the distractions on the set--the hammers, the grips, the electricians--get in the way of maintaining my focus. I'd say my scenes turned out favorably and I was very pleased with my performance

KB: What about the rest of the cast? 
DW: It was a great cast except for Ty Hardin. The man was a loose cannon, a real coo-coo. We used to refer to him as Try Harder. There was one scene he just couldn't get straight. He kept forgetting that we were fighting the Japanese, not the Indians. He was on the boat saying: "Yep, we're gonna get those Indians..." Martinson would yell, "CUT! Ty--we're fighting the Japanese." Ty wound up making the same mistake about seven times. The rest of us stood around just rolling our eyes.

KB: What was Robert Blake like at that point in his career?
DW: He hated to be called Bobby or Bob--it had to be Robert. And he hated for anyone to know he'd been Little Beaver (the Indian sidekick in 1940s serial Red Ryder). Blake was always an angry guy. I didn't know the source of his anger, but I sensed a dark side--everyone did. He carried a fistful of explosive, deep-seated angst around with him, but he used it to good effect his whole career.

He and I hit it off right away and got along great, which was a strange-bedfellows situation because we were so different. We actually became good friends, and Robert and his first wife Sondra and I socialized regularly for about six months after wrapping PT 109. Then we drifted our separate ways. His current dilemma is shocking and I frankly don't know what to think.

KB: What did you think of Robertson's performance as JFK?
DW: It was a bit reserved, but I think Robertson must have felt like he was walking a tightrope. He was portraying a standing president--something that had never been done before--and I don't think he wanted to insult the president in any way. I thought generally Cliff did a good job. He was lovely to work for. I still admire the man.

KB: Did you attend the premiere? 
DW: No. That was a black-tie gala for biggies. But let me tell you about the first time I saw the film in a theater with a live audience. We have this sequence in the film where Kennedy is rescuing Marines off one of the island beaches. We see that Kennedy's PT-boat has lost gas and is drifting towards the shore and the Japanese are running to the edge of the beach with their mortars and machine guns. The boat is going to drift right into them and get shot to pieces. The film cuts back and forth: The guys are sweating. The boat is drifting. The Japs are coming. Well, sitting behind me in the theater was a young boy, couldn't have been more than nine or ten. He turned to his father and said, "Gee, Dad--why don't they just drop an anchor?" I laughed so hard I choked, and I've never been able to watch that sequence again without laughing. I mean, it was so stupid that we didn't think of that. Out of the mouths of babes!

KB: Were you happy with the response to PT 109? 
DW: The movie was only a moderate success. What has been terrific is that the film still plays somewhere on cable several times every year. It has attained almost legend-like status over the years because of its association with the Kennedys. Of course, at this point, my annual residuals are down to about $4.53.

KB: Tell us about your other film appearances. 
DW: My first motion picture was On Our Merry Way. This was around 1945 and I was eleven years old. A family friend, an actor and producer, requested me for the part of Sniffles Duggan. I read and they said,"He's terrific." But by the time the movie was released in '48 my voice had changed. When I saw the film I was so embarrased I wanted to hide behind the theater seat. I thought: "My lord, is that my squeaky little voice?" My shoot only lasted two weeks so I didn't really interact with Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda. I had some scenes with Fred McMurray, though, which was interesting because later in my Dad's career he directed Fred in My Three Sons.

In the 1960s I appeared in One Way Wahini, but you'll have to forgive me for that one. The only thing good about it was the free trip to Hawaii--and I was able to afford a new car afterwards. Then I made Twist All Night, which was one of those B-movie nine-day wonders, made during the twist craze. Louis Prima was fun. But the movie? Bad. Bad. Bad.

So I worked as a 2nd Assistant Director and continued my acting career, bit parts here and there--a Hazel, a Dr. Kildare. But it was frustrating. As a young actor, I'd fight real hard for a part and then get on the set and sit around for five or six hours until they'd get to me. By that time my energy was gone. I liked the theater much better, so I spent a lot of time in the theatre, in summer stock, in both New England and Denver. I enjoyed that tremendously.

KB: What was it like on the set of Caddyshack? 
DW: I was First Assistant director. Actually, I replaced somebody and had one day to prep and get ready. I figured I could handle it, but the cocaine was flying all over the place--the set was a zoo. And the movie that came out had nothing at all to do with the movie we shot. Bill Murray didn't show up until we were about three-fourths of the way through. He came down for four days and changed the whole thing, made stuff up, basically winged it. The gopher wasn't even in the movie I shot. When I finally saw the film I was like, "What movie is this?"

Caddyshack was Harold Ramis' first directing job, and he was a bit lost at times. I told him, "Just listen to your First Assistant Director--he'll tell you what to do." Turns out there's some really funny stuff in there, so it worked out fine.

KB: What is an assistant director's role?
DW: First assistant director is like the foreman--you run the set. You gather information from the various departments, set the shooting schedule, and--just like a stage manager in theater or television--keep everything rolling. The assistant director tells everyone involved what to do, when to do it, and where to go.

KB: Are you currently involved in any projects?
DW: I haven't done anything in a couple of years, mostly because everybody I used to work with is dead. The last thing I did was the first season of CSI as assistant director. I'd hoped to get some directing jobs out of it, but at my age--I'll be 70 soon--it would require too much traveling and time away from home. For years I worked as assistant director for Larry Pierce on shows like Batman and Cannon, and it was terrific to feel such mutual respect and fun and laughter while we were working. That doesn't seem to happen much anymore, and I miss that.

KB: Tell us about your father, Robert Whorf. 
DW: Dad started on stage in New York with the Theater Guild working with Lynn Fontaine and Alfred Lunt, and was involved in the Pulitzer Prize winning plays of the 1930s. In the late '30s, Dad was brought to Hollywood to appear in Keeper of the Flame with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. We moved to Hollywood for good in May 1941 when Dad appeared in Warner Brothers' Blues in the Night. He continued his acting career during the war years but gradually turned to directing. He was a man of tremendous talent: as an actor, director, painter, sculptor, costume designer. Dad was a hard act to follow.

KB: We appreciate your time, Mr. Whorf. 
DW: Let me tell you one last PT 109 story. The late Sammy Reese played one of the PT-crewmen, and he and I became friends. Sammy told me he had written to President Kennedy and had gotten an autographed picture. I said, "Oh my gosh, I'd love to have one of those." So I wrote Kennedy a letter.

Of course, on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was shot. The next day when the postman arrived I noticed his hands were shaking. He was holding an envelope marked The White House. Inside was a letter of thanks from Kennedy's secretary Evelyn Lincoln. Then I pulled out the photo. It was signed, "Warmest regards, Jack Kennedy."

--Ken Brooks
Cult Movies magazine, Issue 41