Ten Best John F. Kennedy Movie and TV Portrayals

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John F. Kennedy has been portrayed in movies and television. Cliff Robertson in PT 109, William Devane in The Missiles of October, Bruce Greenwood in Thirteen Days, Martin Sheen in Kennedy, Cliff De Young in Robert F. Kennedy & His Times, Martin Donovan i

John F. Kennedy served as the 35th President of the United States from 1961 to 1963, his first term cut short by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Here are ten actors who best portrayed JFK in movies and on television.

Cliff Robertson, PT 109 (Warner Bros., 1963)

Navy Lt. (j.g.) John F. Kennedy’s World War II heroic service as the skipper of PT 109 is dramatized in this well-received film released on June 19, 1963 – five months before the tragic events in Dallas. Cliff Robertson winningly plays the future president, with Ty Hardin, James Gregory, Robert Culp, Grant Williams, Lew Gallo and Robert Blake also on board. Jackie Kennedy’s personal preference to play her husband was Warren Beatty (JFK himself wanted Robertson), with producers also considering Peter Fonda, Roger Smith and even Edd “Kookie” Byrnes of TV’s 77 Sunset Strip.

Director: Leslie H. Martinson

On DVD: Not commercially available

William Devane, The Missiles of October (ABC-TV, 1974)

The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is the subject of this tense, well-executed made-for-TV movie, with William Devane starring as President Kennedy. Originally telecast on December 18, 1974, The Missiles of October also features Martin Sheen (Attorney General Robert Kennedy), Ralph Bellamy (U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson), Howard Da Silva (Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev), James Hong (U.N. Secretary-General U Thant) and James T. Callahan (Dave Powers). It’s a riveting performance by Devane as the untested JFK, providing a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at one of the most pivotal events in history when the United States and the Soviet Union stood on the brink of nuclear war.

Director: Anthony Page

On DVD: The Missiles of October (MPI, 2001)

William Devane as President Kennedy in The Missiles of October, 1974 (ABC-TV)

Bruce Greenwood, Thirteen Days (New Line, 2000)

The Cuban Missile Crisis gets the big screen treatment in this gripping drama as seen through the eyes of trusted presidential aide Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner). Bruce Greenwood delivers an excellent performance as President Kennedy, with Steven Culp (Robert Kennedy), Dylan Baker (Robert McNamara), Stephanie Romano (Jackie Kennedy) and Frank Wood (McGeorge Bundy) filling out pivotal historical characters. “Look, I don't want a goddamn pep talk; you're not the Harvard quarterback anymore. We're on the brink here! They're trying to second-guess me into World War III – well it's not gonna happen!” Bruce Greenwood’s JFK tells Costner’s Kenny O’Donnell.

Director: Roger Donaldson

On DVD: Thirteen Days Infinifilm Edition (New Line, 2001)

Martin Sheen, Kennedy (NBC-TV, 1983)

Martin Sheen, who had previously played Bobby Kennedy in 1974’s The Missiles of October, has the starring role of JFK in this TV miniseries which debuted on November 20, 1983. John Shea (Robert Kennedy), E.G. Marshall (Joseph P. Kennedy), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Rose Kennedy), Blair Brown (Jackie Kennedy), Kevin Conroy (Ted Kennedy) and Vincent Gardenia (J. Edgar Hoover) appear in strong support. Martin Sheen carries the role well, earning a Golden Globe nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for TV.

Director: Jim Goddard

On DVD: Kennedy: The Complete Series (MPI, 2009)

Martin Sheen as JFK in Kennedy, 1983 (MPI Home Video)

Cliff De Young, Robert F. Kennedy & His Times (CBS-TV, 1985)

Brad Davis has the title role of RFK in this three-part TV miniseries first telecast on January 27, 1985. Cliff De Young appears as brother Jack Kennedy, with Veronica Cartwright (Ethel Kennedy), Ned Beatty (J. Edgar Hoover), Beatrice Straight (Rose Kennedy) and G.D. Spradlin (Lyndon Johnson) also on hand. It’s a credible performance by De Young as JFK, with Robert Kennedy & His Times garnering an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Limited Series. Cliff De Young also played Robert F. Kennedy in the TV miniseries King (1978), which dramatized the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr.

Director: Marvin J. Chomsky

On DVD: Not commercially available

Martin Donovan, RFK (Fox Television, 2002)

Linus Roache stars as Robert F. Kennedy in this made-for-TV film which debuted on August 25, 2002. Turning in an above-average performance as JFK is Martin Donovan, with James Cromwell (President Lyndon B. Johnson), Marnie McPhail (Ethel Kennedy) and David Gardner (Joseph P. Kennedy) also in the cast.

Director: Robert Dornhelm

On DVD: RFK (Studio Works, 2003)

Patrick Dempsey, J.F.K.: Reckless Youth (ABC-TV, 1993)

Based on the book by Nigel Hamilton, J.F.K.: Reckless Youth stars Patrick Dempsey as the young John F. Kennedy, depicting the years from his early childhood through his Navy service in World War II to his first run for Congress. Dempsey is convincing as the youthful Kennedy, with Terry Kinney as Joseph P. Kennedy, JFK’s demanding father, and Loren Dean as the doomed Joe Kennedy Jr. also turning in excellent performances. J.F.K.: Reckless Youth was first telecast on November 21, 1993 – almost 30 years to the day of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas.

Director: Harry Winer

On DVD: J.F.K.: Reckless Youth (Echo Bridge, 2010)

Patrick Dempsey as John F. Kennedy in J.F.K.: Reckless Youth (Echo Bridge Home Enertainment)

Paul Rudd, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye (NBC-TV, 1977)

JFK’s first run for Congress in 1946 is the focus of this made-for-TV movie featuring Paul Rudd as the young, 29-year-old John F. Kennedy. Kevin Conway plays David F. Powers, who would aid Kennedy in his successful congressional run and who would later become one of JFK’s most trusted White House advisors. Rudd turns in a charming performance as the future president, scoring one of his best lines when he tells a grieving woman who lost a son in the war that his own mother is also a Gold Star mom, having lost Joe Jr. in World War II.

Director: Gilbert Cates

On DVD: Not commercially available

Charles Frank, LBJ: The Early Years (NBC-TV, 1987)

Randy Quaid has the title role of Lyndon B. Johnson, the future 36th President of the United States, in this highly-acclaimed made-for-TV movie which garnered six Emmy nominations. Charles Frank plays a credible John F. Kennedy, with Patti LuPone (Lady Bird Johnson), Robin Curtis (Jackie Kennedy), James F. Kelly (Robert Kennedy), Pat Hingle (Sam Rayburn) and Kevin McCarthy (Joseph P. Kennedy) also in the cast.

Director: Peter Werner

On DVD: Not commercially available

Sam Chew Jr., Young Joe: The Forgotten Kennedy (ABC-TV, 1977)

Peter Strauss stars as Joe Kennedy Jr. (1915-1944), the eldest of the Kennedy brothers who was killed while flying a secret mission during World War II. Sam Chew Jr. appears in a supporting role as John F. Kennedy, with Stephen Elliott as Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and Darleen Carr as the doomed Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy (1920-1948), who like her brother Joe would also perish in a plane crash.

Director: Richard T. Heffron

On DVD: Not commercially available

Ten More John F. Kennedy Movie & TV Portrayals

  • William Jordan, King (NBC-TV, 1978)
  • Andrew Robinson, The Twilight Zone, “Profile in Silver” (CBS-TV, 3/7/86)
  • Tim Matheson, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (CBS-TV, 2000)
  • William Petersen, The Rat Pack (HBO, 1998)
  • Jed Gillin, Forrest Gump (Paramount, 1994)
  • James Franciscus, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (ABC-TV, 1981)
  • Sam Groom, Blood Feud (20th Century Fox Television, 1983)
  • John Baer, Navy Log, “PT 109” (ABC-TV, 10/23/57)
  • William Jordan, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (American International, 1977)
  • James F. Kelly, Sinatra (CBS-TV, 1992)

Top Image

  • Half sheet movie poster: Cliff Robertson in 1963's PT 109 (Heritage Auctions)

Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved. 


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